Accessibility in the Workplace

Written by
Emily Carver

Accessibility in the Workplace

Today, there are 14.6 million people living in the UK with a disability, that’s over 20% of the population. One in five working-age people in the UK has a disability, and it is essential that every person has fair access to employment and a career in which they can thrive. Data indicates that accessibility in the workplace has improved greatly in the last 10 years, but there is certainly more to be done. 

Middletons has undertaken a deep dive into the facts around accessibility in the workplace. We’ve looked at key outliers including the sectors with the highest and lowest percentages of employees with disabilities, what additional obstacles disabled people face in the workplace and what businesses can do to help disabled individuals in their careers.

A group of people working together around a table. One man is sitting on a chair, another man is using a wheelchair. One woman is sitting talking and another is stood and holding files.

How Many Disabled People are in Employment?

Today, there are 4.4 million disabled people in employment in the UK. From 2013 to 2021, the number of disabled people in employment has increased by 53.5% (1.5 million). And, in 2021 there were 53.5% of disabled people employed aged 16 to 24, compared with 81.6% of non-disabled people. 

In the UK, women with disabilities are slightly more likely to be employed than disabled men. There is a 24.8% gap between non-disabled and disabled women in employment, in contrast to the 31.1% gap for men. Women with disabilities are however still at a huge disadvantage in the workplace. According to the UN’s Women with Disabilities Fact Sheet “When women with disabilities work, they often experience unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training and retraining, unequal access to credit and other productive resources, unequal pay for equal work and occupational segregation, and they rarely participate in economic decisionmaking”. This statement illuminates just how much more there is to be done by employers. 

During our research, we discovered that disabled people with severe or specific learning difficulties, autism and mental illness had the lowest employment rates. This highlights just how many organisations have cut off opportunities and are missing out on unique and diverse perspectives by not having people with learning difficulties, mental illnesses and neurodivergence on their teams. Charities like Ambitious About Autism are delivering valuable employability programs that break down barriers and support organisations to increase their confidence in hiring autistic and neurodivergent people. 

The employment gap is also much larger for disabled people without qualifications. It is reported that a disabled person with A levels is as likely to be in employment as a non-disabled person with no qualifications. Not having qualifications is shown to be a disproportionately bigger issue for disabled people than non-disabled people. In a 2019 ONS survey, 10.7% of disabled people answered that they felt “limited a lot” by not having qualifications, whereas only 6% of non-disabled people answered the same. 

The Top and Bottom Sectors for Disability Employment

The top sectors for employment for disabled and non-disabled people alike are health, retail and education. However, people with disabilities work within these sectors at a higher percentage. These three sectors account for 42.6% of workers with disabilities and 35.4% of the non-disabled workforce. These sectors cover a vast amount of roles, each requiring different levels of mental and physical demands, in addition to qualifications. 

The retail sector has been shown to be making more progress in offering opportunities to people with disabilities. For example, the Down’s Syndrome Association’s WorkFit programme offers training, education and support for employers and employees, to create roles for people with Down’s Syndrome. In their approach, they state that “supported employment is not an end destination but a stepping stone into a career pathway”. 

On the other end of the scale, disabled workers are least likely to be employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing by 0.3% when compared with non-disabled workers. There could be a few factors making these roles less accessible to people with disabilities, including intense physical labour, independent working (vs teamwork) and even handling dangerous equipment. These aspects could be holding employers back from benefitting from the diverse skills that disabled people have to offer. To combat this, where possible, employers can review policies, training and role responsibilities to provide accessible opportunities. 

3 women sat around a table. Two women are using wheelchairs and one older woman is sat speaking with them.

Self-Employment

Disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to be self-employed. In 2019/2020, there were 0.7 percentage points between disabled (14.8%) and non-disabled workers (14.1%). On account of the fact that disabled people also are more likely to require time away from work (due to doctor appointments or illness relating to a disability), it is understandable why self-employment may be favourable. Self-employed people with disabilities are able to plan their work around their schedules, and even work remotely - which has been shown to promote accessibility and productivity for disabled people. 

14.8% of people with disabilities are self employed

The benefits experienced by self-employed disabled people can also be observed and applied by employers. When employers take the benefits of flexible time and remote working, they make roles more accessible and increase employee satisfaction and productivity. 


Working from Home

In response to Covid-19 the world has adapted and moved forward with a ‘new normal’. These adaptations have provided the opportunity for a positive impact for many disabled people. With the normalisation of digital meetings, working from home and flexible working has become more accepted, presenting more opportunities for those with disabilities. Progress, however, does not begin and end with a Zoom call. There is still much more that can be done by employers to make jobs more accessible. 

73% of disabled people felt like they were “more or as productive” working remotely than they were in the workplace.

In a survey by the trade union UNISON, more than half (54%) of responders with disabilities shared that they would benefit from working from home after Covid-19 yet nearly two in five (37%) believed that their employers were unlikely to support this. The survey also revealed that 73% of disabled people felt like they were “more or as productive” working remotely than they were in the workplace. Some of the reasons given for increased productivity were “fewer distractions, no commuting, fewer sensory issues such as lighting and background noise, and the greater ability to manage issues such as pain and access to the bathroom”.

Ricky Towler, co-founder of Middletons, comments on how he makes remote and hybrid roles available for employees, to make positions more accessible. “Middletons proudly supports our employee’s preference to work in hybrid or remote roles. We understand that for many of our employees who may have accessibility needs, are neurodivergent or have mental health conditions, an office environment may not be optimal for their health and productivity. We are championing an inclusive and nurturing ethos that encourages career development for our staff and are continually revising and improving our accessibility policies.”

The past year has seen a slight shift towards full-time employment with the percentage of disabled workers working full-time increasing from 65.4% to 67.3%

Thankfully since 2020, more businesses have embraced hybrid and remote roles and are working to include all staff in development and promotion opportunities. In the past year, there has been a slight shift increase of people with disabilities who are employed, in full-time work, increasing by 1.9% (65.4% to 67.3%). A similar pattern has been seen for non-disabled people but to a lesser extent, increasing by 1.2%. Interestingly, these changes are at least double the magnitude of any other annual change seen in previous years. A contributing factor to this increase will no doubt be the surge of new remote opportunities, making it easier for people with disabilities or those living away from cities to undertake full-time positions. The next few years will be key to understanding how remote opportunities can support disabled and non-disabled people in their careers. 

What more can businesses do to help disabled individuals in the workplace?

Middletons graphic of people coming into the workplace. On the left is a man using a wheelchair and a ramp, with a man in the centre coming down the stairs and a woman walking up the stairs on the right.

Today, companies are presented with more opportunities to create an inclusive and accessible working environment than ever. From accessibility training, education and technology to flexible working patterns - the tools are all there, ready to be harnessed. 

Middletons has shared some key recommendations for creating an accessible and thriving work environment for businesses. 

Education

Employers can educate themselves and their other employees to be aware of the barriers that many disabled people may encounter. This supports businesses to create an inclusive and supportive culture. 

Provide Equipment

Businesses can provide equipment or additional devices to help employees have the tools they require to work to their full ability. 

Flexible Hours

Changing working hours could be hugely beneficial for employees with disabilities. Flexible time, or altered hours or more breaks during the day could support people to attend disability-related appointments or work around their health management. 

Remote Working

Giving employees the option to work from home allows people to work in an environment that works for their productivity and accessibility needs. 

Record Disability-Absences Separately

If your employees require absences relating to their disabilities, these can be recorded separately to sick leave or other absences. This makes allowances for chronic conditions that require additional time away from work. 

Provide Allocated Parking

If your workplace offers parking it is important where possible to provide a space that is closer to the entrance, or that is wider, for employees that have accessibility requirements. 

Revise Training or Communications

Employers can reconsider and evaluate how the business shares information and if, in some cases, documents need simplifying. Some employees with learning difficulties may require easy-read documents, and others may find it easier to receive information in audio format. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making information accessible, so it is best to communicate with employees and ask what formats would be preferred for them. 

Revise Policies

Businesses should check through existing policies to see if there are procedures that are not accessibility-friendly. For example, restrictive policies about sick leave could pose an issue for employees with chronic illnesses or other disabilities. 

If individuals or employers need any additional support to cover costs to make their workplace more accessible, you may be eligible to apply for an Access to Work grant. This is a grant created by the government to help individuals with disabilities stay in work. You can check your eligibility online. 

A Brighter Future is an Accessible Future

Over the last year, there have been approximately 30,000 online searches a month for ‘work from home’, whereas five years ago there were just 14,000 searches. Searches for ‘flexible working’ have increased by 71.8% in the last 5 years (3,500 vs 6,000 searches). This data clearly reflects a growing interest and discussion around more accessible opportunities. For years disabled people and disability advocacy groups have been championing greater accessibility in the workplace and access to career opportunities. With Zoom calls and working from home becoming the norm, it is encouraging to see an infrastructural shift to a more accessible workplace standard. The journey, however, doesn’t end here. 

There are so many incredible benefits to an inclusive and accessible workplace, including better employee retention, improved productivity and happier employees. Today, more than ever, there are more resources and tools available to create a more compassionate workplace, and it is down to each of us to make the very most of them. 

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