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Disability discrimination at work is illegal – but it still happens.

Disclosing my disability to employers used to give me anxiety. I have cystic fibrosis – a life-threatening chronic illness that causes the passageways in my lungs and digestive system to become blocked with thick, sticky mucus, eventually leading to fatal lung and organ damage. 

I was worried about how I would be treated once people found out about my disability. I didn’t want employers to know about my four-hour medicine routine or regular hospital visits. 

But it’s not easy for me to hide, dose depakote and after several upsetting incidents, I decided I would be open about my disability. 

However, this soon backfired. 

In May 2020, I was called for an interview for a role at a media company. After I requested to have it online rather than face-to-face, the interviewer went on to ghost me. 

Before my request for an online interview, I was told I was a very strong candidate.

Rather than asking me how they could adapt to accommodate my needs (which would have been easy considering the UK was under lockdown at this time), they saw me as a burden. 

I am not alone in my experiences.

According to new research, 45% of disabled people have hidden their disability at work due to the fear of being judged. Almost half (43%) of disabled people have avoided sharing their disability due to the belief it would stall their progression at work or affect a promotion.

The data, collected by Samsung UK, highlights the nation’s attitudes to disabled people in the workplace.

Discrimination

The Disability Discrimination Act, passed in 1995, makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against someone because they are disabled. This type of discrimination involves being treated less favourably due to your disability than your non-disabled colleagues.

However, 40% of disabled people surveyed in the Samsung UK study felt that their colleagues valued them less after realizing they had a disability.

Caroline Casey, the founder of The Valuable 500, an organization that has secured commitments from 500 global chief executives to advance disability inclusion within their companies, says disabled people face various barriers at work.

‘15% of the global population have a disability, and, with an ageing population, disability is on the rise,’ she says. ‘One day, we will all experience disability in one form or another.

‘The barrier to an inclusive society is the way in which business and society is designed. This needs to change.’

Companies are missing out on strong candidates because they aren’t willing to adapt.

When it comes to accessibility in the workplace, almost two thirds (70%) of people felt their workplace was not providing the tech that would enable greater accessibility to disabled people.

Disclosing disability 

One in five (20%) of people in the UK have a hidden or visible disability, but the decision about whether to disclose disability continues to divide the disabled community.

24-year-old Millie*, from Yorkshire, has depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, PTSD and is currently being tested for autism, ADHD and dyslexia. She is also in constant pain and struggles with sleep.

‘With my invisible symptoms, it’s incredibly hard to feel like people know what’s going on for me,’ says Millie, who works in the media. ‘I try to be open about my disability and explain it to employers.

‘Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with how they’ve treated me afterwards.’

At one company, Millie was called ‘problematic’ by a staff member and had to ‘fight very hard’ to show that she was just as good as her colleagues. 

‘On my second day at that job, I was involved in a road collision and taken to A&E,’ Millie tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But I was so determined to prove that I was a good employee that I still went to work the next day. 

‘I had to carry lots of equipment, which didn’t help with my physical aches and fatigue, but I was told there was no budget to find someone to help me.

‘They said that it was just part of the job.’

In another role, Millie had explained to her employer that she needed information to be broken down so she could understand it better. Instead of helping her, they turned around and called her ‘simple’.

Despite the Equality Act 2010, disabled people rarely have proof of their mistreatment.

‘In some companies, there just hasn’t been the right people to talk to,’ Millie explains. ‘And discussions about disability seem to scare them.’

According to the research by Samsung UK, 45% of people admitted not feeling comfortable saying the word ‘disabled’ or ‘disability.’ 

‘My current workplace knows I am disabled, and it’s become a positive part of my identity as opposed to something I try to hide because I’m embarrassed,’ says Millie.

‘I have an adjustment support officer who has helped me apply for access to work so that I can get funding for the adjustments I need.

‘My team supports and encourages me.

‘I wish I’d realised sooner that I deserve to be treated with respect and not put down because of my disability.’

Changing the narrative 

Joseph Williams, Co-Founder and CEO of Clu, a job discovery marketplace, has autism, ADHD and mobility/autoimmune conditions.

Before founding his company, Joseph worked as a consultant, where he he says he experienced extreme discrimination.

‘I had such a horrible experience in my first job,’ Joseph tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I was told to not speak about my mental health or neuro conditions to anyone (by HR) if I wanted to succeed at the company. 

‘I was told to sit in a broom closet when having sensory overloads. I was told not to speak to senior staff members, and I was told not to come to certain meetings because they didn’t want to embarrass clients. 

‘It was really brutal. But this was before the Equality Act.’

Since then, Joseph says that discrimination has changed into microaggressions and lack of accessibility.

‘People still use words such as “mad’, “crazy” or “mental’ to describe people or situations,’ he explains.

‘And then there’s the general mobility challenges. Turning up to offices to speak about inclusion and accessibility and not being able to walk up the stairs to get to the meeting.’

Joseph became anxious to speak out about the discrimination he was facing because ‘HR teams are often unsupportive’.

‘You are regularly made to feel like you’re making a fuss or being a problem, and those that discriminate against you rarely face accountability, so you sit and suffer in silence.

‘It’s also why so many disabled people end up becoming their own bosses.’

After these traumatic experiences, Joseph decided to take things into his own hands.

‘I stopped hiding my disability and became very open about it,’ Joseph explains.

‘I became a campaigner for inclusion and co-founded a charity called ParaPride that focused on creating space for LGBTQ disabled people to voice their needs.

‘The next step was demonstrating the amazing value in disabled communities more tangibly, which is why we built Clu.’

Solutions 

Research also found that 31% of disabled people reported a lack of support from their companies, with 32% experiencing a lack of general accessibility and 30% facing challenges when accessing the bathrooms.

The national narrative around disability is charity, vulnerability and cost. It is not empowering, and it is not focused on the significant value disabled people bring to society as problem-solvers, creatives, innovators and change agents,’ Joseph says.

Caroline from The Valuable 500 stresses the importance of improved design and development. She says that the disabled community should always be at the forefront of discussions about the barriers they face and the potential solutions.

‘If we design our industries, our companies, and our societies considering all human beings, then these barriers are eliminated,’ she explains. ‘The way in which we can make that a reality is to ensure people with disabilities are included in this design and development. 

‘Businesses need to embed accessibility and the insights of people with disabilities into their products and services from the very beginning of the process.’

As businesses have transitioned to a hybrid or virtual model due to the pandemic, Caroline also recommends improved accessibility of technology.

‘Our inclusion strategies must not only be reflected in accessible office spaces but accessible online platforms too,’ she notes. Many websites still aren’t accessible to disabled customers. 

‘Accessibility is somehow still not central to business strategies, and this needs to change with innovations and solutions needed across the business.’

A recent report by Tortoise revealed that no FTSE executives or senior managers had disclosed a disability despite the fact that 15% of the world’s population is disabled. The average representation of people with disabilities among employees reported by FTSE 100 companies is 3.2%, compared with 18-20 % of the UK population.

Caroline says that those in positions of authority, who self-identify as disabled, have the power to shape their workplace’s culture by publicly disclosing their disability. 

‘Not only does this top-down approach showcase the successes available to disabled people, but it also fosters an open dialogue around disability,’ Caroline says.

Companies should also try to build a culture where employees champion disability inclusion and encourage allyship within the business. Caroline says that in order to begin having open conversations about disability, ’employers need to foster a culture in which applicants can feel safe’ during recruitment stages.

‘Instead of disregarding questions of disability at work, executives must show their support by actively hiring and promoting disabled staff and catering to disabled customers,’ she explains. 

‘Recruitment platforms need to be accessible and cater for all. 

‘We need to eliminate biased AI systems that automatically reject candidates, and we need to be intentional about how and where roles are advertised.

‘It is a shame that so many people are still unwilling to have these conversations, even in 2022, following a global pandemic.’

*Names have been changed.

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