HR Grapevine
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I was pleased to comment on this important subject.

HR must differentiate learning for employees with impairments – but how should this work?

There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK. Yet research conducted in 2018 by disability charity Leonard Cheshire discovered that nearly a quarter of all UK employers admit that they would be discouraged from hiring candidates with impairments, whilst a shocking 66% of respondents cited the cost of workplace adjustments as the key reasons for their hesitance – believing that doing so would make a detrimental impact on their bottom line. The charity also found that 17% of disabled candidates who had applied for a job in the past five years said the employer withdrew the job offer as a result of their disability – mainly because making adjustments to workplace structure and education simply wasn’t something the employer was willing to do.

These pieces of research evidence just how hard it can be for disabled employees to enter the workplace, regardless of education or experience. However, having found a job, barriers still exist within the workplace to accessing learning and development. Whilst statistics compiled by Mencap found that just six per cent of the disabled population are in work, research conducted on behalf of Hall and Wilton in 2015, which delved into conditions that employed disabled workers dealt with, confirmed that access and support in the workplace are ‘often not addressed adequately’.

In fact, a report published by the National Disability Authority in 2002 states that only eight per cent of those actively working have received any assistance in order to enable them to work. A survey of 500 employers conducted by Manpower in 2003 painted a similar picture, with just ten per cent confirming that they have received no specialist development. “Our research reveals a tough and unwelcoming employment landscape for disabled people despite overall employment levels climbing to record highs,” said Neil Heslop, Chief Executive Officer at Leonard Cheshire, discussing the charity’s findings.

“Becoming an inclusive employer needs to be a priority for all organisations, large and small”

So, what can companies do? Well, according to Janina Vallance, Executive Director of People and Change at disability charity Scope, the obvious answer is to give fair opportunities to those with disabilities. “Reasonable adjustments and flexible working practices are at the heart of becoming a more inclusive workplace. There are a million disabled people who can and want to work. We know that employers who recognise the potential of disabled people at all levels of their organisation will thrive,” she tells HR Grapevine.

“Becoming an inclusive employer needs to be a priority for all organisations, large and small. The most important step is to recognise the need to make a start,” Vallance adds. “Reasonable adjustments can make a huge difference to the experience disabled people have at work. Businesses must create more inclusive workplaces with accessible recruitment practices in place so that disabled people can feel more confident asking for reasonable adjustments.”

Mark Capper, Head of Development, Lifestyles and Work Department at learning disability charity Mencap said: “Employers can often make the mistake of overlooking people with a learning disability because they assume that they can’t do the job. But we know that with the right support, people with a learning disability make great employees. They often become some of the most dedicated employees. Generally, they take less sick leave and stay in their role much longer. Many employers also report that their staff team morale improves as a result of working with colleagues who have a learning disability.”

According to Alan Price, Group Operating Director and HR expert at Peninsula, this means assessing your pre-existing HR policies and considering them through the eyes of a disabled worker. It may well be that in trying to appeal to the majority, you’ve actively alienated impaired employees simply by not considering their needs – which includes access to learning and career development. “It is important not to take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to learning and development,” he tells HR Grapevine. “How employees process information may differ significantly and extra consideration may be required for those with specific impairments,”

Price states that the best way to allow disabled employees access to development is to differentiate learning. This can be done properly by consulting with the staff themselves about what aides could benefit them. “Employers shouldn’t make assumptions about employees’ specific needs and individuals should have the opportunity to disclose any disability freely and confidentially, especially where this may impact their ability to participate in certain learning activities,” he says.

“For example, neurodiverse individuals with conditions such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may struggle with focused written activities and there may be an opportunity to alter this to a more interactive or practical exercise for their benefit.”

Differentiated learning can better your leaders too

Kim Whippy, Business Disability Advisor at the Business Disability Forum highlights another area of disability education that some employers may not fully grasp: facilitating change isn’t just about educating disabled employees. One of the resounding findings from a Reed research piece on disability in the workplace was that the vast majority of businesses felt that they didn’t have the sufficient training in place to support disabled colleagues – yet 76% claimed that they would welcome additional disability training being provided for line-managers and co-workers.

As Anna Storm, Employment Service Manager at workplace charity Action on Disability, states, most employers are unaware that a significant amount of government funding exists to aide disabled workers in the workplace under the Access to Work initiative, along with an array of disability charities, all of whom offer education for workplaces (including managers and leaders). “There are millions waiting to be accessed by workplaces to make changes. The money can go toward education for both the employer and employee, and could even be spent on specialist transportation to seminars – but if you want to know more, speak to one of the many local advocacy groups in your region and work with them and your employee to make the changes they need,” she states.

How are successful companies differentiating learning?

The logical conclusion when presented with an L&D strategy that alienates disabled workers is to involve them in the process of re-shaping your goals. “Apply the same principles as you should during the hiring process and ask delegates what would make a successful learning experience for them,” states Teresa Boughey MA FCIPD, Founder and CEO of Jungle HR. Boughey believes that the most effective way of adjusting practices to facilitate, not just learning but, a more positive overall professional experience for impaired employees, is to contemplate every decision you make from their perspective.

“Consider what reasonable adjustments should be made; do they need materials is larger font and on coloured paper, do they need more time to read questions for example. Do they need a scribe? Do they need regular breaks and varied tasks to ensure sensory overload doesn’t occur? Do they have access requirements and/or need the room to be set up in a certain way? Can you use technology aid the learning experience?” she explains.

Kim Whippy, Business Disability Advisor at Business Disability Forum adds that even when companies attempt to embrace differentiated learning, by not considering the full needs of their staff the paths to learning and development are still blocked by poor planning. Whippy tells HR Grapevine: “Organisations are increasingly co-designing their L&D strategies with different staff ‘groups’, such as disabled and older employees. Yet not many have procurement policies fit to ensure purchased products such as e-systems and trainers provide an inclusive learning experience.

“The most common barriers we hear about are: learning systems are incompatible with assistive technologies used by staff; inaccessible hotel rooms are booked when arranging places on external courses; and not having a method to ensure trainers use disability appropriate language and communications when delivering learning to a diverse workforce. The impact is that talent is not maximised and the gap between the career progression of disabled and non-disabled staff is widened.”