Facilitating Disability in the Workplace
Most businesses would acknowledge the value in having a diverse team of employees, as well as a wide-ranging client base. However, when it comes to employing or interacting with someone with disabilities, often this is seen as a problem to be solved, or in extreme cases a problem that can’t be solved.
This attitude comes from the long-held view of disability as an individual deficit. Under what is now known as the ‘medical model’ of disability, the focus is on what a person can’t do, or what is ‘wrong’ with them. This may seem logical, but when we think a little deeper, it casts the disabled person as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ in order that they can function in as close a way as possible that the ‘normal’ able-bodied people do. When this problem can’t be ‘solved’ then they are left out of certain activities, organisations and environments.
A more modern concept of disability is the ‘social model’. In this framework, there is a distinction between physical impairment and disability. Yes a person may have an impairment, but this does not make them ‘disabled.’ Instead it is society which causes the ‘disability’ in that it is set up almost exclusively for the enjoyment and success of able-bodied people.
“It is not the inability to walk that disables someone, but the steps into the building.” Morris, J (1991) Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming attitudes to Disability.
As employers we can embrace the social model of disability by removing as many barriers as possible for our employees and customers. There is already long standing legislation in place regarding accessibility to public access buildings, but as a society we have a responsibility to go further so that people with impairments are able to function in our spaces and organisations as easily and safely as the ‘able bodied.’
As a business you can begin by considering the needs of your current workforce and customers, starting with the physical environment. You can then consider how you could improve your environment, whether that be an office, retail space, warehouse or factory, so that it would be fully usable by a new employee or client who happened to be disabled. Wide corridors, accessible toilets, desks at the correct height, a lift or stairlift to upper floors – all of these are obvious considerations for wheelchair users. You could consider having all signage printed with brail underneath for visually impaired visitors, and a visual fire alarm for those with hearing impairments. Standard equipment like computers can be easily adapted with software and hardware that makes them more accessible for a range of different impairments.
You also need to consider your virtual environment. Many of you may have noticed that software packages, social networks, and websites have started prompting you to enter ‘alt text’ for images so that these can be audio described to those with visual impairment via screen reading software. Additionally, those of you who interact with video content will have noticed the use of subtitles becoming more frequent, as content creators make their work accessible for the hearing impaired.
Your processes, procedures and policies may also need to be rethought. Some of these will need to be flexibly interpreted to suit individual employee and customer needs. Under the Equalities Act 2010 you have an obligation to make reasonable adjustments for your employees, and this applies to your working processes as well as the physical environment.
Of course we should be careful not to ‘other’ people with impairments in our efforts to embrace the social model of disability. It is important that we don’t make choices for our employees and customers with impairments in isolation, but listen to their needs and requirements and try to act on these. However, we also do not want to wait until we encounter a disabled person and then try to ‘solve’ them as a problem! There are general actions that we can take as described above to be in readiness to provide an inclusive and accessible environment, which can then be tailored and tweaked to suit individual needs and preferences.