Breaking down barriers: helping disabled people enter and sustain employment

“We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation for people with disabilities, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock their vast potential.Professor Stephen Hawking (2011)

In the UK, the disability employment gap – the difference in the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled people – has remained largely static for over a decade.

Just 48% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 80% of non-disabled people.  Employment rates are even lower for people with certain disabilities, such as learning disabilities (6%), and for people with autism (32%).

There are a number of reasons for this.  These include the personal barriers that people with disabilities face when working, a lack of appropriate support to help them into and remain in work, negative attitudes from employers and recruitment agencies, inaccessible workplaces and inflexible working practices.

Perceived barriers and prejudice

Employers are often wary of hiring people with disabilities.  A recent poll found that as many as 22% of employers openly admitted that they would be less likely to hire a person with disabilities.  Many more may have felt similarly but were less willing to admit to it.

According to research by the Centre for Social Justice, 63% of employers feel that there are significant barriers to employing someone with a disability.  These include:

  • concerns about their ability to do the job
  • the costs of making reasonable adjustments
  • the inconvenience of making reasonable adjustments
  • fear of increased possibility of litigation
  • concerns about their ability to integrate into the team
  • concerns about a potentially negative customer reaction

Given these negative attitudes and perceptions, it is no wonder that as many as 1 in 5 (21%) disabled people hide their disability from employers, and over half (58%) feel that they are at risk of losing their jobs because of their impairments.

Benefits for employers

In truth, research has found that there is a “compelling case” for hiring disabled people – although few (9%) employers recognise this.

Becoming more disability-friendly can significantly increase an employer’s potential talent pool – around 1 in 5 working age adults in the UK have some kind of disability.

The majority (around 80%) of disabled people acquire their disability during the course of their working life.  There are clear benefits to retaining an experienced, skilled employee who has acquired an impairment – not least avoiding the costs and inconvenience involved in recruiting and training new staff.

Research has also found other benefits. These include:

  • higher rates of retention, lower absenteeism and good punctuality
  • improved employer loyalty and commitment
  • improving access to disabled customers
  • improving staff relations and personnel practices
  • improving the public image of the company as a fair and inclusive employer
  • bringing additional skills to the business, such as the ability to use British Sign Language (BSL)

Adjustments often low cost

Research has also found that employers frequently overestimate the costs of reasonable adjustments. Indeed, according to ACAS, only 4% of reasonable adjustments do cost, and even then the average is only £184 per disabled employee.

In any case, the government’s Access to Work scheme is specifically designed to cover the majority of the costs associated with making reasonable adjustments, including the provision of special aids and equipment, adaptations to equipment, travel to and from work, and support workers.

However, not enough employers know about the Access to Work scheme; only 25% are aware of it.

Free support and advice

According to Acas, there are many things that employers can do to become more ‘disability-friendly’.

These include helping people to gain employment, by tackling unconscious bias, adapting recruitment processes, creating an inclusive workplace culture, providing appropriate training and support for line managers, as well as addressing basic issues such as access to buildings (particularly older buildings where adaptations are more difficult/costly).

Once in work, it is important to maintain an open dialogue between managers and employees in order to develop an awareness of individual needs and potential adaptations.

Wellbeing initiatives, and clear and consistent attendance management/return to work policies, including ‘keep in touch’ days during any period of absence, can also help disabled people to avoid ‘falling out of work’.

Employers can obtain support on attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled people in the workplace through the government’s Disability Confident scheme. They can also make use of Fit for Work – a national occupational health service that is free at the point of delivery.

A better workplace for all

While not all disabled people should be expected to work, a significant majority would like to work more.

Closing the disability employment gap is important – not just for the individuals involved, but for businesses themselves and the wider economy.  Social Market Foundation research has found that halving the gap and supporting one million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion.

There are some promising signs of progress.  Organisations as diverse as Barclays, Channel 4 and the Civil Service have all established innovative approaches to employee disability support and management.  Such initiatives not only help disabled employees directly, but also serve as a benchmark of what other employers can do to encourage and support disabled people within their organisation, and raise awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people for the organisation itself.

In many cases too, the improved working practices associated with becoming disability-friendly are of benefit not only to disabled employees, but to all employees, customers and service users too.


You may also be interested in our previous blog posts on supporting neurodiversity and mental health in the workplace.  

To see what other topics our researchers are interested in, follow us on Twitter.

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