Getting it right in the workplace for disabled people needs a whole organisation approach – and good communication is a key part of this, says Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum.

7th December 2018

Over 90 per cent of disabilities are not visible – so it’s almost certain that you are already working with many more disabled people than you think.


Good work is fundamental to self-esteem and our identity. I’ve seen at first hand many times the changes in people’s confidence, peer group, social life and more when they get a job – sometimes for the first time ever. 

At Business Disability Forum, our ultimate purpose is to transform the life chances of disabled people as employees and consumers. 

Firstly, some facts and figures around disability:

  • 18 per cent of working-age adults are disabled – that’s almost one in five, or 13 million people.
  • That figure rises to 44 per cent in over-65s – and we are all going to be working longer.
  • 83 per cent of disabilities develop during working age – the average age for acquiring a disability is 53. 
  • Over 90 per cent of disabilities are not visible – so it’s almost certain that you are already working with many more disabled people than you think.

If you want to recruit and retain employees – and support them to be productive at work – how do you create an environment in which they feel safe to tell you what they need; a culture where people believe that the benefits of speaking up outweigh the real or perceived risks.

Creating an environment where people speak up

If you’re wondering why it matters whether or not you know about a non-visible disability, consider where people’s energy is going. Is it on doing the job they have been employed to do or on concealing a condition?

Our advice service still hears stories where a manager starts a performance management process and discovers the problem is not about performance, but actually someone trying to cope with or hide a disability – for example, hearing loss or dyslexia. It needs to be OK for people to talk about these conditions and ask for the support they need.


Closing the engagement gap 

We know that engagement is critical to job satisfaction and, therefore, employee productivity and retention. But, consistently, the engagement scores for disabled employees are lower than for their non-disabled peers.

There’s also evidence that even disabled people who think their disability doesn’t affect them at work might find that it does in terms of engagement.

I saw an interesting survey from one of our members earlier this year, which showed that there was a big gap in engagement between people who said they have a disability that affects them at work and non-disabled people. Not good, but not surprising perhaps.

However, there was also a consistent, albeit smaller, gap between non-disabled people and people who said they were disabled but that it didn’t affect them at work. It made me wonder if, perhaps, it does more than they think. 

A whole-organisation approach

At Business Disability Forum, our ethos is that getting it right for disabled people needs a whole-organisation approach – and communication is at the heart of this. Indeed, it is one of the ten areas that form our Disability Standard accreditation framework.

One of the most important things in driving this change is culture. In my view, culture is all about communication; not just words, but image and behaviours – things that are seen as important or “how things are done round here”. 

Now, of course, I believe – as someone who came up through the communications route – that communication is everyone’s job. But there are specific ways in which the internal communications function can help.

Too often, the language around disability is negative – too many organisations ask the question about disability straight after the one about criminal records, which immediately positions it as negative. 

Often you are asked to “declare” or “disclose” a disability. Now, you’d declare you were smuggling drugs or disclose points on your driving licence, so I would recommend using the words “tell” or “share” instead. 

It’s OK to be inquisitive

At all stages, ask questions around adjustments rather than disability – what does a candidate or employee need from you to enable them to perform at their best?

Some of our members are moving beyond adjustments to talk about productivity tools, so you don’t have to say why you need a bit of kit or flexible working hours. This can be particularly helpful where people might need support – an adjustment – but not want to identify as disabled, sometimes even to themselves.

Removing the barriers

Communicators can also help with specific functions, including recruitment. I’ve seen a shift in the last few months in organisations towards a growing emphasis on recruitment and attracting the widest possible talent pool – whether that’s external or within the organisation. 

It's all about removing barriers – which could be inadvertent, but can be overcome by thinking about things like:

  • Does the imagery, language and case studies you use resonate with “people like me”?
  • Does your organisational brand support your inclusion message? 

Getting the message right for all employees 

It’s also important to ensure that other organisational messages support – and don’t undermine – the culture you are trying to create. For example, in a business where admitting any perceived “weakness” is culturally extremely difficult, a campaign about, say, an iron man race could seriously undo a campaign to talk about mental health.

Provide information in different formats. That includes video and audio, as well as the easy read accessibility standard

Easy read forces you to get to the nub of a message when writing and it’s also quicker to read – making the point that, when you get it right for disabled people, you get it right for everyone; in the case of easy read, whether they have a learning disability, don’t have English as a first language or are simply time-poor.

Barclays is a great example of a company that has driven cultural change by being more inclusive through a disability awareness campaign that has been adopted wholesale. It’s This Is Me programme has since become This is Me in the City, run by the Lord Mayor’s Appeal.

Initially about mental health, it now includes all aspects of disability, encouraging people to share their stories about disability as part of their “whole self” – disability is just one facet, albeit an important one, of who they are.

It has made a huge difference in changing cultures and normalising or mainstreaming the conversation about disability. It’s even more powerful when led from the top with someone senior talking about their own experiences.

At Business Disability Forum, we’re promoting this with our own identity campaign – you can listen to our podcast series on our website: ‘Who am I? The person behind the job title’. 


Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports businesses to recruit and retain disabled people and serve disabled customers. Diane was formerly director of policy and communications for United Response, a leading national disability charity, taking on the strategic leadership of the organisation’s employment services, and is passionate about the role that good work has in transforming people’s lives.

For more information on Business Disability Forum or to contact the organisation to become a member, contact the relevant teams here.





Over 90 per cent of disabilities are not visible – so it’s almost certain that you are already working with many more disabled people than you think.


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