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Spotlight on Disability – Supporting Employee Disability in the Professional Services

Our report, A Fairer Future, revealed that, of the 200 UK and US leaders interviewed in the professional services sector, only 64% felt they were doing enough to foster a supportive environment so that employees felt able to disclose disabilities.

59% said there were no specific initiatives to support people with disabilities in their companies. Only 32% in the US and 30% in the UK used specific assistive technologies to help employees with disabilities.

What progress have professional services sectors made towards inclusion?

Disability and employment

Disability is a broad category, including people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities such as the inability to walk, or visual and hearing impairments. It also includes those with invisible disabilities – physical, mental or neurological conditions you cannot observe by looking at people.

Approximately 8.4 million working-age people have disabilities (UK Parliament Post-Brief 2022). The pandemic is itself creative of long-term ill health. Long-Covid, which affects around two million people in the UK, is also included as a disability if it is ongoing.

In the UK, employment rates for those with disabilities compare badly to those without disabilities. In 2021, 53.5% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 81.6% of those who did not have disabilities. In the US, those figures are 38.1% and 77.6%, respectively (US Department of Labour, 2022, cited in A Fairer Future).

People with disabilities are less likely to work in the professions or achieve management-level occupations than those without disabilities.

Each kind of disability has specific challenges when it comes to employment. For example, those with disabilities around learning, autism and mental illness had the lowest employment rates of all groups (ONS, 2021).

People with disabilities face discrimination in accessing employment and gaining high-paid, high-status employment. What is preventing inclusion?

The nature of work

Normalising remote and flexible working alongside assistive tech would go a long way towards greater inclusion for those with disabilities. Post-pandemic, futurist discussions about the nature of work (see McKinsey, 2021) created hope that there would be a movement towards disability-friendly workplaces.

But we have yet to arrive, even if UK labour shortages reveal the apparent benefits of inclusion. Only 24% of UK employers said they planned to continue with hybrid or remote working arrangements, with 28% unsure if they would.

What do we know about the professional service sector?

In law, research by the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority showed that, of the 420 firms they spoke to, only 20% had an action plan to promote disability inclusion. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that only 3% of lawyers in the UK have declared a disability, compared to 14% in the general workforce.

Some solicitors reported that they felt their disability ‘lowered the bar’ and that they would be perceived as less competent. 

It is all about workplace culture. As an article by David Mant in Legal Cheek (2018) said, “…lawyers, notoriously, are gluttons for work and the jobs market is constructed around this ethos. Very few part-time roles exist and those that do mandate experience.”

In accountancy, a report by the Financial Reporting Council in 2021 revealed that an average of 2.6% of managers in PIE audit firms declared a disability. The bigger the firm, the more likely employees were to declare.

In UK architecture, fewer than 1% of architects have declared a disability, according to research by the Architects Registration Board. The Architects Journal spoke to four architects with disabilities. The key issue that emerged was a failure to make reasonable accommodations to building design and working practices, even though the understanding and technology were available.

All emphasised they had distinctive skills because of their disabilities, which they used to their firm’s advantage. Architecture is predicated on designing buildings and environments fit for people, so inclusive practices towards architects with disabilities would enhance design for the benefit of everyone. Roseanne Scott, an architect with achondroplasia dwarfism, said:

‘In my first year out, working for a small practice, I did a residential project for a wheelchair user. I am 1.2m tall which is about the same height as someone in a wheelchair. It gives you an understanding of how spaces can be experienced differently.’

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 says all places, including employers, must make reasonable adjustments to remove the barriers facing people with disabilities. However, we have a long way to go before even a fraction of these barriers are removed.

Tackling disability discrimination

In professional services, grassroots organisations and bodies are creating initiatives to challenge perceptions and improve prospects for professionals with disabilities.

For example, in law, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has taken actions around disability awareness and is publicising good practices (SRA 2020). And architecture is not without initiatives around disability. A 2020 RIBA festival looked at the question ‘Disability and Design: what makes a building accessible.’ 

Organisations such as 10,000 Able Interns have vowed to change perceptions by working with accountancy firms to place interns with disabilities. Sami Dar, the founder, said, “It feels like we’re finally being taken seriously as a demographic that can really contribute to the workplace.” The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has set up a Diversity & Inclusion Community to share ideas and best practice.

And overall, calendar events such as Disability Pride Month, alongside professionals speaking out on LinkedIn, can create momentum for change.

Digging deep

Professional service sectors are aware of the problem of disability, and there is some movement toward inclusivity.

However, alongside issues like assistive tech, the structure of work is impeding for many of those with disabilities. It forces those with disabilities to feel as though they are asking for unusual benefits instead of fitting in to a flexible career structure and working day.

True inclusivity for those with disabilities means creating an environment that offers reasonable adjustments to the working environment, rethinking workplace cultures and creating employment flexibility.

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