‘Non-visible’ disabilities: Does HR see the big picture?

Melanie Forbes
CEO
Guidant Group
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non-visible disability

This is a guest blog from Paul Smith, Chairman of law firm Eversheds LLP:

For many people, the term ‘disability’ is synonymous with wheelchair users and others with evident physical impairments. Indeed, the universal symbol for disabled access - one of the most widely-used and instantly recognised icons in the world - is a stylised image of a person using a wheelchair. However, from an HR perspective, it is worth remembering that disability exists in many forms. Consequently, by increasing awareness and understanding of ‘non-visible’ disabilities, organisations stand the best chance of opening themselves to the possibility of true diversity.

The UK’s Equality Act 2010 defines disability as difficulty in performing day-to-day tasks for a period of twelve months or longer because of a physical or mental impairment. This includes people with visible disabilities, such as wheelchair users, as well as those with non-visible disabilities such as people with dyslexia. From 2005, people with certain long-term illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, coronary heart disease or HIV, were also considered disabled from the point of diagnosis. Of course, as a profession, HR is open to the benefits that a diverse workforce brings – but could organisations on the whole, be doing more to identify and accommodate professionals with less ‘obvious’ challenges?

Here at Eversheds we foster an accessible approach to recruitment, and actively encourage the inclusion of disabled professionals – however visible that disability may be. Our Disability Employee Network, which focusses on disability and wellbeing matters across the firm, is made up of staff who identify as disabled as well as those with an active interest in this important area of the firm’s diversity strategy.

We are currently working with consultancy The Clear Company to become ClearAssured Accredited in order to help remove the barriers that disabled applicants face. By making changes such as introducing ‘Speak Aloud’ technology on all of our recruitment web pages, and rewarding recruitment consultancies that join us on our ClearAssured journey (by offering exclusive roles), I hope that we are helping to improve the experiences of disabled professionals in the workplace. I am proud that this commitment to diversity was recognised when Eversheds, in conjunction with Guidant Group, was awarded ‘Best Partnership’ at last year’s Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative (RIDI) Awards. I would like to think that the changes we have made inspire other organisations to reassess their approach to inclusion.      

Our Immigration Manager, John Craig, who was diagnosed as having Tourettes Syndrome at the age of 20, was open about his condition from the beginning, “The reason I share my disability with my employer and my colleagues is that from time to time my condition means that I need a little support or adjustment to my day to enable me to perform at my best.” He explains, “If I didn’t share what my condition was and how it has an impact on my life then like many individuals I would suffer in silence”. He also addresses a salient point. “Disability disclosure is still a taboo topic especially when you look at areas of disability such as mental health.”

Indeed, I think it is fair to say that attitudes and assumptions sometimes associated with mental health conditions are not always representative of the reality. According to mental health charity Mind, roughly one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. When conditions such as stress, depression, and anxiety are prevalent in society - not least in fast-paced, high-pressure professional environments – could we be doing more to recognise, understand and help those affected?   

People prone to stress, for example, may automatically tick the ‘no disability’ box on a job application, but could need a little extra time to make decisions in order to manage their anxieties. It may sound obvious, but managers and HR teams should also be vigilant for non-typical or distressed behaviour amongst their teams. A little awareness can go a long way.

Similarly, there are many physical conditions that, although ‘hidden’, require HR professionals to make small adjustments to accommodate sufferers. Disabilities that cause joint instability or musculoskeletal pain, for example, may mean that standing for long periods or walking up stairs is difficult. I think that we can all agree that it would be a shame to lose star talent simply because we didn’t recognise that somebody would find it much more comfortable to have a desk on the ground floor.     

It is worth remembering that, according to The Office for Disability Issues (ODI), there are over 11 million disabled people in the UK – but fewer than eight per cent of those use wheelchairs. That's nearly one in five adults who have serious difficulties getting around, experience long-lasting pain, or who struggle to communicate unaided. By failing to successfully identify - and engage with - these individuals, organisations risk missing out on the skills and experiences of a significant proportion of the working-age population.   

Most people with non-visible disabilities will not need an employer to make momentous adjustments to accommodate them – many simply require the understanding and freedom to create their own solutions to work-based challenges. For example, individuals with bowel disorders may need slightly longer comfort breaks. Similarly, those with diabetes may need the space and time to administer their insulin. With a little compassion, we can all make small changes to make a big difference. Could you be doing more to attract, assist, and retain those with non-visible disabilities in your organisation?  

 - Paul Smith, Chairman of law firm Eversheds LLP

 

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