When you talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, do you stop to think about people with disabilities? The reason I ask is unfortunately disability is often not included on the diversity agenda.

    If you do think about disability, what image comes to mind? Disability is not just about sticks and wheelchairs - we also need to consider those disabilities that may not be visible, as well as those suffering with long-term health conditions.

    I believe it’s time for disability to be put firmly on the diversity agenda. The question is, how do you go about recruiting and retaining disabled talent? And how could your firm work with disabled clients in a more inclusive way?

    What do we mean by disability?

    You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

    This definition can include conditions such as cancer, dyslexia and diabetes, as well as the non-visible disabilities and long-term health conditions mentioned earlier. So the application of the term 'disabled'  is much wider than people think.

    Many people are probably unaware they come under the umbrella of the legal definition of disability, and this can be one reason for them not to disclose their disability. Among those that are aware, another reason for non-disclosure to employers in particular is that their condition may be manageable and therefore does not impact on their work.

    Why disability matters now

    Firstly, we are an ageing population and will have to work for longer. Over time our senses and minds will change. The truth is, if you stick around for long enough then it's likely you may become a member of the disability club in some way.

    Firms also need to consider the impact of stress and mental health on their staff. At any one time, one worker in six will be experiencing depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress. In many cases, these problems lead to absence from work.

    According to the Centre for Mental Health, the average employee takes seven days off sick each year, of which 40 per cent are for mental health problems. If we are unable to speak about this issue at work openly, this will only serve to further the stigma and shame surrounding mental health.

    It's worth being aware that most disabled people - a massive 86 per cent - acquire their disability while of working age. Employers need to be in a position to be able to respond to this.

    People with disabilities are the biggest minority group. They also tend to develop additional skills such as problem solving, empathy, resilience and the ability to see things from a completely different angle. All this suggests that if you are not recruiting disabled people then you are missing out on a large pool of talent.

    Working in a more inclusive way

    I have some general dos and don’ts for firms on working more inclusively, but this list is by no means exhaustive. I'm using the example of a wheelchair user as this is based on my personal experience.


    If you have an open attitude to people with disabilities this will feed through to your staff, who should then feel able to embrace and express their differences freely and authentically. There is no better way to improve confidence and fulfilment at work.

    Interestingly, a recent survey found it is actually the perception of disability that causes most of the challenges people with disabilities face on a daily basis.


    Don’t define somebody by their disability. Wheelchair users, for example, have heard all the 'jokes' and 'lines' thousands of times before. Some of the common ones I hear are: “Don’t drink and drive”, “don’t run me over”, “have you got a licence for that?”, “women drivers!”, and so on. It is simply a lazy reference to the chair when people feel the need to say something. This is perhaps due to awkwardness on their part.

    We all make mistakes, especially if we are not used to dealing with disability. If you do say something which you feel has caused offence, the best course of action is simply to apologise quickly, and then move on.


    Be aware of your language. An easy way to remember whether a word may cause offence or not is by asking yourself whether the terminology is disempowering or empowering. For example, the phrase “wheelchair-bound” is bandied about a lot and is part of everyday language. Yet it suggests someone who is passive and disempowered.

    Language is important because thoughts affect our words and our behaviour. In this case, the more commonly accepted phrase is “wheelchair user”.

    I also want to mention etiquette. Understandably, most chair users don't like someone leaning on their chair and treating it like a piece of furniture. Think about it: you wouldn’t just lean on someone’s arm. When this happens it is an invasion of someone’s personal space.

    Also, do not push someone without asking. Empower the individual by allowing them to approach you should they require assistance.

    A final thought. Is it really the disability itself which is disabling? Or could it be the attitudes, environment and infrastructure of your organisation?

    For more information on Diverse Matters, click here
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