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FEATURE: Changing attitudes to disability in engineering

Holly Cave

(Illustrations: Spencer Wilson)
(Illustrations: Spencer Wilson)

While the UK is in desperate need of a greater diversity of engineers, disabled people are still not getting the opportunities they deserve. What can employers do to support disabled people into fulfilling careers?

While the websites of most major engineering firms now have a section dedicated to diverse recruitment, the focus remains firmly upon encouraging applications from women and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. 

It’s widely acknowledged that the UK is heading towards an intensifying skills shortage in the engineering sector. Research by Engineering UK found that an additional 1.8 million engineers and technically qualified people will be needed by 2025. Employers need to throw open their doors to as many people as possible to fill these spaces, and a part of that lies in being fully inclusive.  

You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 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. According to the charity Scope, one in every five people in the UK has an impairment, with 15% of people of working age being disabled.

While the act states that disabled people must not be discriminated against – directly or indirectly – the employment rate of disabled people in the UK is 30% lower than that of non-disabled people. Even more concerning is that this gap has remained the same for more than a decade. 

A 2017 report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission darkens the picture further by revealing that the difference in pay between disabled and non-disabled people is continuing to widen, with the average hourly earnings for disabled people at £9.85 compared to £11.41 for non-disabled people. The commission’s Right to Work report found that one in seven disabled graduates, with an average age of 26, has never been in paid employment.

The government has pledged to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. But there’s a lot of work to be done to effect such a striking change. 

Diversity wins, every time

Disabled people are constantly solving problems simply to get around in the day-to-day world, innovating their way through challenges. The sweeping generalisation that disabled people on the whole are less productive than non-disabled people has been shown to be inaccurate and misleading by a range of studies.

Taken together, research shows that disabled people are, on average, just as productive as non-disabled people, have significantly less time off sick, have fewer workplace accidents and stay longer in their jobs. Jane Hatton, director of Evenbreak, an organisation set up to help disabled people thrive in meaningful jobs, explains: “Disabled people tend to have developed skills to navigate around an inaccessible world, including resilience, creativity, determination, innovation, problem-solving, persistence and so on.”

Some companies have already made great strides to bring disabled people into the workplace. Six per cent of Fujitsu’s employees have a disability or long-term health condition, a substantial increase from 3% back in 2014. “Employees with disabilities bring a wide range of attributes to our company,” says Sarah Simcoe, chair of Fujitsu UK and Ireland’s Disability Employee Network, SEED. “Neuro-diverse employees often bring a different thinking style to projects, which helps innovation. 

“For example, people with dyslexia are often great at creative and visual thinking, problem solving, and are outcome-orientated. People with autism tend to have many characteristics that can be a real benefit to an employer, including attention to detail, preference for repetitiveness, and talent for a specialist subject. 

“This can be helpful for people in technical roles like coding and testing.”

Reaching more customers 

There are clearly knock-on benefits for society, too. Disabled employees can deliver inside intelligence on how to attract disabled customers – who spend £249 billion a year in the UK – adding to the bottom line. “We have engaged with employees with disabilities to ensure our services and products are as accessible as possible, which means they will work better for all our customers,” says Simcoe. 

Disabled people have been quick to exploit the latest technology tools. The advent of email was a breakthrough moment. Online chatting tools, Braille keyboards, voice-recognition software, programs that represent data as sound, screen magnification software, robotic systems and video conferencing have all helped boost communication and aided the carrying out of tasks in the workplace. 

Hatton says that disabled people can now reap the benefits of assistive technology, both to find work and in their working lives: “This might be technology that many people use, such as voice-activated software, or specific technology to assist people with specific impairments, such as the screen reader program JAWS (Job Access with Speech) for people with visual impairment,” says Hatton.

While there is a long way to go, small advances are being made all the time to make modern technology, especially the internet, more accessible. In 2009, for instance, YouTube added an automatic caption service for videos.

Firms take positive action

At the BBC, if you declare a disability in your application, it gets processed by the new Extend Hub – the new-talent disability recruitment portal. Disabled candidates have their application read by someone who’s ‘disability aware’, aren’t required to take any online tests and will receive guaranteed feedback on their application. 

Companies such as Amey also understand the strengths of a more diverse workforce. It has signed up to the government’s Disability Confident scheme, launched in 2016. This provides guidance for companies to help them ensure they are providing for disabled people. This includes resources on making recruitment processes inclusive and accessible, for example by guaranteeing an interview for anyone with a disability who is qualified to do the job. Self-assessment tools help companies monitor their progress to become official Disability Confident employers.

Catherine Cobb is an Amey technician who lost her hip at the age of seven. The company ensures that she can do her job safely, by carrying out risk assessments and providing extra support when needed. Simple things, such as a personal parking space right outside the building, make all the difference to her. 

“If I need to attend hospital appointments for my artificial leg or new crutches, it’s easy to make arrangements to do so and everyone understands,” she says. “I also don’t really like wearing my artificial leg all the time as it can become quite uncomfortable, and the team has just accepted me without it.”

Fujitsu has also been accredited as a Disability Confident Leader. “Our Disability and Adjustment Passport – a central record of agreed workplace adjustments – helps employees with disabilities and health conditions to enjoy a smooth transition between roles and have a greater sense of security,” says Simcoe. 

The company’s SEED (Support and Engage Employees with Disabilities) Network also plays a big role in building an inclusive and accessible environment which aims for all employees to “feel able to be their complete and authentic selves” and achieve their full potential. 

Success stories

SEED has placed a lot of emphasis on sharing stories about the business success of people with disabilities to promote disability confidence, and it was rewarded by winning the Business Disability Forum’s Disabled Employee Network of the Year Award in December 2016.

These steps are clearly having an impact: 20% of Fujitsu’s graduate intake starting last September have a disability or health condition.

Yet there is still much more to be done to increase diversity. Even where direct discrimination is effectively tackled with laws and clear guidance on staff recruitment, indirect discrimination remains a serious issue.

In March 2016, the STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) Disability Advisory Committee – a collaboration of professional bodies aiming to strengthen the inclusion of disabled people – hosted an event to share best practice. The event focused on the provision of support to disabled people in STEM subjects while making the transition through education and employment. Barriers and issues to progress included a lack of support in the transition from schools and universities to the workplace, where there’s often a shortage of information and services. It was also identified that there will be consequences of cuts in funding, such as disabled students’ allowances, which are yet to be realised. 

The committee suggested that greater visibility for disabled role models, more buddy and mentoring schemes, heightened awareness and discussion of disabled issues, and better careers advice in schools, higher education institutions, professional bodies and employers would help overcome these barriers. 

Evenbreak has developed a Best Practice Portal to reassure employers and their employees and give them confidence to get the practical information they need. “Many recruitment processes are inaccessible to many disabled people, and quite inappropriate for others,” says Hatton. “Hiring managers often perceive that disabled people are going to bring problems, expense and difficulties. Many negative assumptions are made about what disabled people can and can’t do. 

“Even more enlightened inclusive employers sometimes hesitate because they worry about ‘getting it wrong’ – maybe inadvertently offending someone or breaking the law.”

Scope’s End the Awkward campaign aims to tackle the most pernicious problem facing disabled people – that of social exclusion. The charity recognises that much of this is down to embarrassment and lack of awareness on the part of non-disabled people, so the campaign uses humour to try to get people to think differently. 

The Social Model of Disability states that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. So it’s wider social attitudes that need to change, too. 

According to Scope, 67% of British people feel uncomfortable about disability, and 43% say they do not personally know anyone who is disabled. This needs to change. We need to work harder to alter people’s opinions and attitudes towards disability. 

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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