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Hidden Talent - recruiting those with disabilities

Many small businesses struggle to recruit the skills they need, yet often overlook a potential source of talented employees. Peter Crush explores how those with disabilities could be the solution, and the support that is out there to make it happen

Two weeks after joining surgical instrument company Sigh as a customer services administrator in 2014, Janette Ladbrook burst into Managing Director David Peddy’s office, sobbing. During her interview, she’d hidden the fact she has only 40-50 per cent hearing. She is fine speaking on the phone, but background office chatter was completely passing her by. A fortnight in, she felt isolated and deceitful. “I felt I wouldn’t have got the job if I’d admitted my disability,” she says.

What Ms Ladbrook didn’t realise at the time was that her boss had just two criteria when recruiting. “We wanted someone who was totally competent using Sage, and someone who could talk to customers intelligently about our services,” says Mr Peddy. “She has a great phone manner, exceptional skills and is efficient, getting through jobs in record time. We’re a company of only 10 people. We can’t afford not to have the best people. Hiring her was a no-brainer.”

Sigh is among what disability charities would cite as one of the depressingly few educated small businesses that don’t see disability, but see only ability, and that Ms Ladbrook’s first instinct to hide her ‘deficiencies’ is an all-too common one. A staggering 36 per cent of unemployed deaf people have been searching unsuccessfully for work for two years, while one-fifth have been trying to find work for five years, according to the Royal National Institute of the Deaf.

Pick any other disability and there are similar statistics. A shocking 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted people of working age are not in employment, figures from Action for Blind People show. All told, disabled people are far less likely to be in work. In 2013, the employment rate for working-age disabled people was 49 per cent, compared with 82 per cent among the non-disabled, according to the Papworth Trust. By the age of 26, a disabled person is four times more likely to be unemployed than a non-disabled person.

“These figures are even more shocking when you consider businesses say they’re crying out for skilled people, yet the experience of many people with disabilities is that they’re still sidelined,” says Caroline Hearst, Founder of campaigning group Autism Matters. Officially, 1.9 per cent of people have autism, but she thinks the figure could be nearer 10 per cent. The charity liveability, meanwhile, estimates that nationally around 19 per cent of the population has a disability.


Making changes

Myths about employing disabled people abound among small businesses. Research last year by the Government’s Disability Confident campaign found that 42 per cent of disabled people seeking work encountered misconceptions about what they could do. But the biggest barrier, say critics, is small firms’ fear of having to make adjustments they cannot afford, despite it being illegal to discriminate on the basis of a mental/physical disability (Equality Act, 2010). Yet not only are there no grounds for this fear, but many say there is support available for small businesses that is simply not being accessed.

“The government’s Access to Work scheme [see box for more details] has been running for some time now,” says Dan Sumners, Senior Policy Advisor at Signature, a charity that provides training on learning sign language. “It will pay for applicants to bring an interpreter to a job interview, but many firms don’t realise they can access grants to improve the day-to-day working of a person with hearing problems, such as hearing loops or speech recognition software. It’s under-used, possibly because people don’t realise it’s there.” 

Part of the problem with awareness of support is that small businesses sometimes still think of disability in terms of just wheelchairs – providing expensive ramps or installing lifts. However, only 2 per cent of disabled people are wheelchair users, says the English Federation of Disability Sport, and the average cost of an adaptation is less than people think. According to conciliation service ACAS, most ‘reasonable adjustments’ cost nothing or very little, with only 4 per cent leading to any expense. Even then, it finds the average is only £184 per disabled employee.

In addition, many disabled employees will already have kit to help them overcome their impairments, says Matt Reed, Director of Employer Services at Remploy, the UK’s largest facilitator of disabled recruitment. “People will already be using adaptive technology – special laptops, clocks or other devices – they can bring into the workplace.”

Helping hand

“There’s plenty of advice small firms can access [see box, previous page] but, in the first instance, it’s about being disability-confident,” says Helen Walbey, Diversity Policy Chair at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). “Small firms already have a great record in hiring long-term unemployed people. But they could do more to change what the Government calls the ‘disability gap’ – the 33 per cent difference in the levels of employment between disabled and non-disabled people.” 

To achieve this goal, one million more disabled people will need to be employed. It’s why FSB has partnered with the Government’s 2013-launched Disability Confident campaign, which not only provides resources and further advice, but also clarifies firms’ legal duties and showcases best practice.

Being disabled-confident, says Ms Hearst from Autism Matters, means thinking about what might affect specific people. “You research how they see the world,” she says. “Formal interviews might not be good for assessing someone’s ability, because autistic people aren’t good one-to-one. Get them to do a work-based interview, though, and they’ll most likely shine.”

Increasingly, disability is something that businesses of all sizes will not be able to ignore. The Papworth Trust estimates that around 19 per cent of people have a disability but only 17 per cent of disabled people are born with one, and around 2 per cent of working people acquire a disability each year.

All of this provides another reason for small firms to come to terms with disability: to better reflect their customer base. “People with disabilities are also consumers,” says Ms Walbey. “The key is not fearing disability but embracing it, and valuing the contribution of people with disabilities.”

In numbers

6 million - The number of people of working age in the UK who are disabled or have a health condition, according to the Government’s Disability Confident campaign

83% - The proportion of disabled people who acquire their disability while at work (Disability Confident)

520,000 - The number of vacancies that small businesses can’t fill because of a lack of relevant skills (Centre for Economic and Business Research)

Where to turn for support

Grants - Access to Work: Once staff have been in their new role for six weeks, bosses can apply for 100 per cent of approved costs if they have fewer than 50 staff. Those with 20-249 staff have to pay the first £500, but after that Access to Work will pay for 80 per cent of approved costs, up to £10,000

Pluss - The social enterprise helping people with disability will pay small firms up to £2,275 if 
they hire a young person on its scheme and the recruit is still there after six months 

Tax relief - If you provide a disabled employee with products that enable them to perform their duties – such as hearing aids, wheelchairs or even a company car – the products don’t attract NI contributions under benefit-in-kind rules, even if they’re also used for personal purposes

AdviceThe Business Disability Forum: The not-for-profit member organisation shares best practice in employing disabled people 

Blind in Business: Provides services to job-seekers and employers to ease the transition between education and employment for visually impaired people 

Scope: Helps match disabled people and local employers 


Several bodies match employers with talent that has come from the army – which discharges lots of disabled people. These organisations include ForceSelect, the Career Transition Partnership, and 

Case study - Overcoming obstacles

Jane Hatton – who herself has a degenerative spinal condition – runs Evenbreak, a not-for-profit social enterprise that helps disabled people find work. 


The company employs someone with cerebral palsy, as well as someone who has ME/chronic fatigue syndrome. “I’ve also taken on a deaf person and, while it can be difficult at times because she doesn’t lip read very well, we have email, and instant messaging, so it’s not a deal-breaker,” she says. 
Ms Hatton has found the Access to Work service particularly useful. “We’ve used it to enable people to get taxis who can’t use public transport,” she says. “It’s there, so firms should access it.”

Case study - Rebuilding a life

In 2011, Royal Marine Steve McCulley’s chest was torn apart when an IED exploded near his patrol in Afghanistan. He was in an induced coma and spent three years rehabilitating. 


Since then, he’s launched his own carbon bike building company, LIOS Bikes, after receiving funding from the Royal Marines Charitable Trust. Although he doesn’t employ anyone yet, the FSB member says that if he does, it’s purely attitude he’ll look for. “Injured friends of mine tell me things have improved,” he says, “although they’ve made sure they apply for jobs where lack of use of an arm/leg isn’t an issue.” 

He doesn’t believe in special treatment, but only in giving everyone a fair chance. “Even though I’ve been injured, I wouldn’t positively discriminate,” he says. “Recruitment has to be a skills and attitude decision.”