– when will some disabilities cease to be disabling?
by Dr Nancy Doyle
This graphic shows the different levels of inclusion that can be present in an organisation, industry or economy. I’m going to outline where we’ve been, where we are, and how I believe technology is going to take us where we want to go.
When there is exclusion, people are systematically prevented from joining in, barriers that target the disability based on a social norm rather than an inherent requirement of the job. For example, in the first 6 months of a modern apprenticeship in the UK, you are required to achieve a standard of literacy that is not relevant to the role of hairdresser, plumber or mechanic. By trying to ‘tag on’ reading and writing because it is a societal expectation, policymakers have inadvertently created a barrier for dyslexia, which affects 10% of the population. Further, dyslexia confers visual strengths and these are vital for vocational professions!
“But literacy is essential!” I hear you cry.
“Alexa, book me an appointment with my hairdresser tomorrow. Alexa, open my Dragon Dictate software in my email application.”
Literacy as the only route to success, essential in a ‘modern’ society is less than 200 years old. It’s not at the same level of neurocognitive embeddedness as language, for example, or artistic expression. It is highly possible that in 50 years time reading will be seen akin to a transition technology as we communicate with holographic avatars. In the meantime, 28% of unemployed people are dyslexic and around 50% of the prison population, all because we won’t assess comprehension of geography, history, literature, theatre, chemistry, physics, biology and even music without requiring people to write things down neatly under time pressure. Writing down is a separate skill, happening in a separate part of the brain to understanding spatial awareness / visual skills and has long been known not to affect overall IQ.
This is exclusion, and it doesn’t just affect dyslexia. Consider the standard practice of interviewing and how this disadvantages people with autism, or requires long journeys to specific venues that might be harder for people with muscular-skeletal difficulties, even when the job might involve high accuracy in data processing or creative design that is not dependent on team interaction or being present in an office. Consider the background noise present in most open-plan offices and the individual with hearing impairment, or concentration difficulties such as are present in anxiety, ADHD and conditions which confer chronic pain.
Compliance is when we do what we have to do, to adhere to the law. In the UK, the USA, and most advanced economies, disability equality legislation has been enacted and organisations are required to make adjustments or accommodations to ensure that a person with a disability has equality of access, equity in workplace success is achieved by changing the environment to fit the person. With someone in a wheelchair needs access ramps and widened doors, someone with motor control difficulties can use speech-to-text software, someone with a visual impairment can use voice-activated software. The improvement in these tools has been meteoric since the advent of the i-generation, making their availability and utility an acceptable compromise to ensure adequate levels of productivity for people with disabilities. Many countries have specific programmes to ensure that these tools are available in education but employers usually have to fund their implementation on an individual basis for people post-education. The employee has to make the request, and low rates of disclosure make this hard for people with invisible disabilities. The process of waiting for a problem to emerge, assessing and prescribing adaptations, followed by waiting for purchasing procedures can take weeks and this is a drain on both company and employee alike. The lack of movement in the disability employment gap since these technologies have emerged shows that not enough people are aware of their utility and are not applying them appropriately to this problem. Compliance only is not enough.
Deliberate inclusion is when companies tap into the specialist skills that people with disabilities bring. More and more this is being reported anecdotally in business magazines and popular press as employers realise the benefits of making accommodations in return for loyal skilled employees. Examples include the use of autistic coders in tech companies, the problem-solving ability of neurodiverse thinkers in analytics and the high verbal acuity of people with visual impairment. Academic research has found evidence that disability inclusion can positively improve profitability, competitive advantage, inclusive work culture and ability awareness. Campaigners in digital access inclusion argue that by employing people with disabilities in the design and delivery of products and services, business expands their customer base, tapping into estimated $1.2 trillion spending power of the 1.3 Billion people with disabilities. Deliberate inclusion practices start the process of seeding employees with disabilities into organisations, making promotion into senior roles more likely. However, they are still ‘otherising’ – it’s not a systemic part of general recruitment, it’s still segregating and outside of the norm.
Deliberate inclusion programmes still suffer from the same delays in assistive technology implementation as compliance approaches, and again invisible disabilities are not as well catered for. Most employers lack awareness of how to apply assistive tech to conditions such as DCD and dyslexia, there is an assumption that the individual will know what they need but this assumption is often false. Keeping up to date with the latest available kit and software is tricky and human resources have to buy in specialists to know what they should be doing. Many employers don’t apply systemic thinking to their approaches, for example making sure that groups of autistic employees are afforded flexible hours policies to avoid rush hour commutes that overwhelm and instead of working from home using video conferencing.
Assistive tech becoming standardised within the major IT systems has resulted in an occupational landscape in which most service sector employees can work remotely, to their own schedule and without needing to rely on motor control. People with mobility limiting disabilities, those experiencing social anxiety and sensory overwhelm and contribute expertise, technical work, and creative work without having to leave their homes. Companies who can tap into this at the systemic level are finding a rich pool of talent that is reshaping the boundaries of productivity. A systemic employer doesn’t wait for individuals with problems that they have to change for, they bake the accommodations into their everyday processes to ensure that people with disabilities can join in from the start. Examples of systemic inclusion practices for disability include:
- Flexible hours – remote working, building your own schedule to allow for peaks and troughs in person productivity
- Flexible environments – no longer chained to the desk, compromising between the need for team communication and use of alternative spaces for private work requiring concentration – video interviewing
- Assistive Technology awareness and compatibility, ensuring that in-house IT systems are compatible with standard AT software
- Offering adjustments at each HR stage – recruitment, induction, appraisal, before proceeding with disciplinary and at each transfer or promotion
- Providing examples of the type of adjustment the company has offered before so that employees and applicants are aware of what’s available and know that the motivation for disclosure from the company is for positive inclusion rather than discrimination
- Disability awareness training for managers and human resources as a routine part of continuing professional development
- Senior management sponsorship
The International Hotels Group (IHG) have a programme called Change 100 – it’s a deliberate inclusion policy with systemically inclusive ambitions. IHG recruit interns with disabilities, many of whom go on to full employment when they graduate, and ensure that accommodations are provided up front. It’s part of the first conversation with each intern, ensuring that the right tech and tools are in place before the internship starts and that the supervisor understands any specific needs. They don’t limit the type of disability or the departmental specialism, so the interns are seeded widely within the business. As this programme matures in years, graduates will become the supervisors and IHG is truly on the path to systemic inclusion as the Vice President Commercial for Europe, Jean-Charles Denis leads it onwards and upwards.
“Disability inclusion is a moral, social and economic imperative. We all lose when human potential is squandered”. The advancement of assistive technology with standardisation of remote work enabled through IT is making systemic inclusion possible for people with disabilities.