In the UK, one in four of the population has a disability. It is a statistic that surprises many, but one that should be a huge wake-up call not only to the providers of public services, but to private businesses across the country. An awareness of disability and the issues surrounding it is not simply about being inclusive and ‘doing the right thing’.
In a period of fierce competition for individual custom and government contracts, it is also about maximising your company’s productivity, employee satisfaction and customer base. In our litigious age, it is also about ensuring your employees and potential recruits do not have to resort to discrimination suits in order to receive the equal treatment that they deserve, and to which they have a legal entitlement.
This article looks at what disability awareness in the modern era actually means, the more generic benefits of disability awareness training for your staff, and the practical benefits for your business of a better understanding of disability.
Disability awareness and disability discrimination
Disability awareness and disability discrimination training cover a lot of ground. They raise an awareness of issues surrounding impairment; they advise and inform employers of the legal aspects of disability discrimination covered by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) now known as the Equality Act, and are compliant with these.
The Equality Act also tackles the larger picture, working to create an accessible social and work environment for all disabled people, and in the process pushing forward an inclusive disability agenda that ensures equality of opportunity for all.
Separate but together
Disability discrimination training and disability awareness training are quite separate concepts, although in a practical sense are fairly interrelated. Disability discrimination training is about ensuring that, as an organisation, you meet your legal obligations as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act (The Equality Act).
This means ensuring all members of staff are treated with equality, regardless of disability, and that the same applies to your customer base. This ensures that, as a result, you as a business or organisation are not in contravention of any of the Act’s legal obligations. Disability discrimination training will therefore touch on such issues as reasonable adjustment to business environments to allow for equality of access and opportunity both for staff members and clients; it also includes an awareness, for example, of the protocols when interviewing potential staff or selecting for promotion, to ensure that all candidates are provided with an equal opportunity to present themselves in the best possible light.
Disability awareness training, on the other hand, is about ensuring that as a company, and as individual representatives of that company, you and your staff are aware of the issues that face people with disabilities in their daily lives, and are aware and confident of the appropriate means of addressing these issues. This means, for example feeling confident either working with a fellow staff member with a disability, or assisting a customer with a disability, because you are aware of the appropriate means and protocols for doing so.
Disability awareness training, therefore, may include such issues as when or how to offer assistance to someone who uses a wheelchair, or has a visual or hearing impairment. Awareness of appropriate responses and interactions may be fostered during disability awareness sessions by, for example, encouraging able-bodied participants to place themselves in the position of someone with a disability, allowing them to empathise with the everyday situations in which they find themselves.
Role play is a common means of achieving this during disability awareness training. Participants may be encouraged, for example, to wear a blindfold and then be asked to perform certain tasks or engage in certain commercial interactions, and encouraged to discuss how this, and more importantly how the responses of the rest of the group, left them feeling during this activity.
These kinds of disability awareness activities often raise issues and questions that many able bodied people, with the very best of intentions, may not have even considered. Where, for example, is the line between assisting someone and stripping them of their independence and self-respect? Or more practically, how does it feel as a visually impaired person to have someone suddenly address you without first in some way making their presence known? Or for a wheelchair user to have their chair lifted from under them and carried because there is no ramp access to a business premises?
Disability Awareness Training… the benefits
The benefits of disability training will inevitably positively impact both the individuals who undertake disability training courses, and the businesses they work for. These positive impacts, it goes without saying, are interlinked.
More informed, educated and empowered members of staff with more developed sensibilities towards disability will be more skilled and confident employees, more able to deal with a range of situations involving disability.
Similarly, informed and sensitive managers will be able to implement policies beneficial both to their employees and customers. A more progressive disability ethos within a company, meanwhile, will radiate outwards, improving staff morale and productivity whilst creating a more cohesive and diverse workforce, which is increasingly seen as one of the key indicators of business success.
The benefits of disability awareness training
The insights into disability gained during the course of a single training session surprise many participants. These are multi-faceted. Firstly there are the more generic benefits of simply understanding more about the scale and range of disabilities and disability issues within the UK, and of gaining some sense of how it might feel to have a disability.
Many participants are surprised by the diverse and broad definitions of disability. When initially asked to define what disability means to them, many will limit their definition to chair-users and people with visual and hearing impediments, but will exclude people with epilepsy or disabling diabetes, for example. It is also often surprising how many misconceptions there are about disability, which disadvantage people with disabilities, and the able-bodied people who hold them.
So much of disability awareness training is about not falling victim to many of the lazy stereotypes that too often surround disability, and as a result impose limitations on people with disability. Disability awareness training, at its best, opens people’s minds to the sensibilities they need to adopt towards people with disabilities. This is largely done by making them think and feel how they would want to be treated if they found themselves in a similar position.
The benefits of understanding disability in the workplace
A greater generic understanding of disability and its impacts has an enormous practical application for any company, and at every level from the very top down. Managers and front line staff, and ultimately the business itself, gain enormously from this shift in sensibility.
Responsibilities of management
Firstly, it is imperative all businesses and business managers be aware of their responsibilities not only to their customers but also to their staff and their job applicants, if their businesses are to be compliant with the rulings of the Disability Discrimination Act (The Equality Act).
There are 6.8 million people with disabilities who are of working age in the UK, not enough of whom are presented with employment opportunities that match their skills and qualifications. It is incumbent upon managers and businesses, under the Disability Discrimination Act (The Equality Act), to ensure more of these individuals are provided first of all with equal opportunities for employment, and then, once employed, are provided with equality of opportunity within the workplace.
This responsibility means understanding the legal requirements for reasonable adjustments when interviewing candidates with disabilities, and the subsequent requirements for reasonable adjustments within the workplace to accommodate their needs. It also means managers have a responsibility to create an informed working environment where everyone, regardless of disability, is aware and sensitive in dealing confidently and professionally with disability issues as and when they arise.
Practical benefits of disability awareness training in the workplace
The benefits of greater disability awareness and more disability friendly policies are enormous. These attitudes and policies have enormous positive impacts both for those they are directed towards, and for the businesses who are forward-thinking enough to implement them.
Just think of the practical manifestations of adopting these policies. In terms of employee productivity and satisfaction, for example, employers with inclusive recruitment policies are able to recruit from the broadest pool of available talent for any given vacancy, and will therefore be able to locate the most qualified and talented candidates.
By recruiting staff with disabilities, they automatically broaden the diversity of their company, and recruit influencers with specific insights into disability that can be used to appeal more directly to the often neglected but nevertheless significant demographic of disabled consumers.
Improved staff morale boosts employee retention
What’s more, with a greater awareness of disability issues shared by both management and frontline staff, employers will over time develop a sensitivity to able-bodied staff members who develop disabilities during the course of their careers, and as a result will be able to retain experienced staff and forego the expense and inconvenience of recruitment and training.
This sensitivity to disability, as well as producing happier and more productive staff, also helps avoid unnecessary and costly legal challenges and industrial tribunals, with all the negative publicity that these engender.
It has been demonstrated that this type of sensitivity training produces a more cohesive and happier staff, and generally improves staff morale, with staff members feeling more valued and involved in the company, and more able to associate themselves with the positive values of the company for which they work, which in themselves boost retention.
Greater openness and honesty boosts productivity
An atmosphere of openness and inclusivity also encourages employees to be open and honest about their own disability status. Many people with disabilities are too fearful of the consequences to be open with their employers about them. It is important to remember, in this context, that many disabilities are invisible, for example many hearing and visual impairments.
As a result, these individuals may be unable to work to their full potential within the work environment, and productivity and customer satisfaction suffer. If employees who are concealing disabilities feel able to be open about them with their employers because there is a culture of acceptance and facilitation, then often minor adjustments to their working environment or conditions provide significant increases in productivity, customer and staff satisfaction.
Awareness attracts a loyal customer base
And then of course there are the customer-facing benefits of disability awareness when it is built into the fabric of a business, and radiates from the top down. Understanding the needs of customers with disabilities, and demonstrating that you can provide for these accordingly, can only strengthen any business.
As has already been mentioned, one in four of the UK population has some form of disability. This is a huge, and often frustrated market. By demonstrating that your business has their interests at heart, and your staff are sensitive to their requirements, you automatically position yourself to receive their loyalty and business. Along with the loyalty and business of their friends and family. That is a pretty sizeable demographic.
Front of the line
Also, by demonstrating that your company is seriously committed to disability awareness training, you place yourselves at the front of the line for local authority contracts. The Disability Equality Duty was passed into law under the Equality Act in April 2011, and requires that any public sector organisation must demonstrate that it promotes disability equality in all of is actions, including procurement of services from private contractors. By demonstrating a commitment to disability awareness, evidenced in certification of disability awareness training, any private company automatically places themselves ahead of the curve when tendering for these contracts.
An organisation benefits from disability awareness training at every level. Mangers benefit by gaining an overview of disability issues and a compliance with disability discrimination legislation. This increased sensitivity and awareness means that they can also apply to further staff training, and to disability friendly policies that only serve to strengthen their business.
Front line staff meanwhile benefit from improved confidence and job satisfaction. They often report feeling empowered to deal more effectively in their interactions with customers with disabilities, and learn about disability not just a physical issue but as a social one.
If you want to know more about disability or want to share best practice knowledge or expertise you may wish to join out Everything Disability Facebook group.