Disabled People’s Employment Champion: the pandemic has helped make some Welsh workplaces more accessible

James Wilkinson has extensive experience in helping disabled people access employment and is focussed on demystifying misconceptions employers have of disabled workers.

Drawing on his own experiences, he has championed inclusivity and influenced change to HR policies. Now, working as a Disabled People’s Employment Champion for the Welsh Government, he is helping businesses across the country to reflect and review their policies relating to disabled staff.

“The pandemic forced business leaders to think differently about diversity and inclusion within their organisations.” says James.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how resilient and flexible businesses across the UK can be. We’ve gone through a genuinely era-defining, totally unexpected, structural shake up in terms of how our society operates on a professional basis. Traditional practices and rules around work have been turned on their head, with businesses having to adapt and transform their processes to survive and thrive in this new era.

“Many of these adaptations have contributed towards the movement of workplaces becoming more inclusive and accommodating of employee needs. Diversity in the workplace is more of a focus for businesses, with the pandemic bringing about important lessons employers can learn to ensure their workplace is inclusive and they are attracting and retaining disabled workers.

“Prior to the pandemic, there was an apprehension among many senior leaders in businesses around flexible working practices. Seen as somewhat straying from traditional procedures, many companies were hesitant to fully adapt their general processes, however, the pandemic forced employers to take the leap and offer more flexible working arrangements.

“The general success of this new way of working has brought to the forefront just how outdated certain conventional practices are in today’s society, paving the way for further change with businesses increasingly seeing flexibility and diversity in the workplace as positive for their operations.

“Workplace adaptations have brought about positive change in terms of working to eliminate societal barriers to success for many disabled people.”

“The social model of disability, which recognises that people with impairments are disabled by barriers that commonly exist in society rather than the impairment itself, is a core principle behind this. Traditional working practices can be obstacles for many disabled people disabling their ability to work in certain roles. By the pandemic having forced businesses to adopt more inclusive ways of working, this has helped some disabled workers perform their job roles more easily.

“Working from home is one of the main adaptations that many disabled people were looking for before the pandemic. Commuting to the office can involve many logistical barriers due to issues with accessibility and transportation. Lack of accessible train stations, restricted bus services due to covid 19 restrictions, lack of accessible parking, unsuitable environment and general attitudes of the public can all add up to making commuting to work a logistical challenge.

Many employers have realised working from home can increase productivity, and not impact negatively on their business. I recently spoke with someone who, like myself, has a condition which affects his mobility. Prior to the pandemic, he was only able to work 20-25 hours a week due his condition, however, when his company shifted to working from home, he no longer had to commute to the office and as a result felt much more energized. He was then able to begin working full time as a direct result.

“My own physical impairment also affects how I get into the office every day, previously commuting from Cardiff to Bristol was exhausting. Working from home now means that my morning commute consists of a few metres to my desk. I personally have benefitted from not feeling as fatigued and enjoying extra time previously lost due to the commute.

“The pandemic has taught employers important lessons in opening up their workplaces to be more inclusive when they are attracting and retaining disabled workers.”

“My advice to employers looking to become more inclusive would be to embrace change, learn from your adaptability, and look beyond. Next time your employee suggests a different approach in order to expand your inclusivity offer, even if it is a structural change, take account for their thoughts, explore the idea and work with them.

“If working from home has taught us one thing, it’s that where possible, don’t focus on the location, instead focus on the job role. The pandemic has highlighted how, for many job roles, location is irrelevant. For roles that can operate on a flexi-working or work-from-home basis, it is now evident that businesses were putting too much onus on location and therefore missing out on an abundance of untapped talent.

“Wales is a rural, low population density country, meaning that for some disabled workers, if you aren’t based in or around Cardiff, many jobs are not accessible. Previously, the majority of businesses would prioritise recruitment where someone is based geographically as opposed to whether or not they were the best person for the job.

“Though, the recent shift in working style has deconstructed these barriers. There is an important lesson to be learned around opening up recruitment services and thus widening the pool of talent available for businesses to choose from.

“Covid-19 has also encouraged employers to establish a better culture of trust and empowerment. Over the last 19-months, we’ve seen businesses listen more to their staff and adapt job roles to fit around the employee, as opposed to the traditional approach of moulding the employee to fit a role.

“For those in or returning to office, many businesses are taking a phased approach, or are allowing their workforce to continue to operate from a working from home basis. As a physically disabled employee, to be given this choice is a major benefit as it reduces unnecessary stress and anxiety, allowing me to continue operating at a comfortable, productive level, but most importantly, it makes me feel heard.

“Home working is not suitable for all disabled people and its vital employers have open and honest conversations with staff to understand how their job can best fit within their lives, negotiating the best route for both the individual and the business. That way staff are given the option, and therefore made to feel valued and trusted to make that choice.

“Overall, the pandemic has shaken the working world. With our professional landscape having stayed relevantly still for decades, Covid-19 has proved to be the necessary push for businesses to enter the modern-day era in regards to adapting working practices to become more inclusive and diverse. Reasonable adaptations, such as working from home, have now become mainstream and have benefited the working life of many disabled people.”

For more information on how your business can attract, recruit, and retain disabled employees, including those with mental health and/ or other hidden conditions, contact the Disabled People’s Employment Champions by emailing DPEC@gov.wales or visit Skills Gateway for Business.