“Harder than you think”: Companies are still struggling to engage employees with disabilities 

Hayley McGarvey, People Lab


My 9-year-old sister-in-law, Isabelle, has Down’s syndrome. I’ve often found myself in conversations with people about her future, and one thing that strikes me is that There’s an assumption that, because she has a learning disability, she’ll only have a handful of jobs to choose from – and happiness or engagement at work never come into the equation. I’ve wondered for some time if these kinds of attitudes and perceptions continue into the workplace – and what those views mean for the experiences of employees with disabilities at work.

After looking into disability & employee engagement, it became clear it is an under researched area. In light of this, we decided to launch our disability and employee engagement research: to shine a light on disability and engagement – seeking to further understand engagement with this audience.  We set out to uncover examples of best practice in this area, with one key ambition: to improve employee engagement for employees with disabilities.

We launched our disability and employee engagement research project last year, following the excitement and buzz of the Paralympic Games.  Our experience has shown us that employees with disabilities are often disengaged at work – regularly experiencing barriers to employment, promotion opportunities and professional development. The Office for Disability Issues found that ‘disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than non-disabled people’, and in 2012, 46.3 per cent of working-age disabled people were in employment compared to 76.4 per cent of working-age non-disabled people. The Papworth Trust also found that disabled people are approximately 3 times more likely to exit work than their non-disabled peers.

We wanted to show that improving employee engagement & encouraging equality, diversity and inclusion could make workplaces better for everyone. We were particularly interested in how employees with disabilities could be affected by the behaviours and attitudes of managers and colleagues – and how those behaviours and attitudes could influence the culture of an organisation, for better or worse.

Given the lack of research in this area, we took a grounded theory approach. This means that we started with some in-depth qualitative research to help develop our research questions and hypothesis. We ran a number of in-depth interviews with a range of participants to get a feel for this area. The response was fantastic; people from all over the world contacted us to show their interest and get involved. From the UK to the Philippines, Chicago to Australia, people offered their insight and opinions and provided us with an amazing foundation to build on. The interviewees were exceptionally honest, and certainly didn’t hold back on relaying their experiences – both good and bad – of disability and employee engagement.

So, what did the first phase tell us? Here are some of the key findings drawn from the initial interviews:


1. We still need to focus on equal opportunities of promotion for both disabled and non-disabled employees: Many of the interviewees felt that non-disabled people were significantly more likely to be offered a promotion at work than disabled employees.


2. We still need to focus on opportunities for progression & development for employees with disabilities: The interviewees suggested that equal opportunity for promotion for employees with disabilities could be improved with the provision of further personal development & progression opportunities.


3. We need to rethink the education of managers and leaders: A key finding from our research indicated that employees with disabilities are often disappointed by the lack of knowledge that managers and leaders have regarding disability. This lack of education can cause frustration amongst employees, leading them to become disengaged at work.


4. We need to change the attitudes of peers (including leaders and senior managers): Our research indicated that attitudinal barriers are often the reason for disengagement for employees with disabilities.  The majority of our interviewees expressed that the attitudes of leaders & colleagues can ‘make or break’ their work experience.


5. We need to give employees the confidence to talk about disability: People don’t always find disability an easy subject to talk about. Our research indicated that some employees with disabilities found that disability was an area that wasn’t discussed often, and that some colleagues were visibly uncomfortable when disability was brought up in conversation.


6. We need to ensure that policy meets practice: Our research revealed that many of the interviewees felt ‘cheated’ by company policies; that, more often than not, what was written on paper simply didn’t surface in reality.


7. Disability, equality, diversity & inclusion training must be encouraged & improved: All of our interviewees agreed that leaders, managers & colleagues do not receive sufficient training regarding disability. This can cause people to feel uncomfortable when talking about disability, and can lead to negative attitudes towards employees with disabilities.


8. Education & information on access, adjustments and facilities must be a priority: Education was a key word that arose throughout our research. The education of colleagues, leaders and managers is essential in making change happen. One particular theme that emerged was the lack of awareness and education regarding access, adjustments and facilities. Our research revealed that employers are often daunted by the prospect of access issues – making them less likely to employ disabled people, or provide relevant and essential adjustments for employees with disabilities.


9. Attitudes towards flexible working need to change: Our research indicated that the need for flexible working often poses problems for people with disabilities. Many of our interviewees expressed that some employers fail to understand the need for flexibility – and that in the event that flexible working is agreed, it often causes friction between disabled employees and non-disabled employees.  Some interviewees revealed that non-disabled colleagues can seem ‘jealous’ or ‘resentful’, deeming flexible hours as ‘special treatment’. This causes negativity, which is difficult to dispel or change.


The findings from our first phase have given us a fantastic springboard for the second phase of the research project – the online survey. This will allow us to drill down into the areas that were highlighted during the initial phase, and provide more detail and insight into key areas.


We’re really grateful to everyone who has contributed to this research so far. We hope that, through our research, we’ll ignite further interest in this area and more employers will begin to understand the importance of employee engagement & improving equality, diversity and inclusion. Doing so doesn’t just affect employees with disabilities – it benefits entire organisations.

If you’d like a copy of the first phase report or any further information on the project, please contact me at hayley@peoplelab.co.uk/.

If you’d like to contribute to the project (and we’d love you to), please follow the link below to complete the online survey:


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