Racism and sexism are terms we are all very familiar with and encompass discrimination against someone based on their skin colour or gender. But have you ever heard of ableism? Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities or those who are perceived to be disabled. Unfortunately, it is rife in the workplace.

Ableism in the workplace

A new report from May this year by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) – the UK’s think tank on longevity in society – reported that prevalent ableism across the world is excluding a significant number of people from the workplace, particularly as they age. Not only is this unfair discrimination alienating people with disabilities, but it costs employers and the economy.

It’s no secret that a diverse workforce helps create a successful business – so why are so many organisations in the UK failing to embrace this? A review at the end of last year from the UK government reported that in October 2020 to December 2020, there were 2.6 million disabled women in work (an employment rate of 53.1%) and 1.8 million disabled men (an employment rate of 51.3%). For those who didn’t have a disability, the employment rate was 84.2% and 77.8% for men and women, respectively. That is a huge amount of untapped talent in the jobs market.

Companies that promote a positive culture attract and retain the top talent in the job market. By promoting inclusive policies, there will be many benefits beyond attracting top talent from a diverse candidate pool. This includes eliminating offensive and close-minded decision-making, providing a fresh perspective on something that everyone else is looking at in the same way, providing a better platform for innovation and creativity, and an improved customer experience.

Employees must feel comfortable reaching their potential, which should be supported by diverse and inclusive policies. Sadly, not all companies do that, and they are paying the price – Jaguar faced an employment tribunal following a genderfluid employee receiving abuse and a lack of support at work.

Disability employment gap has decreased, but not enough

Although the Equality Act 2010 was introduced to set a minimum standard, a genuine diversity

policy goes beyond legal compliance and adds true value to a company while driving workforce wellbeing. A 2019 study of 140 U.S. companies found that companies with inclusive working environments for disabled employees generated an average of 28% higher revenue than those who didn’t. With the U.S. and UK having similar cultures, it is reasonable to assume similar statistics here.

While the disability employment rate gap is decreasing when comparing 1998 figures to 2019, it is still significantly high.


Source: UK Government

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that a higher proportion of disabled employees were made redundant than employees who are not disabled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between the months of July and November 2020, 21.1 per thousand disabled employees were made redundant in comparison to 13 per thousand employees who are not disabled.

Diversify the board

Often among businesses, board members play it safe and promote and hire similar candidates – which can limit a company and render its approach monotonous. Executives should improve their recruitment methods and increase the pool of potential candidates. By seeking diverse workers, they will better utilise the talent pool.

Following research from KPMG and Purple, boards are being encouraged to assign board members and senior managers to those with disabilities in a bid to encourage a commitment to supporting employees with disabilities and uncovering new talent. This will help stimulate the employment and promotion of more people with disabilities and hopefully encourage other businesses to follow suit.

Tony Cates, KPMG Vice-Chair and Board-level Disability Champion, said: “We have set this target because we believe what gets measured gets managed. We’ve seen how the introduction of the mandatory gender pay gap reporting requirements has pushed that issue up the boardroom agenda.

“We have a real opportunity now to use that focus and energy to engage the board in a broader debate around diversity and inclusion – and the opportunities opening up workplaces up and down the country to more talented people can bring for UK plc.”

Previously, to combat gender inequality in the boardroom, in 2008 Norway introduced legislation where companies were required to appoint at least 40% of the directorship positions to women. The same sort of successful regulation could be applied to the issue of disability in the workplace.

Diversity training

It’s important to remember that ableism exists in the workplace today and must also be combatted to create a safe and inclusive environment. Ableism isn’t always overt with blatant remarks and aggression. It can be covert and displayed through microaggressions and prejudice. This can be just as damaging for those with disabilities who may feel uncomfortable raising the issue. Addressing the way people think can be done through inclusivity and diversity training at work so colleagues know what isn’t acceptable and how their behaviours and words can actually be offensive. People need to be called out on their biases and learn to become better. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for covert ableism and microaggressions.

Workplaces can be adapted to be disability friendly. Even minor adjustments can create big improvements to a person’s day-to-day work life. Accommodating the needs of others will cultivate productivity and creativity, as happy workers are harder workers. Speak to employees to see how you can upgrade your office.

It’s important for industries to learn to be inclusive to those with disabilities, not just to generate more profit but to encourage others to follow suit in helping create a new normal in the world of work. Businesses will stagnate when everyone thinks the same way and is limited by their own experiences. Employing workers from a diverse background and demographic will add new perspectives – an invaluable resource for companies. Sectors should take a look at what the Top 50 Inclusive Companies are doing to adopt a culture of inclusivity and diversity.

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