Bobbi Sills examines why it is crucial for firms to maintain a flexible and diverse approach to disabled staff members and prospective new talent
Measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19 this year have quickly shone the spotlight on existing social divides and inequalities in the workplace. Additional childcare responsibilities due to the closing of schools, as well as barriers to remote working such as lack of technology and space, are just some of the pitfalls faced by thousands globally.
But the challenges posed by the new way of working are a familiar picture for disabled people, who have long fought for more inclusive work practices.
According to the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments in respect of disabled job applicants and employees.
Adjustments should be made where a disabled person would otherwise be subject to a significant disadvantage, by reason of a provision, criterion or practice of the employer or a physical feature of its premises.
Yet according to disability charity Scope, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, with the disability employment gap set to worsen due to the pandemic.
So, how can businesses in the insurance profession make their practices more inclusive for disabled employees and potential job applicants?
Lois Ratcliffe, internship programme manager at Inclusion Scotland, suggests that a good starting point is for businesses to base their practices on the social model of disability, which recognises people with disabilities as full, valued and included members of the community.
Day-to-day tasks including mobility and communication are often restricted by preventable barriers, for example, navigating stairs where there is no ramp or deciphering smaller fonts when reading information, notes Ms Ratcliffe.
She says: “The real experts in the experiences of barriers and exclusion are the people living that reality daily.”
Making sure information is presented in an accessible way is key to overcoming inclusion barriers
The social model states that it is these external barriers that prevent disabled people from fully engaging in the workplace, rather than the impairments or conditions they experience.
Shayne Halfpenny-Ray, policy and public affairs adviser at the CII and chair of the professionalism workstream in the Access to Insurance Working Group, agrees that in order to tackle issues surrounding access to insurance, businesses must take further note of the lived experiences of disabled people.
Mr Halfpenny-Ray says: “It is important that businesses embrace the social model of disability and view people as being disabled by systematic barriers and derogatory attitudes in our society, not by their impairment or difference.”
Businesses must be willing to listen to the experiences of disabled employees and recognise them as a vital resource. Harnessing the concept of ‘lived experience’ can save employers time and money, as well as improve their culture of resilience and adaptability in the long term, says Ms Ratcliffe.
A 2017 report by the Department for Work and Pensions found that about 400,000 people in the UK claim disability benefits yearly because they have struggled to find or retain work, in part due to employers being unable to accommodate a suitably adapted working environment.
But Ms Ratcliffe points out that there are several simple, practical steps businesses can take to enable more inclusive work practices.
She says: “Making sure information is presented in an accessible way is key to overcoming inclusion barriers.”
In internal and external communications, businesses should think about font size, type and colour contrast, plus whether the information is accessible in different formats, for example, a plain-text version.
As well as providing employees with the option to give feedback on the accessibility of content and how it can be improved, businesses should commit to applying the social model of understanding the language they use.
Making a change
In 2019, the CII partnered with Scope to produce a good practice guide outlining steps firms can take to develop a diverse and inclusive working environment for disabled people.
Scope found that, while many employers collect disability data, few publish the data publicly or use it to understand where disabled employees face barriers at work.
The guidance, which was launched as part of the government-sponsored Access to Insurance Working Group, sets out how to collect data, what kind of information should be gathered and how it can be used to support the career progression of disabled employees.
Improving access to protection insurance for those with disabilities is high on the radar for the Access to Insurance Working Group, which is chaired by Johnny Timpson, cabinet office disability and access champion for insurance, as well as the CII’s Mr Halfpenny-Ray.
A neurodiversity support guide was also launched earlier this year in collaboration with Aon and Willis Towers Watson, containing tips for interviewing, managing and supporting individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
Mr Halfpenny-Ray says: “The focus has been on how we can develop professionalism in a way that encourages greater diversity and removes intrinsic barriers preventing disabled people from accessing financial services, particularly protection insurance.”
As workplaces rapidly adapt to curb the spread of Covid-19, the ability of firms to maintain a more flexible and diverse approach to address the inequalities faced by disabled people is clearer than ever.
For more information on improving accessibility in the workplace, download Inclusion Scotland’s accessible social media guide here: inclusionscotland.org/accessible-social-media-guide
For guidance on accessible and effective remoting working, visit: bit.ly/2Sf4Tqv
Bobbi Sills is communications executive of the CII