Disability Inclusion: Advice and tips from AbilityNet’s Director of HR

By prioritising disability inclusion in the workplace, organisations can tap into the unique skills, perspectives, and talents of disabled people, fostering a more diverse, innovative, and inclusive work environment. 

At AbilityNet, we believe in a digital world accessible to all so inclusivity and accessibility are at the heart of what we do. In 2022, AbilityNet was awarded 14th in the top 50 Inspiring Workplace in EMEA. We’re proud to be recognised for our efforts in culture, inclusion and diversity in the workplace. 

We asked our Director of Human Resources (HR), Mairéad Comerford for her advice and tips for disability inclusion in the workplace.  

Mairead smiling at the cameraMairéad has been working within HR since 1987. Fresh out of university she began working at BT as a generalist HR administrator through to manager on its graduate recruitment programme. Mairéad joined AbilityNet in 2011 as Head of HR, covering all aspects of HR: engagement, change, employee relations, employment law, and performance and has recently become Director of HR at the charity.  

Why is it important to employ disabled people?  

According to the Department for Work & Pensions (2022), over 7.7 million people of working age in the UK are disabled or have a health condition, so why would you exclude potential employees from your recruitment?  Graphic displaying text: 7.7 million people of working age in the UK are disable or have a health condition - Department for Work & Pensions 2022

I think it is often the fear of the unknown – what if the person needs adjustments? What would be the additional costs to the organisation? They think of the negatives because they do not have the facts to hand. Research from Indeed, UK Government and Forbes, shows the benefits of recruiting someone with a disability:  

  • insight in how to serve customers with a disability  
  • greater diversity at work so that a wide variety of perspectives are utilised when solving problems 
  • higher productivity  
  • higher retention.  

What is AbilityNet doing to actively employ disabled people? 

AbilityNet ensures that recruitment is inclusive. We continuously take feedback from applicants on how we can improve our recruitment process and from this we have learned not to ask for unnecessary requirements such as:  

  • qualifications (when experience will suffice)  
  • don’t ask for cover letters or to complete an application form 
  • allow flexibility in the interview 
  • send a video of the presentation  
  • offer the interview questions beforehand.  

We also use the Clear Talents Recruitment Tool, inviting applicants to complete in confidence any disability they may have and what we can do to improve the recruitment process for them so they can perform at their best. 

We are a Disability Confident Leader which is a government scheme that demonstrates an employer's commitment to employing disabled people. This disability badge demonstrates to disabled people that we recognise the value they bring to our business. 

How important a role has the principle of disability inclusion played in the growth of the company we know today?  Group of professionals smiling and laughing

This has been huge at AbilityNet. Over the last 3 years we have seen a 10% increase in disability employees (now at 26% across the workforce) and I believe this is due to us continuously improving our inclusive recruitment and onboarding processes by taking feedback from applicants and joiners. 

How was that progress achieved and do you have any advice for those wishing to make an impact in their organisation?   

Try not to start your thinking with the what ifs and cost, etc.  

There is a great government scheme, Access to Work, that employees with a disability can use that will pay for most of the required adjustments that may be required.  

Does the UK Gov Access to Work scheme fund assistive technology? Find out in our interview with the UK's Department for Work and Pension.

I find it beneficial to also ask what other organisations are doing, reach out and ask for help and share the knowledge. I also recommend signing up for the governments Disability Confident employer scheme.  

Are there any organisations that you believe are progressing with disability inclusion in the workplace?  

I think Google and Microsoft have disability at the forefront with the work they are doing with accessibility and seeing this as the norm for us all to be able to access technology. I know they are large companies and have the money behind them but by leading the way others will follow. 

What initiatives do you have in place that facilitate inclusive and accessible working environments for all employees?   

All AbilityNet employees are encouraged to complete a Clear Talents at Work questionnaire which is shared with line manager’s stating how they work, and what adjustments they may need so we can ensure they can perform at their best.  

What impact has the pandemic had on your ways of working? Are things very different today to, say, three years ago?  

The real impact has been hybrid working as a norm.  

We did have about 20% of our staff working remotely but now up to 90% of our employees are hybrid or remote workers. The COVID-19 lockdown proved to us that work can be done remotely. So be flexible with what works best for individuals whether it be down to disability, caring responsibilities, cost of living and travel costs.  

You want employees to perform at their best, be happy and work so being flexible (if you can) goes a long way. 

Have you faced any barriers when planning and implementing change and improvements in disaWoman in a wheelchair using a laptop, smiling at camera bility inclusion? If so, what have the barriers been and how have you/the organisation overcome them? 

Yes of course. In previous roles, for example, it is the matter of changing the mindset, I would often get managers asking, “why are you giving out the interview questions? This helps the candidate prepare”. We are not trying to catch people out at the interview but to get the best person for the job – if they all have the questions beforehand then they all start from the same starting position.  

Senior managers can often be the biggest challenge but when you start to show your retention stats and your employee engagement scores and feedback this is the way to change things – by the data. 

When it comes to your employees, are there any areas that you still want to make improvements to further inclusion and reach every candidate?  

We are a small charity and sometimes our biggest challenge is time. We would love to set up a disability forum run by employees, something we are very keen to do, and we will, it is on our list of things to do. But we are realistic and proud of the things we do, and always look at what we can do, and do well so not rush something through as part of a tick list.   

Using no more than 10 words, can you summarise one piece of advice/tip on what have you learned since creating a disability inclusive workplace?  

Have an open mind, think of the possibilities not barriers.  

How can AbilityNet help with your disability inclusion journey?  

By providing training, support, and resources, we want to help address the disability employment gap and support workplaces to become more accessible and inclusive for all. 

We offer a range of services to help you build a thriving, disability inclusive workplace, from employee needs assessments to consultancy and training options. Contact our friendly and knowledgeable team to find out how we can help you with disability inclusion at your organisation. 

If you need help identifying what steps you can take to achieve meaningful change and growth, AbilityNet's Disability Inclusion Gap Analysis is a great place to start.  

Our expert workplace consultants will gather your employees' feedback to understand your organisation’s current culture. Then they'll work with you to evaluate improvements that would have the most impact and help you build a roadmap plan to implement improvements. 

You can book a free 15-minute consultation now. 

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