Workplace diversity: It’s more than just a gender issue

Diversity is a crucial issue from onboarding onwards, says Liam Butler. 

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Discussions around diversity in the workplace are all too often focused on gender, and rarely on the need to include people with a disability. Little wonder then that a recently published survey has revealed the tough and unwelcoming employment environment that confronts disabled workers in the UK.

According to the disability charity Leonard Cheshire, 73% of disabled workers in the UK say they have stopped working due to a disability or health conditions. Shockingly, the findings reveal that nearly a quarter of UK employers say they’d be less likely to hire someone with a disability.

Even more worrying, 66% of managers said the cost of workplace adjustments represent a barrier to employing a disabled person.

On a more promising note, however, the Leonard Cheshire research found that the proportion of employers who’d be more likely to employ someone with a disability has almost doubled—up from 11% in 2017 to 20% in 2018. Similarly, the research highlights an increased awareness among UK employers of the government’s Access to Work Scheme, up to 59% from 41%.

Keeping the recruitment process as straightforward and streamlined as possible can help you increase the number of high-quality applicants, by ensuring it’s as inclusive as possible.

Organisations that have taken steps to implement changes in the workplace so that they could employ someone with a disability universally confirm they’ve benefited from the positive contribution these people have made to their business.

According to research undertaken by Disability Rights UK, a further 82% of these employers considered that disabled employees were as productive as non-disabled staff.

So, what steps can you take to address this lack of workforce diversity in your organisation?

Change up the engagement conversation

Having determined that your workplace can provide a mutually beneficial environment for an employee with disability, it’s important to go about attracting this talent in the right way.

For example, applying for a role online automatically requires a person with disability to provide a significant amount of information before you’ve even determined if they’re suitable or not. Keeping the recruitment process as straightforward and streamlined as possible can help you increase the number of high-quality applicants, by ensuring it’s as inclusive as possible.

To increase your reach with this cohort of candidates, consider making job advertisements, job descriptions and applications accessible with alternative ways to apply for the position. Most importantly, always put the candidate – and not their disability – first.


When it comes to job interviews, check if a candidate will require adjustments to the recruitment process so that they can participate in being considered for a role. This may include providing access to a computer to complete a written test or undertaking interviews in ground floor rooms to maximise access for wheelchair users or those with mobility issues.

Reimagine training for all

One of the greatest challenges that confronts organisations hiring someone with a disability is educating current employees about the need to embrace people with differences. Enabling a supportive workplace culture is just as important as any physical or technological workplace adjustments that may need to be made so that every employee feels safe, respected and included from the start.

HR teams may need to initiate a sensitivity training programme for employees that explains workplace etiquette and responsibilities regarding disability issues. This can help ensure that everyone uses appropriate terminology in the workplace and is aware that stepping in to help, without first receiving permission, could prove problematic if someone with a disability doesn’t want special treatment.

Building the skills of all team members means ensuring everyone has equal access to training resources. It’s a process that goes beyond simply offering alt text for images or transcripts for videos and will require using a holistic approach—bringing together developers, authoring tools, users, web browsers and evaluation tools—to create tools and content everyone can access.

Retaining talent

Even the smallest of changes can make a dramatic difference in helping people with disabilities achieve their full potential at work. Ensuring that all potential employees with the relevant skills, qualifications, and experience can be hired and make a positive contribution to the business.

With so many disabled workers in the UK saying they’ve had to stop working due to a disability or health condition, employers need to put the spotlight on the retention and progression of disabled staff so that they can identify and remove any barriers faced by disabled people in the workplace.

If employees become disabled or have to live with a long-term health condition, it pays to be flexible and take all reasonable steps so that you can retain their valuable skills. With over 11m people having a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability in the UK, initiating adjustments to support such employees should be a top priority.

These changes may include a special keyboard because of arthritis, a special chair because of back problems, a designated car space, a ramp for wheelchair users, or changing working hours or patterns of work.

An effective diversity and inclusion strategy should seek to add value to an organisation and contribute to employee wellbeing and engagement. The government’s paper ‘Improving lives – the future of work health and disability‘ clearly sets down a directive for employers to improve the recruitment and retention of disabled workers, including those who are newly disabled.

Building this capability is all about promoting inclusivity with the workplace, considering how staff will work together, and supporting everyone to develop the skills they need to succeed and be themselves. In other words, treating employees as people – not categories.


About the author

Liam Butler is Area Vice President at SumTotal


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