With Emma Sheperd from Let’s Talk Disability
In today’s working world, the call for inclusivity has never been louder. But, while conversations about race and gender discrimination are hot on the agenda, we’re less used to hearing about the struggles the disabled community face in entering the workforce. Despite nearly a quarter of working age adults in the UK facing some form of disability, this segment of the population is almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and three times as likely to be economically inactive. This is often referred to as the ‘disability employment gap’, which not only represents a stark inequality, but also points to the untapped potential of a significant portion of the population. In honour of Disability History Month, we spoke with Emma Sheperd from consultancy and training organisation Let’s Talk Disability to explore what can often be the most significant barrier to disabled people securing employment: the hiring process.
Emma has been supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions for over 20 years. Originally from a HR and training background, she began working with disabled people in day services and supported living before finding her passion in the field of supported employment. Combining the skills she’d gained managing a supported employment service with her deep understanding of learning disabilities, mental health, and autism, Emma decided to launch Let’s Talk Disability in 2019. The consultancy and training service provides support and advice to businesses to attract and retain a disabled workforce, and guidance on all matters related to equality, diversity and inclusion.
As Emma explains, “It just makes sense to recruit from a wider talent pool, especially given that disabled people make up such a large percentage of the population and often have a unique perspective that businesses can benefit from. We also know that when disabled people find a workplace they’re happy in, they’re more likely to stay long-term, so appealing to the disabled community can also be great for retention.”
Making First Impressions Count
Naturally, the first contact a candidate has with a company is often the job advert for an open position, making this a great opportunity for a company to demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity. Emma notes that one of the first steps is to consider the must-haves Vs the nice-to-haves, advising, “Look at your job descriptions and person specification – are they based on someone who held the role previously, and can they be adjusted? For example, do candidates really need to have ‘excellent’ communication skills, and is it essential that they’re able to drive? Alternatively, perhaps you’re asking for certain qualifications when equivalent experience or skills could be just as good. I’d also advise employers to always be transparent about salary, as this saves disabled people from wasting their energy applying to roles that may not be suitable.”
Emma notes how important it is to also give due consideration to the places disabled candidates will encounter your job ad, especially given that around 23% of disabled adults don’t go online, and some will have trouble interacting with traditional web pages. “Think about whether or not your website is accessible, for example, to candidates with sight impairments. Could you make use of screen reading tools, and are you using alt text with images to fully explain what’s happening on the page? You might even be willing to re-think your hiring process entirely and ask if all your recruitment needs to be conducted online, as this can be an automatic barrier for some disabled people. You could consider creating and distributing a physical copy of your application materials in large, easy-to-read print, or even produce a video instead.”
Simple Adjustments Make a Big Difference
Although reasonable adjustments to the interview process if needed is required under UK law, it’s something many employers don’t think to mention about unless the candidate brings it up themselves in preliminary discussions. Emma notes, “Obviously, you cannot ask a candidate during the hiring process whether or not they have a disability, but you can ask if they require any accommodations. By remembering to do this – even if a candidate doesn’t appear to have an obvious disability – you can remove a lot of the pressure and stress on them of having to raise the topic.”
When it comes to the actual interview process, Emma explains that the traditional question-and-answer format can make it difficult for some candidates to fully demonstrate their skills. She advises, “Think creatively and don’t get stuck in the mindset of having to recruit in the traditional ways, which don’t always lead to hiring the ideal candidate. Consider a ‘working interview’, where someone can demonstrate what they can do rather than just talk about it. Some candidates will really struggle to ‘blow their own trumpet’, but are more than capable of doing the job.”
If a traditional in-person interview format is required, however, Emma describes adaptations that can be made to aid candidates with certain disabilities that can make a big difference: “It’s all about making simple adjustments to the process,” she explains. “Some interview questions can be long and complex, which can cause a problem for candidates who – for example – might experience brain fog. In these circumstances, it makes sense to provide the interview questions in advance. It’s not about giving anyone an advantage, it’s about levelling the playing field.”
“There are practical considerations employers should make, too. Think about where you’ll be meeting the candidate – is the room accessible? Consider background noise like drilling or maintenance work, as this can be incredibly distracting for neurodiverse candidates.”
Building A Diverse Workforce
For employers who are keen to welcome more disabled employees into their team but may feel overwhelmed or confused about where to start, help is available, as Emma explains: “Supported employment services are a really great but under-utilised resource. They specialise in helping disabled people into employment by working with the employer as well as the jobseeker. For example, they’ll vocationally profile a candidate, assessing their skills and abilities, and help find a suitable job match. They can even potentially find a coach to help new employees succeed in their role, which is often funded through the government’s Access To Work scheme. There are plenty of local organisations offering these services, which businesses can find through the British Association for Supported Employment.”
Emma also recommends that all employers sign up to the government’s Disability Confident scheme, a free government programme designed to help employers recruit and retain people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. There are three different levels employers can commit to, designed to change attitudes towards disability, increase understanding, and remove barriers to work.
Emma advises, “If you’re part of the Disability Confident scheme, shout about it! Use the decal on your marketing materials to let the disabled community know you welcome their applications. Remember to back this up with action though, and to take the time to really consider how you can further support disabled people in terms of recruitment and retention. Signing up also means you can advertise your roles for free and the listed as a ‘Disability Confident’ employer on the DWP job search website.”
At GRG Executive Search, we’re taking the lead for an equal future, and consistently review and refine our approach to supporting inclusive sources of talent. For a confidential discussion about how I can support your executive search requirements, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me on email@example.com.