No matter where you live in the world, the employment situation for disabled people is not great.
In the US, for example, the labor force participation rate may have increased from 36.6% to 40.2% between February 2022 and February 2023, marginally exceeding the 40% mark for the first time.
But when compared with employment levels for people without disabilities, there remains a significant, if extremely slowly closing, gap. Just under twice as many non-disabled people (77.3%) are now in work compared with just over twice as many last year (76.9%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Things are no better in the UK. Government figures there indicate that the employment rate of disabled people remained flat at 53.7% on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter of 2023. The employment rate for people who are not disabled stood at 82.7%, meaning that the disability employment gap amounted to a huge 29 percentage points.
The situation is even worse for people who have learning difficulties as a primary or secondary health condition. Only 28% are in work. The same figures apply to individuals with five or more health conditions, although the figure rises to more like 65% for those experiencing only one.
Ricoh UK takes a disability stand
One tech company that is trying to do something about this pitiful situation though is Ricoh UK. The Japanese-based imaging and electronics multi-national is one of just over 18,800 organisations that have signed up to the UK Government’s Disability Confident Employer scheme.
Developed by employers and disabled people’s representatives, its aim is to encourage firms to think differently about disability and actively improve their recruitment, development and retention processes as a result. A self-assessment-based scheme, it consists of three levels:
- Level one: To obtain ‘Disability Confident Committed’ status, employers must sign up to a series of commitments and at least one action from a list of activities on the government’s website. They then received a badge that can be used on their business stationery, social media and other communications for up to three years
- Level two: To become a ‘Disability Confident Employer’, it is necessary to fill in a self-assessment and evidence template and inform the government of the actions you intend to take to achieve your goals. Accreditation here lasts for another three years
- Level three: Organisations become ‘Disability Confident Leaders’ once it has been validated that they are delivering against all the core actions agreed at level two. To comply, they must employ disabled people and report on the actions they are taking in relation to disability, mental health and wellbeing using the Voluntary Reporting Framework.
Ricoh UK joined the initiative last year as part of a move to broaden its diversity, equity and inclusion focus. It is currently working its way through level two. Rebekah Wallis, Director of People and ESG, who has a disabled daughter herself, explains:
Like many companies, gender was the starting point for us, and our focus here was that education comes first as it helps increase comfort levels and create conversation. Once people felt more comfortable in discussing these kinds of issues, we followed up with ethnicity and LGBTQ+, and we’re now working on disability. As to why disability tends to be lower on companies’ lists, I think it’s because a lot is hidden. People often don’t declare and so it’s not such a visible issue, which means organizations don’t necessarily know who the audience is.
However, Wallis believes that recognition of the subject has noticeably grown over the last two or three years, leading to growing numbers of employers starting to take some action at least:
There’s much more awareness around neurodiversity, which has opened up the conversation nicely in terms of disabilities everywhere. It’s about people being different and having lots of positive qualities and tech companies finding it hugely beneficial. But there’s also the question of whether neurodiversity and disability should be considered as one group or two. I see it as there being a massive range of individuals with very different needs. So, it’s really about dealing with people at the individual level, which is why companies can find it more difficult to grasp what the right thing to do is. The complexity of the situation means that people often don’t know where to start to have the biggest impact.
But Wallis also acknowledges that, given the UK’s ageing workforce, it is an issue that is unlikely to go away anytime soon:
About 45% of people who are over 65 have disabilities and we do have an ageing workforce in the UK. People tend to have more complex health conditions as they get older, so we have to be aware of that.
Becoming a Disability Confident Employer
As to why Ricoh UK took the step of actively signing up to be a Disability Confident Employer, Wallis says that a big benefit of the scheme is that it provides organizations with a starting point to take action:
It gives you best practice and clarifies what you need to do, how far away you are and what activities you need to prioritise to make it happen. The assumption is that it’s based on best practice, and the website is brilliant at both a general and specific level. There’s stuff from experts on there too, such as a joint paper that was written with the CIPD [the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development]. So, as a resource it’s fantastic and can be accessed whether you sign up to the scheme or not. We’ve chosen to do so for internal reasons, mostly to benchmark our progress.
Initiatives the company has introduced to support its disabled workers so far include an “affinity” - or enterprise resource - group for networking, education and awareness-raising purposes. Another vital role is to collect quantitative and qualitative data to help the organisation understand any barriers and set key performance indicators. As Wallis explains:
One of the most important things with this kind of work is to give people a platform to share their stories and let them know it’s OK to talk about it. That way individuals feel able to come forward and say, ‘these are the things we need to do’ - and that’s where affinity groups come in.
Other valuable activities include appointing wellbeing champions to signpost appropriate resources if required. An online hub, which includes physical and mental wellbeing information, has likewise been set up.
Also recently launched is a language guide that covers “all diversity strands” to help “take the fear of saying the wrong thing away”. The aim here is for people feel more confident when communicating with colleagues, Wallis explains.
But the company has also gained external reputational benefits from becoming a Disability Confident Employer. As Wallis points out:
It increases your visibility and shows you’re a supportive employer, so people feel it’s potentially a place they’d want to work. There are also practical benefits too, such as providing you with guidance on how to write job adverts, so you don’t unintentionally end up putting people off.
Interestingly though, Wallis has also found that when team leaders and managers work with disabled people, their overall management style often changes for the better:
Someone with a disability will have had a different life experience and we found that team leaders and managers were more willing to celebrate everything they could do. But that can have a positive knock-on effect across the wider team too. So, rather than managers saying, ‘you didn’t do that right’, they might say ‘let’s look at what went wrong, what you’re good at and take it from there’. It’s not a silver bullet but small changes like that can often have the biggest impact.
While Ricoh may not be all that far into its disability journey, it does already appear to be reaping a number of benefits from its efforts. And Wallis certainly recommends that, whether UK-based or not, employers download the resources and start working through them as an excellent way to get on top of the key issues. So if you’re serious about tackling disability, why not?