Why Disability Awareness in the Workplace Matters

Why Disability Awareness in the Workplace Matters

In This Blog: a culture that is inclusive of disabled people does not just happen. This blog will offer insight into why disability awareness in the workplace matters. With insight for what leaders can do to support a culture of inclusion.

Yesterday, I went to a networking event.

This event was not specifically about disability or inclusion which for me these days is an irregularity.  However, earlier this week, a hotel chain had opened in town and I wanted a peak and a free tour. It was lovely and I am very much looking forward to ordering some food off my mobile.

They had convened a panel of influential business owners and leaders from the area to talk to business owners about what was happening.  So, at my very first opportunity, I asked about inclusion and mindfulness of disabled people in recruitment. I specifically asked the question to the businessman in the room as, he was on the panel, the biggest recruiter. My question/comment: “How are you being mindful that disabled people are being given and offered these opportunities?”

To give a bit of context, the discussion until that point had been around opening work opportunities to young people. Providing more work experience and working with local schools and colleges to encourage partnerships with business.  The businessman responded by telling me that there doesn’t need to be any provision made for disabled people as there are no barriers for disabled people entering employment within his business – apart from in the engineering department.

Barriers to employment for disabled people do exist.

I responded to his answer by pointing out that there are barriers to employment for disabled people. The barriers may be subtle (although not always). They stop disabled people from having the opportunities to successfully showcase their skills. The barriers are deeply entrenched in the social model of disability. They are often camouflaged to the naked eye not attuned to looking a little bit deeper, just beneath the surface. 

These are not massive revelations. They are the physical, structural, attitudinal, psychological barriers that prevent disabled people from gaining equal opportunity and non-disabled people from even seeing the barrier in the first place. 

Some of these barriers may sound obvious when you hear them. For example, a physical barrier may sound to somebody who doesn’t know a lot about the barriers faced by disabled people as simply replacing a staircase with a lift to get up to the first floor. However, what happens once you get on the first floor? 

The case study that follows highlights barriers that exist in the workplace. It reflects some of the reasons why disability awareness in the workplace matters.

Alfie’s Interview

Alfie has got to the stage where he has been invited for an interview.  The company – BeYourselfByYourself has been his dream company for years.  When he was offered an interview, he was ecstatic. Almost so excited that he nearly forgot to ask about access.  He asked when he was invited to an interview, explaining that he was a wheelchair user. Alfie asked if the building he was going to be interviewed in had step free access. He assumed BeYourselfByYourself would recognise that if he needed access to the interview, he would also need access to his workplace.  His interviewer assured him there was a lift to take him to the first floor where the interview will be held.  

Upon arrival, Alfie signed in at reception. He was informed that the lift was broken and that his interviewer had moved the room to the ground floor.  The interviewer arrived five minutes after the interview was scheduled to begin.  She lead Alfie through to an area aside to the main reception/foyer area.  Whilst somewhat quiet, Alfie could still hear the low murmur of the workplace community hustling and bustling around the foyer and reception area. 

He told himself to “pull himself together” and to ignore everything around him and focus purely on the interview. As he moved closer to the table, he realised he couldn’t get his legs underneath as his footplates kept smashing against the table legs.  Under normal circumstances, Alfie would have either asked for the table to be repositioned or moved himself to a more accessible area around the table. However, he was in an interview situation and he felt that this was not appropriate.

There were three interviewers in Alfie’s interview: Sara Jane, Lewis and Robbie. As Alfie waited for the interviewers, he spotted Sara Jane was looking at him.  He looked up and smiled at her and she looked away.  Noticing the awkward interaction, Lewis said; “I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a wheelchair-bound person before, I wonder if it’s going to be weird.” Alfie smiled.

“Tell us about a time you succeeded against all odds in your last post”.  Alfie took the recommended two minutes to digest the question before answering.  “As I explained in my application” Alfie began, “this will be my first formal position.  I have found it difficult to secure employment up until this point.  But I am really eager to succeed in this post and I think that I have all the relevant skills. I can give you an example of when I have overcome a situation in my personal life if that’s okay?”  The interviewers looked at each other and responded with a no and that they would move onto the next question. 

Alfie was asked to prepare a presentation outlining how he would lead and galvanise his sales team to generate an extra 35% revenue in the next year.  As he will need to get under the table to use his laptop, he asks if the table could be repositioned. Enabling him to get to a comfortable position.  Sara Jane points out that the table is stuck to the floor and cannot be moved.  A quick survey of the area tells Alfie he cannot move to another position and still be in optimal position to see the presentation and have eye contact with the interviewers.  He asks the interviewers if they would mind swapping positions with him. They say that this would not be possible as this would be giving him an unfair advantage over the other interviewees. If he cannot present where he is, he can leave the presentation with them and they will read it after

When explaining the ethos of BeYourselfByYourself, Robbie tells Alfie that it is a very relaxed atmosphere with a lot of office banter. “We are like a family and you won’t survive if you take it too seriously”.  Robbie tells Alfie about the “mandatory” Wednesday night drinks where everybody is expected to stay until they are no longer safe to drive.  Alfie quietly worries about the fatigue side-effect of his impairment. He wonders how this will be perceived by his fellow colleagues and employer.  

They ask Alfie if he has any follow-up questions and although he has come prepared with four or five questions he would like to ask, tired and a little overwhelmed, he is concerned about what the answers might be. So he simply says “no”.

As he goes to give his final goodbyes, he attempts to shake the hands of his interviewers but as the table is in the way, he cannot reach and no one offers to meet him halfway.

In the reception area, whilst signing out, the receptionist asks him if he was there on a work placement. He answers no and that he was there for a job interview.  The receptionist looks surprised, tilts her head and says “oh bless you, you’re really inspiring you are”.

Alfie leaves BeYourselfByYourself resigned to the fact that he didn’t get the job and that this is probably what it’s going to be like in every other interview situation.

What do you think? If it was blatantly obvious, and seemingly a bit too OTT, this unfortunately is the reality for many disabled interviewees. Including myself on occasion.  The situation was aimed at a wheelchair user and the experiences that Alfie as a wheelchair user may have faced when applying and interviewing for work. We looked at a snapshot moment in time without looking at everything that got Alfie to that moment and everything that happened afterwards.  Depending on prior experiences of a disabled person, the interviewers, a person’s impairment and the company, many of these scenarios may be different.

If you have time, maybe you can take a few minutes to think about this case study in more detail.  Here are a few conversation starters:

  • Why do you think this may have been Alfie’s first professional work opportunity?
  • What could the interviewers have done differently to ensure Alfie had a better interview experience?
  • What could BeYourselfByYourself do to ensure disabled candidates have an equal opportunity to job roles?
  • Thinking about the barriers listed above: physical barriers, structural barriers, psychological barriers and attitudinal barriers, which barriers did Alfie face and how did they present him from showcasing his skill?
  • From the information in the case study alone, do you think Alfie was offered the position?

Are you looking for innovative ways to provide disability inclusion training? Alongside training sessions, we’re gathering opinion on the usefulness of disability inclusion case studies. If you have a few minutes and you’d like to leave your thoughts, click here

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