two persons in wheelchairs
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As an IBM consultant based in Brussels, Yves Veulliet, who uses a wheelchair, often travelled on business.

However, one trip stood out. He asked his hotel to reserve a wheelchair accessible taxi at Berlin airport and was met by a driver in a smart white tunic, displaying a card with his name.

It was only when they reached “a white van with a red stripe and blue flashing lights” that the reason for his driver’s attire became apparent. The receptionist had booked an ambulance, not a taxi, to convey him to the hotel — and his startled clients, waiting in the lobby, watched his arrival.

Mr Veulliet, who now leads IBM’s global disability and inclusion work, uses the anecdote to illustrate what he calls “the medical model of disability”, in which anyone with a disability is assumed to be fragile. Such assumptions can cause embarrassment and, more seriously, exclude people from roles they could competently fulfil.

In the UK, the employment rate for disabled workers is just 48 per cent, compared with 80 per cent for the non-disabled workforce, according to the Office for National Statistics. This suggests that even in countries with equality laws workers with disabilities are significantly disadvantaged

As Mr Veulliet says: “If I’m a manager who equates disability with illness, I may be reluctant even to consider an application from someone with a disability, because by definition I’ll expect them to be sick more often and less productive.”

Rather than treating disability as a special case, a better strategy may be to help all employees become more productive. Under EU and US laws employers are obliged to accommodate the needs of disabled employees so far as they reasonably can. However, as Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of Business Disability International (BDI), an employers’ forum founded by Barclays, GSK and Infosys, observes, sooner or later most workers experience disability, although they may not consider themselves disabled or be classed as such.

The condition may be temporary, as with some sports injuries, or age-related as with hearing loss and arthritis, but it nevertheless affects the person’s ability to work.

Lloyds Banking Group tries to make no distinction between disabled and non-disabled employees, by focusing on what helps any individual to do their job better. Martin Dodd, who runs the bank’s call centres, highlights two actions that Lloyds took to streamline its approach.

First, it created a central budget from which purchases such as ergonomic furniture and assistive technologies are paid (IBM follows the same practice). This removed the financial incentive that naturally exists for line managers to minimise disability-related spending, even when offering support might enable an employee to achieve more.

Second, it established a help desk, run by Microlink, a workplace specialist, to which employees can self-refer without involving HR. For straightforward purchases, such as orthopaedic cushions, the bank has a catalogue of preapproved products. If the needs of the employee are more complex, the help desk will assist them to obtain the right support.

Problems that once took 90 days are now resolved in 14, handling costs have fallen by 53 per cent and managers report a reduction in sick days, says Mr Dodd. Providing a help desk, rather than requiring employees to work through a bureaucratic process, sends a signal about how disability is regarded: as an obstacle that can be overcome rather than a status that defines an employee. As Mr Veulliet says: “The message that we see you not as a [disabled person] but as an [employee] who happens to live with a disability is important.”

Good design helps everyone, yet many organisations create problems unnecessarily, says Ms Scott-Parker, simply because their contractors lack disability expertise. Using colour contrasts for doors and walls, for example, helps visually impaired employees find their way around. Likewise, enabling screen-reading technologies and spellcheckers on recruitment websites and avoiding forms that time out remove barriers for blind and dyslexic applicants.

To improve disability awareness, BDI is developing online guidance to help IT procurement managers ask the right questions of suppliers during tendering. At IBM, disabled employees test new buildings and tell the architect what modifications are needed.

Allowing workers to choose where and when to work has the potential to reduce the burden on those who struggle with commuting and working an entire day. But employers that encourage homeworking also need to consider the ergonomics of the home.

Even when organisations have good policies and tackle prejudice through training, people may fear confiding in their boss, because there will always be differences in how individuals perceive disability. Peer support can help. “Asking: ‘Has anyone been through this before?’ in a staff network feels safer because a network isn’t part of the business structure,” says John Levell, who chairs the dyslexia network at EY.

Mr Veulliet is optimistic about greater participation by disabled people in the workforce. As a consultant, he remembers being invited to celebrate a team success by going ice-skating with colleagues, which he politely declined. As his ashen-faced boss apologised, Mr Veulliet stopped him. “I told him: ‘Don’t be ashamed. You thought of me as one of your [team], not as a wheelchair user, which is exactly what I want.’”

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