Why disability matters to us all


By Rob Solly FORS, Director of Research Partnerships at Improbable

The third of December is the International day of persons with disabilities and is a timely reminder about enabling colleagues with disabilities to meet their potential in the workplace: 

  • It’s important: one in five of us has a disability. That’s far more prevalent than many of us realise;
  • We can all make a difference: through small adjustments. Reach out and learn how disability affects your colleagues and how you can make a difference to them;
  • It can benefit your whole organisation: diverse perspectives bring richer insights. Bring the skills of your disabled colleagues to bear on your projects and you will be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes. 

It’s important: one in five of us has a disability 

Disabilities affect more of us than most people realise. In fact, more than one in five of us (22%) has a disability (including 19% of working-age adults and 46% of state pension-age adults). According to Disability Sport, most people think of disability as a physical impairment, but the legal definition includes any type of impairment with ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effects on normal daily activities. This graph from the 2020 Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey shows the prevalence of a variety of impairments among working-age adults, children and pensioners with a disability: 

  • Physical impairments to mobility, stamina and dexterity are experienced by about 40%, 30% and 20% respectively of working age adults with a disability;
  • Mental health is actually the most frequent impairment reported by working age adults with a disability;
  • Other, less visible, disabilities that affect memory, hearing, vision, learning and behaviour are each reported by about 10% of working age adults with a disability.
Disability2.png

Impairment types reported by disabled people (UK Gov Family Resources Survey 19-20)

Helping colleagues with some of these disabilities requires organisational-level changes and investment. For example, organisations can improve access to and around the workplace for colleagues with impaired mobility; and the provision of hearing loops and screen readers can support colleagues with impaired hearing or vision. But for many of these disabilities there are ways in which all of us can play a small part in supporting our disabled colleagues.

We can all make a difference through small adjustments

As with all aspects of diversity, understanding our differences is the first step to allow us to adjust for (and benefit from) them. But according to Disability Sport, more than 60% of people say that they avoid disabled people because they don’t know how to behave around them. This is one of those really awkward topics to address but we need to face up to it – sometimes it feels easier to avoid people than to engage in a potentially embarrassing conversation. And when you do strike up a conversation it can feel awkward and risky to ask someone about what makes them different. Everyone is different, but I know some people are happy to talk about their disabilities. When I first wore hearing aids at work, I was extremely embarrassed about them, but now I find them a useful signpost to others that I may not be able to hear what they are saying in a noisy room, and I am pleasantly surprised how many people ask about them and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

When I became the Executive Sponsor of Dstl’s EnableD disability network in my previous job, I was privileged to learn from a group of colleagues about how their disabilities affected their experience at work. I was lucky because I needed to understand how reasonable adjustments could make the most of my disabled colleagues’ strengths, but the things I learned were important for everyone who worked with my disabled colleagues. Up until that point in my career, I had consciously treated everybody the same in an effort to be fair to all. However, my efforts may inadvertently have made life more difficult for some of my disabled colleagues.

So my plea is for all of us to spend a little time understanding our colleagues’ different abilities and making reasonable adjustments to them:

  • Ask first if they are comfortable talking about their disability;
  • If so, learn a little about how it affects them at work;
  • And learn about what you might be able to do to help make your working relationship even more effective.

I witnessed some fantastic examples at Dstl of teammates adapting to help their disabled colleagues and I was surprised by how small changes could make a big difference to individual and team performance.

For example, I learned from a partially sighted colleague just how challenging it is to search a diagram or spreadsheet on a screen when you can only observe a tiny section of it at once; like searching through a drinking straw. Screen reading software like ClaroRead or the free (for personal use) NaturalReader helps the partially sighted and dyslexics, among others, to read documents. OR professionals can follow the steps in this great blog on the Gov.uk website about designing for accessibility to ensure that documents, diagrams and spreadsheets, work with screen reading software. There is also advice in the blog on designing for users on the autistic spectrum, and for a range of other disabilities. Adopting such simple procedures significantly speeds up delivery by eliminating unnecessary and time-consuming efforts for everyone involved.

It can benefit your whole organisation: diverse perspectives bring richer insights

As Operational Researchers, we know that seeking different perspectives greatly improves our ability to solve challenging problems. Colleagues who perceive the world in different ways through their disabilities can discern novel insights from the information presented to them. For instance, many neurodiverse colleagues have exceptional analytical skills that lead to better and more complete solutions. So I’d encourage you to think about how you can make use of the diverse abilities of your colleagues in your future projects.

Summary

In summary then, this year’s International day of persons with disabilities is a timely reminder about enabling colleagues with disabilities to meet their potential in the workplace:

  • It’s important: one in five of us has a disability, that’s far more prevalent than many of us realise;
  • We can all make a difference: through small adjustments. Reach out and learn how disability affects your colleagues and how you can make a difference to them;
  • It can benefit your whole organisation: diverse perspectives bring richer insights. Bring the skills of your disabled colleagues to bear on your projects and you will be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes.