The person stood next to you

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The person stood next to you might be disabled. In the past eight months I have interviewed seventy people with hidden disabilities and conditions. All of them have had issues with their employers. 

It is clear that whilst we might talk the talk around being inclusive, the majority of us are failing on a grand scale: from the day the advert is placed until the day the person leaves. We begrudgingly make accommodations, we ‘forget’ their needs when setting up meetings or interviews, and we pass them over, time and again.

The best move on, until they find an inclusive workplace.

What this means is that organisations not only miss out on the diversity of thought that is so important to keep fresh and ahead of the game, but also the opportunity to employ people that reflect their customer base. 

When you look at the stats the numbers are big. The ONS Family Resources Survey (2020) estimates that there are 14.1 million disabled people (as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act) in the UK, of whom 4.4m are currently in work. Of these 14.1m, around 8% per cent require a wheelchair. Given that many have never registered, this means that more than 13m people have a hidden disability or condition. 

Using the most conservative of measures, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the person next to you in the queue has a disability or a condition that you cannot see! And that is before we count all those people awaiting a diagnosis …

And there is a huge issue in itself. When presenting their first symptoms to their GP my interviewees received pain killers, tranquilisers and antibiotics with the instruction to come back if it didn’t go away after a few weeks. The second trip led to blood and urine tests, and another two weeks passed. Tests are often inconclusive, but rarely signal an issue, and the person is referred to a consultant, with a wait between a few weeks and many months (currently ten months for an ADHD Assessment for example). In the meantime the HR absence management system is approaching a final warning (no wonder it has such a bad name). 

Diagnosis was finally achieved between a month and fourteen years. The longest were endometriosis and lupus, which are tough to diagnose. Diagnosis itself can be quite exhilarating. When you know what your condition is, you can start on a proper regime of medicines and/or therapy. You can also let the HR team know that you now have protected characteristics, if you’re still working there (sadly, some will already have been made “redundant”). 

A diagnosis also means that accommodations in the workplace can be arranged. Some accommodations are physical and require co-ordination with facilities and IT, but often the most important are around flexibility. A neurodiverse colleague might need to see the slides in advance of a meeting and be given proper rest breaks between speakers, whilst someone with Cystic Fibrosis may not be able to keep making early morning meetings without becoming very tired and need significant time off. Listen carefully to your colleague and find out what their needs are – and be ready to be flexible in response.

Regular homeworking for someone with Fibromyalgia or PCOS might just be the reason they decide to stay with you.

So, why, as employers, should we bother to be more inclusive in this field? First, because it is the right thing to do! Second, we can access a rich seam of talent, fresh ideas, and a set of people who actually represent our customer base. Third, the cost of accommodations and inclusivity is easily repaid by the longevity of employment and productivity gains made over time as you build trust and loyalty throughout the workforce. 

Just suppose you have someone who is diagnosed with a condition come to see you. Why wouldn’t you want to make them to continue to feel included and increase the possibility of them continuing working with you, at their maximum productivity? 

When you make an accommodation for a disability or a condition, you are not just helping that individual feel included in the team, able to work more effectively and efficiently; you are also sending a message to the rest of the team that you are a caring, thoughtful and responsible employer. Once the outside world learns about you, you will see an increasing number of great people who want to come and work with you.

This is evidenced by the success seen in universities seeking new staff before and after gaining an Athena Swann Award for their gender inclusivity. 

If you decide not to invest any time or resources in making accommodations, then you might be challenged legally if the affected person can show that you have not made sufficient effort to accommodate their needs but, far worse, you will develop a reputation for being unnecessarily tight, and therefore less of a prospect to work for. You will struggle to recruit the best people, and retaining your current team may well become problematic.

Let’s assume that you do make the accommodations necessary. The return on your investment will be access to a different way of thinking, creativity, higher levels of productivity and the probability of generating greater loyalty.

With neuro-diverse people the ideas generated (often in small sharp bursts) can many times reshape the thinking of the neuro-typical team and lead to giant leaps in productivity. 

When working at Glaxo with a colleague who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I learned that his silence in a meeting wasn’t shyness. It was simply that he thought we were so far away from finding the answer that he started to work on other things. I would deliberately seek out his view, and leave a pregnant pause whilst he collected his thoughts. On several occasions he would blow away all the ideas generated in an hour at the white board with one succinct sentence. He could see the world from the other way around to the rest of us.

He was a true Maverick. 

The best employers offer accommodations to all their team members, not just those who require them. The opportunity to work at home, job share, the provision of ergonomic or sit/stand workstations etc., are all quite modest in their cost but provide substantial benefits to the recipients. The simplest and most appreciated one, however, is true flexibility of working. Those organisations that allow someone to work at the weekend, because they’ve had a great idea and are up for it, and then go missing on Monday and Tuesday, will go far. I’m preparing a book about all the suggestions for accommodations made. It’s called ‘Hidden Disabilities and Conditions’ and is due to be published in Autumn 2021, with all profits going to Macmillan Cancer Support.

So, to conclude, challenge conventional thinking. Stop seeing the problems that a person with a disability might have, and see the advantages that they bring. And please don’t have a go at someone using the disabled parking bay at your local superstore. Just because they don’t have a wheelchair doesn’t mean that they can walk any distance without feeling exhausted.

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Ted Smith is a mentor to many (not a coach), an author (of both non-fiction and fiction), and sometimes OD/HR Consultant, when he isn't attending a festival, watching sport or discovering things in his campervan (it has a lot of cupboards). Ted moved from a science degree into the HR world via a spell as Student Union President. He worked at Glaxo, Wellcome Trust, the MRC and a string of biotechs. He has a reputation for creativity and problem solving and is not afraid to challenge the status quo (or a senior exec). The only management txt book that he has ever managed to read from cover to cover was written by Ricardo Semler, second only to Nelson Mandela in the God-like status charts.

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