Action on disability masks lack of progress

2005

The vast majority of British employers now have a formal policy in place on employing disabled people, yet the number of people with disabilities who are in employment has hardly changed over the past five years.

A study by specialist journal IRS Employment Review found more than nine out of 10 organisations now had a formal policy on disability, typically as part of a wider equality or diversity policy.

Employers were increasingly allowing absence for rehabilitation and treatment, acquiring or modifying equipment, altering individual working hours, assigning a person to other work and providing flexible working arrangements, it reported.

Yet over the past five years, the proportion of disabled people in the workplace had by and large remained constant in most organisations with any increase largely the result of improved disability reporting.

In more than eight in 10 organisations the change was thought to be at least partly attributable to an increase in the number of people defined as having a disability.

And nearly two-thirds mentioned that, in part, it was because of a rise in the reporting of disabilities.

Other key findings included that most employers regarded promoting equal opportunities and diversity as more influential on their policies than legislation on disability at work.

Three-quarters of employers wanted to improve customer service through a greater understanding of disabled people as customers and colleagues.

More than two-thirds mentioned social responsibility but just one organisation cited trade union pressure.

Almost two-thirds of employers had provided staff training or guidance on disability.

More than half the surveyed organisations had used schemes such as the government's Access to Work initiative, which helps to meet the cost of aids and equipment, adaptation to premises and personal assistance.

But several identified weaknesses in the current scheme: for example, that it was inconsistent from area to area and that it was too slow.

Taking the full range of government schemes as a whole, all employers using one or more of the schemes reported some degree of success.

Just under a third of the organisations polled said that the need for such schemes had not arisen and a minority were unaware of the schemes.

Most organisations had carried out an audit or survey of workplace accessibility and almost half of employment practice.

The top five review areas were: physical access to buildings, job advertisements, job descriptions, health and safety and occupational health procedures.

More than half of the public sector organisations surveyed had already taken steps towards meeting their forthcoming duty to promote equality of opportunity.

IRS Employment Review managing editor Mark Crail said: "Our survey shows that the high level of employer activity in recent years is having a positive impact on the working lives of people with disabilities.

"Almost half the organisations we surveyed reported a rise in the proportion of disabled employees in the workplace," he added.

"However, this shouldn't be seen as either entirely altruistic or as simply a response to legislation," he warned.

"A significant number of employers attributed the rising levels either to the increased number of people now defined as having a disability or to a rise in disability reporting," he concluded.