Disability awareness within the workplace

By Hannah Freeman - June 21, 2021

Last month we had disability inclusion consultant, Rosemary Frazer join us in our monthly Diversity Network meet-up to discuss ‘disability within the workplace’. Here at Concirrus, it is important for us to have meet-ups that focus on different areas within diversity and inclusion (D&I). Having this space to raise awareness and create room for open and safe conversations fosters an inclusive work environment giving our team the opportunity to learn, grow and be themselves. This is where innovation can truly thrive.

As our team continues to grow so does our diversity. Research shows that 15 percent of the population has a disability. Moreover, 80% of disabled people are living with conditions that are unseen. So, whether you see it or not many of our friends, family, and colleagues may be disabled affecting their everyday lives. During the session, some of the team opened up about their own experiences with disability and shared some of the everyday barriers they face. It is vital to discuss these barriers so we can become more aware of the different access needs people have within the workplace.


Defining disability

Disability can be difficult to define however, according to the Equality Act 2010 you are disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. This includes conditions such as deafness, spina bifida, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. Many of these conditions are visible for example someone with Spina bifida may be a wheelchair user, however, many conditions are hidden and unseen. Invisible disabilities can be defined as disabilities that are not immediately apparent or go largely unnoticed. This can include chronic pain, PTSD, and the autism spectrum. During the session, Rosemary highlighted the fact that not every disability is visible so before assuming someone is non-disabled and has the same access needs as yourself it is important to be aware that this might not be the case. 


Many disabled people face attitudinal barriers, such as the stigmas attached to disabilities. This is particularly the case with unseen conditions. Our Web Development Engineer, Andrew Collins opened up about his own experience with Crohn’s. 


Unfortunately, there are stigmas attached to invisible conditions. However, having conversations about them is the first step to removing them. Just because you see a seemingly able person using a public disabled bathroom or using disabled seating on a train doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to sit there. We need to get rid of these assumptions as not every disability is visible. I am fortunate to work in a company that fosters an environment where these conversations are encouraged. Having the support of colleagues makes a huge difference in my work life and in turn my home life.” 


The stigmatisation experienced by disabled people can lead to individuals feeling the need to hide their conditions. There is a fear it may affect how their colleagues see them, and their ability to grow within an organisation. A recent study found that only 39% of people with a disability disclose that fact to an employer. This can impact their time at work as some of their access needs may not be met.


During the session, Rosemary spoke to the team about the social model of disability. The model suggests that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. In the UK we follow the social model of disability over the medical model which suggests people are disabled by their impairments or differences. Rosemary who has spina bifida and is a wheelchair user spoke about how the social model of disability transformed the way she thought about her disability.


I started to think of myself in a completely different way and my approach to life changed because up until that point I was constantly apologising for myself. I wouldn’t attend social events because I thought I was getting in the way. The social model of disability is about identifying barriers and addressing them. For me, these are physical barriers such as objects being too high up for me to reach, or that there’s not enough space for my wheelchair. We can design these things differently e.g., having ramps in place so I don’t need someone to help me get up steps. These access needs are often easy to address and will be different according to the individual. For example, if someone is partially sighted then one of their access needs may be a new method of consuming information. E.g working with accessible websites that use screen magnification and screen reading software."


Whilst access needs can be addressed, they still impact opportunities. There is an obvious gap between the number of fully-abled employees and those who are disabled. Recent statistics show that in the UK “52.3% of disabled people are in employment, down from 54.1% a year previously”.


Speaking to friends and colleagues who are living with unseen conditions I know that many of them have to take a deep breath before going into different social settings and having to say ‘hello I have x and I’m living with Y this means that…’ This can be a very difficult conversation to have especially if they’ve divulged their condition in the past and it’s been met with a negative response particularly in the context of the recruitment process or speaking to line managers etc. This is why some people hide their conditions for fear of judgment.” – Rosemary Frazer


For people with disabilities, these barriers can start from the beginning of the recruitment process. For example, hiring managers may make subconscious judgments and make negative assumptions about disabilities. This could potentially lead to discrimination and the hiring manager may end up employing non-disabled people who align with their inherent biases. Rosemary suggested during the recruitment process to hold off on asking what someone’s condition is and instead ask what their access needs are. This can be helpful for both the future employee and the employer as they can put these additional needs in place. These access needs might be allowing for more frequent breaks for someone with diabetes or adjusting the lighting and providing clearer signs within the office for someone who is partially sighted.


Many individuals are still learning what their access needs are. During the session our Technical Consultant, Mark Cooper shared his experience with this.


I found Rosemary’s talk on disabilities in the workplace incredibly insightful. What struck me was the statistic that 80% of disabilities are invisible. This is something that up until recently I hadn’t considered. I permanently lost all of the hearing in my left ear following an operation in 2020. Given that we were in lockdown it was fairly easy to adapt at home as it is usually a quiet environment. As we ease out of lockdown I am now adjusting to my new normal and faced with a new set of challenges e.g., choosing which side to walk on and where to sit in a group. I have had to become more patient with myself if I can’t hear certain things the first time around. Rosemary also talked about people that may still be learning what their access needs are, this is the category I find myself in. Hearing conversations through masks, in busy streets can be challenging at the best of times. At this point, I don’t know how best to adapt, but by having these conversations I know that when I do find out it will be easy to approach my colleagues about it.


Many people may not know what their access needs are until they’ve lived as a disabled person for a while. Workplaces can help this process by working with that individual to adjust to their needs as they work out what their barriers are. Flexibility is key.


Our Data Governance Consultant, Mark Spencer-Smith shared with the team how it can be easy to assume what a disabled person’s access needs are.


A lot of people think they know what my access needs are when they meet me. With my condition, I have whole body weakness so my arms are weak, and I can’t raise them above my neck. I have been in situations where someone has assumed that all wheelchair users have weak legs and strong arms and so for example, if I’m at the airport there have been times when they have given me a transit chair assuming I can lift myself out of my chair into another. These physical barriers can be difficult however people finding it difficult to ask questions as they don’t want to impose can be a barrier in itself. We need to get over this awkwardness and ask questions.”


These barriers that disabled people face whether they are social, physical or attitudinal can affect where and how a disabled person works. A study found that two-thirds of people say they feel awkward around disabled people. This awkwardness can lead to people avoiding disabled people altogether.


How can we do better?

The Valuable 500 Global Disability Network recently revealed that leaders from 500 of the world’s biggest companies including Microsoft, Unilever, Google, and Coca-Cola have agreed to publish quarterly reports into disability representation. This came after findings that there were no executives or senior managers who disclosed a disability and only 12% reported on the total number of employees who are disclosed as disabled. This highlights that there is still work to be done so companies can become more inclusive.


There are plenty of steps companies can take to improve disability inclusion, raise awareness and create more accessibility within the workplace including:

  • Identify any potential bias within your interview process.
  • Make sure you ask candidates if they need any reasonable adjustments during the application or interview process.
  • Create flexible working options e.g., flexible working hours or working from home policies. This can be useful for wheelchair users who want to avoid rush hour.
  • Celebrate disability awareness days by hosting lunch and learns or workshops. This can create a safe space to have open conversations surrounding disability.
  • Invite disability speakers to join your team to raise awareness and education surrounding disability.
  • Encourage management and senior leadership to attend D&I sessions where possible so the decision-makers are aware of any issues that need to be addressed.
  • Challenge your unconscious bias and actively work towards creating an inclusive workplace by looking at your policies.
  • Make reasonable adjustments to address access needs e.g., provide screen readers and provide better lighting for people with sight issues.
  • Invest in tailored diversity training for managers.
  • Demonstrate that you are an inclusive organisation by signing up to the Government Disability Confident Scheme.
  • Don’t assume and always ask humble questions!

We are currently working with InChorus the tech for good company that provide analytics and data-led training to build more inclusive workplaces by signing their FinTech For All charter to help our employees feel more empowered and to help implement positive changes within the tech industry.


Over the last year, it has been very eye-opening joining our Diversity Network meet-ups with the rest of the team. It is important for me as CEO of Concirrus that we are creating and fostering an environment where we can retain our diversity and celebrating our differences. One of our values at Concirrus is ‘Have the courage to challenge’. This speaks to the fact that sometimes you need to challenge yourself, others, and the status quo to create more inclusive environments” - Andrew Yeoman, CEO, Concirrus.


If you would like to join our team, please see our current open roles on our careers page here.


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