Diversity in Financial Services

Let’s talk about disability

Diane Lightfoot
CEO, Business Disability Forum

A common misconception is that most disabilities are present from birth, but the vast majority (83%) of disabilities are acquired. It is something that can – and probably will – affect us all.

There are 13.3 million disabled people in the UK. That’s 1 in 5 people. 18% of working age adults are disabled. This figure rises to 44% in the over 65s – and as we are all not only expecting to live but to work for longer, that figure matters. A common misconception is that most disabilities are present from birth, but the vast majority (83%) of disabilities are acquired. It is something that can – and probably will – affect us all.

The second misconception is a lack of understanding of the term “disability”. Most people I talk to immediately think of wheelchairs, but whilst getting physical accessibility right is hugely important, wheelchair users are a small minority of disabled people. The vast majority of disabilities are not immediately visible. They include sensory impairments, long term health conditions, autism and other neuro diverse conditions, learning difficulties and mental health. So, it is likely that you are already employing and working alongside many more disabled people than you realise!

Why does this matter? We know that the majority of people with a non-visible condition do not tell their employers, either at application stage or once in employment. This may not be a problem, but it may be if someone is working around a condition rather than asking for the adjustments they need. At Business Disability Forum, our advice service regularly receives calls from employers who are concerned that someone isn’t performing, only to discover that they have undiagnosed dyslexia or are trying to conceal the fact that they are losing their hearing.

So, what can we as senior leaders do about it?

Leaders have a really important role to play in this space. Like it or not, what senior people do and say has a disproportionate impact on the people around us. Leaders who are prepared to talk about their own experience of disability or that of family or friends can make a huge difference in making it feel safe for others to follow your lead.

Culture, is key, as is language. Too often the language we use around disability is really negative – “disclose” or “declare”. I often say you’d disclose points on your driving licence or declare that you are smuggling excess duty free! Instead, ask people to “tell” or “share” and ask you for what they need.

And think about your wider organisational messaging. A campaign that aims to encourage people to talk about disability or mental health risks being undermined if all your other organisational messages – and what you are seen to reward – are focused on financial performance and long hours, for example.

As a leader, you can also set the tone in “how we do things round here”. For example, if you work flexibly – and make it policy that others can too – then someone who needs to work flexibly because they struggle to commute at rush hour because they experience acute anxiety on packed tubes or simply can’t get their wheelchair onto the train can just do that, and not need to tell you why. It works equally for those with childcare or other caring responsibilities of course.

And that reflects another key message: when you get it right for disabled people, you get it right for everyone.