I can recall with vivid clarity the wave of euphoria that swept the nation, the sense of pride we all had in the heroics of our magnificent paralympians following the 2012 Paralympics. This, I believe went a long way in changing some of the negative perceptions of disability in this country. Three years on, have attitudes in the workplace changed for the better towards disabled job applicants? Judging by the persisting disparities in employment outcomes, not at all! Let's examine the factsheet.

  • Nearly 7 million people of working age in the UK are disabled or have a long term health condition.
  • The 2011 ONS Census reported that nearly 1 in 5 people in Great Britain have a limiting long term health problem or impairment.
  • Employment rates for disabled people have been consistently lower than for non-disabled people by an average of 31.1 percentage points since 2008.
  • Unemployment rates for disabled people has been consistently higher than for non-disabled people by an average of 4.1 percentage points since 2008.
  • Disabled women and disabled BAME individuals face penalties related to both their sex/ethnicity and impairment and so disabled women for example have a generally worse experience than disabled men.
  • The disabled workforce are generally paid less than their non-disabled counterparts by up to 0.90p per hour.

Employment represents a gateway, not just to a better standard of living, but also impacts on our health, our sense of wellbeing and the overall quality of our life. For the disabled job applicant, their experience of discrimination often begins at this gateway, with Employers using stealth to ask health related questions as part of the job application process which frankly, have no bearing on a candidate's ability to perform on the job.

As with other forms of discrimination, the 'protection framework' which is supposed to safeguard the rights of disabled job applicants is premised largely on goodwill and self-regulation; i.e., on the quaint english notion of the 'gentleman's agreement', which is again presumptive of the 'level playing field' where Employers are deemed to behave fairly, judging disabled and indeed all job applicants according to ability and merit, allowing no place for institutionalised bias to taint their decisions on whom to employ.  

However, the persisting disparities in the employment outcomes for disabled candidates indicate that our reliance on the presumed good intentions of employers is probably misplaced, and perhaps now is the time to re-calibrate the rules of the game and require employers to provide greater transparency to all job applicants regarding their commitment to fairness in the recruitment & selection process. This will no doubt inspire confidence amongst traditionally under-represented groups who have grown distrustful of employer's overtures and the perfunctory statements on equal opportunities which are regarded as nothing more than nice sounding words.

Given the huge amount of research evidence that is now available on the cognition of bias, we need to move away from the current position which wrongly presumes that the merit principle is consistently applied to job applicants equally in the competition for jobs, to one which reflects the reality that members of certain groups are subjected to an automatic demerit when seeking and applying for jobs and that employer's are under a moral if not a legal duty to demonstrate to job applicants the counterbalancing measures they have put in place from the outset to level out the playing field. 

In the first study of its kind in the U.S. researchers from Rutgers University and Syracuse University sent out more than 6000 fictitious resumes and cover letters for accounting jobs which had been advertised. Results showed unsurprisingly that Employers expressed 26 percent less interest in candidates who had disclosed a disability in their cover letter. 

The resumes were carefully constructed using two candidate profiles, one with 6 years post qualification experience and the other with only a year. Candidates with and without a disability were equally qualified, with a third of the cover letters mentioning no disability, a third revealing a spinal cord injury and the final third, Aspergers syndrome. Both conditions were specifically chosen because they were deemed as having no impact on the accounting abilities required for acceptable performance on the job.

Overall, less than 5 percent of applicants who disclosed a disability were subsequently contacted by Employers, while 6.6 percent of non-disabled candidates subsequently received expressions of interest. What was alarming was that the more experienced applicants with disabilities were 34 percent less likely to get responses than their non-disabled counterparts, who received the most Employer interest. Professor Lisa Schur from Rutgers University stated "People with disabilities are often told to get an education, get the qualifications needed for jobs.......Our findings indicate that that's not enough."

The 'Two-Ticks' scheme is a good example of how the 'goodwill approach' has failed. Launched by the Department for Works and Pensions in 1990, awarded to 8,387 organisations, operated by 46% of the top 200 FTSE companies, has been deemed to be little more than an "empty shell" which is being used quite cynically by organisations as a public relations tool. 

Employers who deploy the symbol are supposed to sign up to five specific commitments regarding disability. However research led by Professor Kim Hoque and Nick Bacon of the Warwick and Cass Business Schools found that only 15% of organisations awarded the two-ticks symbol adhered to all five of these commitments, with 18% of those signed up not fulfiling any commitment at all and 38% only keeping one of the commitments. Professor Hoque said "There is no regulatory pressure on firms to adhere to the two ticks commitments, it is done through employer goodwill and self-enforcement."

I recently wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Rt. Honourable David Cameron, in which I called for Public Sector Bodies and Listed Companies as part of their annual reporting, either on the Public Sector Employer Duty (PSED) or for Shareholders, to publish data which provides answers to the following specific questions:

  1. Do qualified disabled candidates apply for advertised posts at all levels of the organisation in proportion to their presence in the population?
  2. Given the characteristics of those that do apply, do disabled candidates have the same chance of getting onto the shortlist? And
  3. Given the candidates on the shortlist, do disabled candidates have the same chance of getting offered the job?

Additionally, employers should ensure that all advertisements for job vacancies include information about the demographic composition of the organisation at the various levels, along with a statement indicating that the organisation not only actively welcomes applications from groups that are currently under-represented in the workforce, but also shows the evidence of what the organisation is doing or plans to do to in order to address such under-representation.

If implemented, I believe this will lead to disabled job applicants and candidates from other under-represented groups, having access to the additional information they require in order to take an informed view of the Inclusion credentials of the prospective Employer, and crucially whether they can go ahead and apply with confidence, knowing that they will be actively supported throughout the recruitment process.

About the author

Glanville Einstein Williams is a Diversity and Inclusion Specialist.