Geoff Cook has had — in one sense — a good 2020. Despite the pandemic, the digital communications strategist has made headway professionally. He credits Podium, an online jobs platform that helps companies and disabled freelancers find each other, regardless of geography.
Launched in May by The Ability People, a UK-based consultancy, Podium has helped Mr Cook, who lives in New York, acquire clients in London, including a Premier League football club. However, his efforts to secure media sector employment in the US have been less successful.
Recalling the moment he told an interviewer he has cerebral palsy, “I heard the tone change,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve interviewed enough times to know what those changes in tone mean.”
According to the latest data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, 8 per cent of economically active working-age adults with a disability are unemployed, compared with just 5 per cent of those without. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019 put the proportion of active working-age adults with a disability who are unemployed also at 8 per cent, compared with 4 per cent of those who do not have a disability.
Mr Cook’s patchy experiences parallel those of many disabled people. But one positive from the pandemic, says James Taylor, executive director of strategy at Scope, a disability charity, “is that employers have embraced, out of necessity, the flexible working measures that disabled employees have been requesting for years”.
However, the bad news is that unemployment is rising faster among disabled people than other workers, and prejudice appears to have hardened. When questioned last September by Leonard Cheshire, a charity that supports those with disabilities, 42 per cent of UK employers indicated that coronavirus had made them more hesitant to employ disabled workers, due to concerns around supporting them properly during the pandemic.
Fortunately, not all companies want to relegate the recruitment of disabled people. When the lockdown prevented BrandContent, a creative agency, from hosting placement students at its Cardiff office, it worked with the charity Whizz-Kidz to create virtual placements for young wheelchair users. Having managed this over Zoom, the Welsh company is now prepared to advertise all its vacancies in disability media, even though its rented premises lack disabled access.
“We now believe that we could offer a fulfilling role to someone who works remotely, and where an in-person meeting is necessary, book a meeting room that’s wheelchair accessible,” says Rachel Besenyei, BrandContent’s head of growth.
As part of opening the law profession to “a wider cross-section of the population”, including disabled workers, Keith Froud, managing partner at Eversheds Sutherland, a law firm, envisages a hybrid workplace “with less emphasis on geography”. That might mean, for example, a junior lawyer dialling in from a home workstation to shadow a partner on an important call to a client. “If you can use the technology correctly, you can actually provide people with amazing career opportunities, though you do have to work harder,” he says. But will everyone benefit equally?
Lockdowns unexpectedly made compulsory the ways of working that disability activists had campaigned for. However, research conducted among more than 100 disabled lawyers by Cardiff Business School last summer suggests that disability concerns soon drop off the radar when they require adaptations that go beyond those required by the majority of other remote staff.
Most of the lawyers said that they were managing their health better and accomplishing more, as they no longer faced a tiring commute. What had not changed, however, were society’s assumptions that the arrangements that work for most people will work for everyone.
Many lawyers who applied for jobs and training contracts described dealing with recruiters “who weren’t good at listening”, and said they had not received the adjustments they needed to compete on equal terms in virtual assessments and interviews, or even participate at all.
One candidate with a hearing impairment was expected to do a telephone interview without an alternative, such as speech to text conversion, a video call with live captions, or sign-language interpretation. Another, a dyslexic candidate, was asked to take an online test on an inaccessible platform. Typical problems for dyslexics include online forms that cannot be modified to improve colour contrasts or font sizes.
The price of invisibility
It took a pandemic for Chuck Edward, a corporate vice-president of HR at Microsoft, to be open about working with multiple sclerosis. Diagnosed in 2012, he initially kept quiet, expecting that his symptoms would become obvious. But medication did the trick, and he was given a bigger job — another reason to stay silent. “I was concerned people might see me as being less effective. Would there be unspoken words . . . a lack of confidence in me in the future?” Then came coronavirus, and the irony of encouraging others to share health concerns, while not doing so himself.
Mr Edward finally “came out publicly” at a company summit last spring. In doing so he is in a minority. According to research by Accenture, only 20 per cent of leaders with disabilities are fully transparent about their impairment.
Almost a quarter tell no one. That is a problem, because when bosses are mute, their juniors lack role models and advocates to argue for better policies. As one millennial with a neurological condition puts it: “Every time you go into a new stage of your career, you’re the first one. [Junior] people find they’re really fighting for themselves and everyone behind them.”
Prejudice has shown up as a misplaced paternalism that conflates “disability with vulnerability,” says Diane Lightfoot, chief executive of the Business Disability Forum, an employers’ organisation. As workplaces began to reopen last summer, BDF took calls from employers wanting to know if disabled employees should be considered a high-risk group for coronavirus and therefore given a blanket instruction to remain at home.
It told the callers to avoid sweeping assumptions and advised them to ask each person how they perceived their risk, and what they would prefer.
Everyone makes trade-offs, says Rob Camm, a tetraplegic trainee lawyer at Osborne Clarke. “Working from home makes it much easier to manage my disability. But my preference would be to work in the office because of the social interaction and getting that bit of separation between home and work.”
Robert Hunter, founder of City Disabilities, which mentors City professionals, says all prejudice is “lousy management, because it blinds you to the factors that really affect profitability”.
Others agree. “The moment I mentioned that I’m [on the autistic spectrum], I was met with tumbleweed. I went from being headhunted to being ignored,” says one mid-career graduate, who asked not to be named.
Working for a company that sees disability as an inconvenience and an expense makes asking for help harder. For example, many impairments acquired by working-age adults — such as hearing loss, diabetes, mental illness, multiple sclerosis etc — are invisible. This means that in most offices someone is probably straining to work around a health condition, where small adjustments — an extra break or adjustable chair — could help them achieve better results more comfortably.
“If people are struggling to fit into a world that’s not built for them then they are depressing their productivity,” says Liz Johnson, a Paralympian who is also co-founder of The Ability People.
Jane Burton, chair of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society, believes that to reduce “the fear and stigma” overshadowing disability, employers should plan for a recovery that plays to people’s strengths and circumstances. Specifically, she urges senior staff with impairments to become visible role models and mentors, and champion policies such as part-time training contracts, to help more disabled candidates get a foot in the door.
Encouragingly, having been forced by the pandemic to improvise, more employers say they will use the experience to build a future that works better for everyone. Enterprise Rent-A-Car is one. When its offices reopen, staff will choose whether to return to their desks, work from home, or some combination of the two. “What people do will come down to employees figuring out what’s best for them,” says Donna Miller, the company’s European HR director.
Giving people the leeway to overcome their barriers is right, says Mr Cook. “Obviously, I’ve a few more things to figure out than some people, but allow me the opportunity, and I will.”