One million disabled people in the UK who want and are able to work remain unemployed, representing a huge pool of untapped talent, according to ONS figures.
People with disabilities in the UK have a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, compared to 3.6 percent for non-disabled people. This large employment gap is what inspired Liz Johnson, former Paralympic gold medalist for Team GB, to recently co-found The Ability People (TAP), the UK’s first employment agency staffed entirely by people with impairments.
Disabled people with the necessary skills are often passed over for jobs due to misconceptions and discrimination about disability, or because employers don’t have the right support in place, Johnson notes.
“Everyday life for a disabled person is about problem solving, because we have to improvise, persevere, be extremely resilient and communicate clearly with other people to get things done and make things happen,” Johnson says. “A lot of these skills are required for the working environment and disabled people have mastered them from early on. These are traits that make not only for good recruiters, but also for great employees.”
Johnson was born with cerebral palsy, but that didn’t stop her from winning her first national swimming championship at 10 years old, followed by gold medals at the Paralympics, World Championships and European Championships, before retiring in the run-up to the 2016 Paralympics.
Johnson, who has a degree in business management and frequently speaks and consults on recruitment, realised that ‘athletes and recruiters share a lot of the same mindset’. So she established TAP as a way to help disabled people get into and stay in the workplace. The agency is a ‘for-profit’ business, not a charity, that works with some of the UK’s biggest employer brands.
We sat down with Johnson to discuss how companies can actively recruit and retain for diversity and inclusion.
Glassdoor: What made you want to start TAP?
Liz Johnson: I was watching the news one night and heard that over 30 percent of disabled people in the UK are unemployed. I was really surprised and wanted to know why. Is it because disabled people don’t want to work, can’t work, or is it mostly because they don’t have what is needed to enable them to work and have a healthy life/work balance?
Personally I have been really fortunate because my career as a professional athlete has allowed me to have a lot of control over my life/work balance, which is essential for a disabled person to really succeed in the workplace. So I decided that I wanted to establish my own employment agency staffed entirely by impaired people living with a disability that would have a truly inclusive and flexible working culture.
When the wider world sees our team functioning and being successful, we are living proof of what we are capable of. And while we work with both disabled and non-disabled candidates, obviously impaired job seekers are naturally drawn to us. Because we have personally experienced their challenges and been on the other side of job hunting, we are better equipped to advocate for them and place them in the right role.
[Related: Employee Wellbeing]
Glassdoor: What is TAP’s mission?
Liz Johnson: Simply put, our mission is to place the best people — whether living with an impairment or not — into the right jobs. We focus on what a person ‘can do’, not their perceived limitations. We hope to provide an ‘ethical supply chain of talent’ to UK employers and reduce the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people.
Glassdoor: What makes TAP a great place for people with disabilities to work? What can other companies learn from TAP about creating a supportive environment where disabled employees can thrive?
Liz Johnson: Work/life balance is critical for disabled people to thrive in the workplace. We look at each individual’s particular needs and try to work around them to optimise their productivity. It’s not just about flex hours or making sure that your office is accessible. For example, if a person works best from home in their pajamas or during non-business hours, then we allow that to happen. The most important thing is to openly communicate with your employees about what they need to do their job to the best of their ability, and then establishing trust that the work will get done.
Glassdoor: What are some common misconceptions employers have about hiring disabled people?
Liz Johnson: The first is that because of their impairment, the person won’t be able to perform their job as well as a non-disabled person. But in fact, research has shown that disabled people tend to be the most productive employees. After all, they have learned from a very early age to be resourceful, resilient and persevere to succeed. Retention rates also tend to be higher for disabled employees. Those who feel supported turn out to be the most loyal and productive employees who give 100% to the company. Change can be difficult for a lot of people, but when you’re disabled, it’s even harder. So if a disabled person has a good relationship with their employer, they trust and respect it and stick around for the long haul.
Finally, many employers think that it will be very expensive to hire a disabled person, or that they will have a lot of sick days. There’s research to show that disabled people actually have fewer scheduled absences than non-disabled people. And in terms of expenses, the adjustments or equipment needed are often already in place and if not, there are a lot of grants available to help fund the cost.
What are the benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce?
Liz Johnson: I believe that if you choose the best people for the job, naturally you will end up with a diverse workforce. With a diverse and inclusive team, you are so much stronger because you benefit from different attitudes, perspectives and ways of tackling a problem or challenging a solution. Having a diverse workforce that reflects an organisation’s customers or community also means that you can better understand and connect with your customers, which leads to improved service.
Glassdoor: What can HR do to ensure their recruiting strategy is not excluding people with disabilities?
Liz Johnson: First off, the language and imagery in job ads need to be fair and open to all so that it doesn’t put anyone off, similar to how we now use gender neutral language in job listings. A lot of impaired candidates are pushed to job boards and sites specifically for disabled people, and I don’t think they should be separated from other candidates and only be exposed to certain opportunities. A person should be evaluated based on their qualifications and what they can bring to an organisation; employers have to learn to overcome preconceived assumptions. All it takes is for one positive example of a disabled employee in your workplace for change to start to happen. It’s a bit like sports. At one time, no one knew what a Paralympian was. Now it’s accepted and no one questions our ability to compete in sports. It’s about enabling individuals to excel in the field they are best at, no matter what.