Diversity with June Sarpong: why are people living with disabilities overlooked by business?
The author of 'Diversify' examines the disability employment gap. She highlights how people living with a disability have to fight just to get on a payroll before the campaign for equal pay can make true progress
Produced and directed by Veronica Kan-Dapaah. Directed, edited and filmed by Richard Topping, Petros Gioumpasis and Tom Hannen
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JUNE SARPONG: I'm June Sarpong, and I'm the author of Diversify. I was disabled for four years of my life. When I was a teenager, I was hit by a car, didn't walk for two years, and then I had to wear a neck brace for another two.
The thing that was just so strange about it for me was the way people reacted towards me after the accident. The way people treated me, it was-- I almost saw a kind of dumbing down. It was the most bizarre thing. And I think that experience is what has made me so passionate about this issue because I wasn't any different as a person, but the world certainly reacted to me in that way.
This is a quote from George Bush, not somebody I quote often. And this quote was in relation to African American kids in the inner cities, but what he spoke about was the soft bigotry of low expectations. And that really applies for the disabled community.
ALAN SMITH: We've looked at gender. We've looked at BAME. We're now looking at disability.
CAROLINE CASEY: Could you imagine having 500 Sheryl Sandbergs, leaning in for disability and with disability? We would get this done. If we want disability to be meaningfully at the business table, we need the leaders.
JUNE SARPONG: It's got to be the leaders.
CAROLINE CASEY: The uncomfortable truth is, they don't exist. I believe, and many do, that the diversity and inclusion agenda is very difficult for business, where we're pitting humanity against each other. This year, we'll do gender.
JUNE SARPONG: We'll do race.
CAROLINE CASEY: We'll do-- Next year, we'll do LGBTQ. What are we talking about? A la carte and pick-and-mix inclusion? Are you kidding me? Since when did we think it was OK to have a hierarchy of exclusion or inclusion?
ERIN BOYCE: My name's Erin Boyce. I work at Alliance Learning, and I'm a business administrator, currently an apprentice. I'm registered blind. I have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Actually, I moved out of my parents' house about a week after I left college. I really felt determined to get out and start living this new chapter of my life.
So that was in the July that I left and I moved out. I thought my prospects were pretty positive about getting a job. And then I was applying to things, and I wasn't getting anything at all. And at this point, I was still putting my visual impairment on my CV. I felt like it was all framed in a positive way, and it shouldn't have put them off. But I didn't get any kind of response at all. Then in October, I decided to take that off my CV, and I got two interviews that month. And I didn't put it on again.
I went to 18 interviews. And for most people, that's the give-up point. And I didn't because I really still wanted to work, so I kept going for it. But I know a lot of people who have given up, and those are people that are perfectly able to work.
And if you reached out to them and you said, hey, we know this employer is accepting, we know that they are willing to make adaptations, maybe you should apply to them, you're going to get high-quality applicants because, actually, I know in the case of visually impaired people in general, there is actually a higher rate of them going to university than the general public because they know that their chances of getting a job are much worse. So they go into higher education more often.
I really do think it is a massive opportunity for employers. And it's something, being on the inside now, having this opportunity to hopefully make a difference if I can, having had my personal experience. I'm trying now to actually get us to tap into that because I think there are just-- there's this massive amount of high-quality applicants out there.
And they're more resilient. They're more loyal. When you've slogged through all these interviews and you've had all these things said to you and you feel like utter garbage, and then somebody treats you like you're not a burden for once and they're willing to make all these adaptations for you, you know what you've got at that point.
JUNE SARPONG: So Alan, here we have the statistics relating to disability and employment in Britain?
ALAN SMITH: That's right.
JUNE SARPONG: Probably bleaker than any of the other data we've looked at.
ALAN SMITH: Well, it depends how you look at it. I mean, one thing I could say is, we could start with a good-news story, June, which is that if you look at from when the figures that we've got that we can go back as far as 2013, there's a consistent trend in the employment rate of disabled people.
JUNE SARPONG: Consistent increase, yeah.
ALAN SMITH: Both for men and for women. And in fact, the employment rate of women with disability, you can see it's actually accelerated a little bit faster than the employment rate for men with disability and crucially has crossed this 50% line for the first time. So the employment rate overall for both men and women is now over 50%.
JUNE SARPONG: But just over 50%.
ALAN SMITH: Just over 50%, and so--
JUNE SARPONG: And we would not be celebrating that for any other group.
ALAN SMITH: Exactly. So in fact, that's exactly where this term, the disability employment gap, pops up because that line now looks slightly less impressive. That's the same data we've just been looking at, starting at 0 and finishing at 100. So this is the entire scale of the chart, and you can see this is a very modest improvement.
But I mean, the real putting those numbers into context really only happens when you put the employment rate for people without disability on top. OK? And so you can see that there really is this-- this thing. And this is what we're calling the disability employment gap.
And if you look at how those figures have changed since 2013, there's been a modest narrowing of the gap. It was 33.1 percentage points back in 2013. It's now down to 28.9%.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: My name is Gemma-Louise Stevenson, and I am a freelance reporter for Sky Sports. Alongside my reporting, I'm also an athlete. I don't like to stop. I'm quite busy. I just want to live life to the full, and I want to make the most of life.
Oh, my god.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah. So Gemma, here we are at Sky, your place of work-- my place of work sometimes too, actually. I'm going to ask you what sounds like a very dumb question. But for employers, how do they advertise to disabled people? So what is that? What is the thing that they need to do to make it very clear that this is who they're targeting?
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: I mean, I think for me, it's all very well having these training schemes. Like, I went through a training scheme myself. However, it was a very negative experience because the whole atmosphere wasn't inclusive originally to start with.
JUNE SARPONG: OK.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: I they're a good idea, but I'm also very cynical of them because you can have all these great, inclusive training schemes to get people into the workplace, to show them what it's like, to give them experience so that they can then go in a job. But if the workplace to start with is not an inclusive workplace, you're not going to retain those staff.
One thing I find about the Sky is, they're very inclusive. They treat me as an individual. I'm seen as a reporter first before a wheelchair user who happens to be a reporter, which is so important. Whether you're a reporter like myself or whether you're working in HR or in administration, you are working in HR, you are working in administration, you're working in media, before your disability.
I use the social model of disability, which is the favoured version amongst the disabled community. So it's not saying that my illness makes me disabled. It's the environment around me not being accessible makes me disabled.
JUNE SARPONG: What's your message to employers, and particularly HR directors, in terms of what they can do when they are creating an application and also making sure that that application reaches people with disabilities, and then secondly, once they do hire people with disabilities, make sure that they're able to thrive within their companies?
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: I think my biggest point would be, treat everybody as an individual.
JUNE SARPONG: Ah!
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: One thing--
JUNE SARPONG: Oh, no, no, no, no. This is powerful.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: Yeah.
JUNE SARPONG: It's not about treating everybody equally as such. It's treating everybody as an individual, understanding that we all have individual needs.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: Yeah, because we all have different needs to be equal. To achieve equality is really based on treating everybody as an individual.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: It's very much talk to the person because we as disabled people are very good at communicating.
JUNE SARPONG: Because you have to be.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: We have to.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: And do you know what? We know it's not going to be perfect. We know it's never-- we're not striving for perfection. We're just striving for a way to work that enables us to work.
JUNE SARPONG: Striving for inclusion.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: Exactly.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
GEMMA-LOUISE STEVENSON: And things will go wrong. Even in the most inclusive environments, things will go wrong. But do you know what makes the difference between an employer I want to stay with and an employer I want to leave behind? The difference is is that they listen to me.
CAROLINE CASEY: Hi, my name is Caroline Casey, and I'm the founder of The Valuable 500.
JUNE SARPONG: In the BAME episode, we talked about the dangers of blanket terms.
CAROLINE CASEY: Yeah.
JUNE SARPONG: When you lump all people of colour together when their lived experiences are so different. The same applies to disability, whether--
CAROLINE CASEY: Absolutely.
JUNE SARPONG: --whether it's physical, sensory, or cognitive. It's a very different lived experience.
CAROLINE CASEY: And then acquired or congenital.
JUNE SARPONG: There you go.
CAROLINE CASEY: You've just talked about BAME or the soft bigotry. Now, of course, finding out this conversation about disability is no different, right? This is not rocket science. But what I find very interesting, to your question about why is the issue of disability so on the edges of business, is because of the fear of the complexity, the fear of getting it wrong.
And actually, I'll be really honest. They would rather try and deal with things that may be simpler and more straightforward and easy because can you imagine what a business has to deal with in trying to get it all right? And I've noticed with disability, they say, but what do we do, Caroline? What do we do? And I'm like, but what did you do when you started to have the conversation about the environment? What did you do when you started to have the conversation about gender? Surely, you looked at what's happening in your business.
JUNE SARPONG: And what's happening elsewhere that's working.
CAROLINE CASEY: What did your competitors do? What did people outside do? Did you go to experts? Did you talk to the cohort of people? Because the most important thing about disability is just to ask.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah, just to ask.
CAROLINE CASEY: I don't know what your lived experience is. You don't know what mine is.
JUNE SARPONG: But we can have the conversation.
ALAN SMITH: When you look at the employment rates for different types of disability, you realise that looking at averages is very dangerous because, actually, for some disabilities like hearing, the employment rate's well over 60%.
JUNE SARPONG: Yes.
ALAN SMITH: But actually, down here we've got things like epilepsy, mental illness, speech impediments.
JUNE SARPONG: Learning difficulties.
ALAN SMITH: Yeah, exactly. And those rates are very, very different. So in fact, when you look at the average that we were just looking at, which is just over half, 51%, you can see there's the disability employment gap that we were looking at. But look at these people here with these kinds of disabilities. The gap is much wider.
JUNE SARPONG: Nowhere near.
ALAN SMITH: Nowhere near.
JUNE SARPONG: They're nowhere near even the average of people with disabilities in general.
ALAN SMITH: Exactly. So with something like epilepsy only, the employment rate is around about 33%.
JUNE SARPONG: But is-- I would've thought there are certain forms of disability because the thing with this is obviously people are self-identifying. There are a lot of people who cover their disabilities, one of the things that Caroline Casey was talking about. This is something she did herself. I would have thought there were a lot of these forms of disabilities that people probably don't actually report.
ALAN SMITH: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the weaknesses of a self-reported survey, which is that you're entirely reliant on someone submitting that information. And I mean, I think even with physical disabilities, looking at this data, the thing that's really interesting is not one of these categories actually reaches the employment rate of people without disabilities anyway.
Of course, the other thing that we can talk about with this is that what we're seeing here is our best data that we have on this at the moment, but it's nowhere near like as comprehensive as the data we would get for something like the gender pay gap where we're asking companies to report. This is-- this is a quarterly survey--
JUNE SARPONG: Do you think that's the sort of thing that needs to happen? Do you think that we need reporting on this? Obviously, there's discussions around reporting on BAME and pay gaps.
ALAN SMITH: I think that certainly the same arguments that you could make historically until we got the gender reporting and now with the pressure for BAME, I think you can make exactly the same arguments for disability, partly because what we've been looking at up to now is just the employment rates and this general pattern.
The physical disabilities have slightly higher employment rates generally than mental. But in fact, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have carried out some analysis of the disability pay gap. And that takes us much more into this territory where we're thinking, well, where do we start talking about a requirement for companies to report?
JUNE SARPONG: Can we talk about the role legislation has to play? So--
CAROLINE CASEY: Very important.
JUNE SARPONG: I'm very interested in some of the stuff that's going on in China in terms of actually mandating large businesses to make sure that a percentage of the workforce is from the disabled community. What are your thoughts on that kind of legislation?
CAROLINE CASEY: OK. So the quota question comes up. What I'm worried about on the quota systems, in many of the OECD countries who have these quotas about employment figures, which are often around 10% representation in the employment body--
JUNE SARPONG: And fines if you don't meet them.
CAROLINE CASEY: 50% of them pay the fines.
JUNE SARPONG: I know.
CAROLINE CASEY: They write them--
JUNE SARPONG: Into their budgets.
CAROLINE CASEY: --into their budgets. So I'm just like, ugh. So then there's no point to having legislation if we are not going to stand over our legislation.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
YANA KAKAR: I'm Yana Kakar, the global managing partner of Dalberg.
JUNE SARPONG: It was wonderful to have your team observe the roundtable and sort of take away the nuggets and then compile a to-do, an action point, for CEOs and HRs.
YANA KAKAR: Often there is a real focus on, am I recruiting a sufficiently diverse group, or am I incentivizing them sufficiently? But understanding how diversity drives better team performance and then how to incentivize diversity across the lifecycle once you have a diverse set of employees, that's where the trick is.
SHRITI VADERA: If you think about what's the value, what's the performance value that we're talking about from diversity and inclusion, it's the diversity of the thought and the decision making and the risk aversion and stopping groupthink.
ANDY HALDANE: And just on that, I mean, we still have on those dimensions of diversity pretty poor measurement and metrics, beyond the identifiable characteristics. And it's good that we're doing a better job of recording those. When it comes to personality differences, cognitive differences, we're still at the foothills there of thinking about how to get a fix on that when building genuinely diverse teams across all its dimensions.
SHRITI VADERA: The composition of the balance of characters in the team is so critical.
ANDY HALDANE: Exactly. And the notion, as Helena was saying, of genuinely team-based recruitment, performance evaluation, and promotion, that's-- we're still a world away from having.
NICK O'SHEA: Ignition is a brewery in South East London. We have a taproom as well, and we sell draft ale and bottled ale. Our secret is that our staff team have learning disabilities, but the beer they make is so good that we're able to sell it and pay them the London living wage of GBP 10.55 an hour.
JUNE SARPONG: Wow. I mean, we've been looking at the data in relation to people with disabilities in the workplace and particularly learning disabilities. That group in particular earn the least and are the least likely to be employed. Is that why you decided to focus on that side of disability?
NICK O'SHEA: Sort of. So yeah, you're absolutely right. It was 94% of people had no job. They've actually stopped measuring it, so I think the government now have just given up.
JUNE SARPONG: Because it's so bad.
NICK O'SHEA: What's the point? You're trying to sell an idea. And I think what we've learned about this is, it's about people. People employ people.
JUNE SARPONG: And also to create the kind of culture where your employees can thrive because if you're taking somebody with learning disabilities into an environment that isn't prepared for them, sometimes you can be doing that employee a disservice. So what's wonderful about here is, you've created the kind of environment that's inclusive enough for all your employees to thrive.
NICK O'SHEA: Oh, thank you. And I think--
JUNE SARPONG: It matters.
NICK O'SHEA: I think what's good about this is, actually, a lot of the changes that we've made in comparison to places where I've worked before, actually we've got a much healthier culture. And I've now gone and employed those in places where I will work. And it's a lot of the things we've had to do about being patient or getting a good routine or having a healthy-- the way in which you talk to each other being really healthy are actually just things anyone should do.
And I think we are an extreme version of what I'd like the world to be because our team is obviously very special. But I think the impact that someone could have with a learning disability for the better in your business is really good because it's great for morale. It's also great for sort of, I think, getting people just to behave better and think, actually, I'm at work, and I need to show a good example, and I need to be a better person.
JUNE SARPONG: You're an economist by trade.
NICK O'SHEA: Yes.
JUNE SARPONG: We won't hold that against you. But do you think that also influenced your decision to actually do something about this problem, knowing how many people were out of work and how much we're losing out on as an economy as a result of that?
NICK O'SHEA: Yeah. So it was a kind of-- it's a financial gamble in a way, I thought. The best way to show that our guys can generate you profit an income is set up a company.
JUNE SARPONG: Is to show it. Yeah.
NICK O'SHEA: Yeah. And so we've taken people with no-- I have no brewing experience. They have no brewing experience. I'm not mad about beer. I quite like our beer. And actually, we've created a business that is surplus-making and is a good employer based on their talents.
JUNE SARPONG: For anybody wanting to replicate your model, for corporations who want to look at doing something like this on a larger scale, what are the pitfalls? What are the difficulties? Because let's be frank about that too.
NICK O'SHEA: So I think it's a big cultural change. And we all know cultural change is the hardest. Yeah, it's really difficult. And there needs to be buy-in at the top, is the first thing. So the top honcho, they need to say, I'm really committed to this, and we're going to make it happen. And without that, it won't happen. It's very simple.
And then I think there's been a lot of the kind of systematisation of employment for people with disabilities. So there's a checklist, and they make them interview-ready. Then there's a CV-ready thing. And we just largely discarded that too.
JUNE SARPONG: You did?
NICK O'SHEA: Yes, we did. We did.
JUNE SARPONG: So you got rid of that whole process.
NICK O'SHEA: So what we've done is, we've started very much with the people and said, do you want to work with us? Are you really keen?
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
NICK O'SHEA: And then they'll say, yes. OK. Well, come and just do a shift because, actually, that's the best way for us to learn, because even if they can't do any of it, that's fine. But you can tell if the aptitude is there. And if they sort of go, OK-- because pulling a pint is actually really-- well, I find it really hard. And so--
JUNE SARPONG: It is. I've never done it.
NICK O'SHEA: It's really difficult because it come-- the head's too big. It's too small. It's too [INAUDIBLE]. It's too cold. But you can tell if someone's going to keep on going till they get it. And then once they get it, it's--
JUNE SARPONG: They've got it.
YANA KAKAR: If you want to truly, I suppose, maximise the performance potential of your diverse teams, you bring them on board, and then you identify, where are there sort of hidden constraints to top performance? Where are there ways in which diversity-- which we know has been statistically proven to be a key driver of financial performance? I mean, it was shocking to me to see that it was so-- so well quantified that literally it's a percentage of increased financial performance if you have a diverse team. And you can just see the needle go up and down.
JUNE SARPONG: But yet there's still resistance.
YANA KAKAR: There is.
JUNE SARPONG: It makes no sense.
YANA KAKAR: I know. Well, it's-- you sort of-- we spend enough time, I think, on the diagnosis or the demonstration of the business case.
JUNE SARPONG: OK.
YANA KAKAR: But then committing and executing the action-- that's what the next step is.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah. OK. So we have workforce. Let's talk about customers and consumers in terms of what a CEO or a leader within an organisation can do to add value in relation to diversity for the customers.
YANA KAKAR: The interesting thing about customers, or consumers, is, it is only a medium-known fact the degree to which the diverse consumer is growing in strength, buying power strength, decision-making power strength. I found it fascinating.
One of your attendees at the CEO roundtable, Karen Blackett, CEO-- powerful CEO in her own right-- and she said, look, over the last decade, we have seen minority buying power go from GBP 30-odd billion to GBP 300 billion. So let's just-- let's pause and think about that.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
YANA KAKAR: So shifting gears to say, well, who is this diverse customer that I have out there, and understanding--
JUNE SARPONG: That I'm not servicing properly.
YANA KAKAR: Exactly, and understanding, how do I actually tailor myself, my product, my solution, my approach, in order to capture them?
CAROLINE CASEY: The most provocative way to get anybody in business interested is to look at their bottom line.
JUNE SARPONG: Yeah.
CAROLINE CASEY: So let's just talk about the UK.
JUNE SARPONG: OK.
CAROLINE CASEY: You're worth GBP 249 billion. That is what this disability community is worth. There's massive competition going on on those high streets. Why are you not listening? I think it's really interesting when we see that supermarkets supplying for the 400,000 vegans because they see it as value, right? But let's be honest, because they see it as value. Well, what about--
JUNE SARPONG: 20% of the population?
CAROLINE CASEY: What about 20% of the population here? So I think Barclays have always made the intention very clear they want to be the most accessible and inclusive FTSE company. And they do that through their consumer offering. But the best example of all time for any of this is Apple.
JUNE SARPONG: Really?
CAROLINE CASEY: Why?
JUNE SARPONG: How so?
CAROLINE CASEY: Because Steve Jobs, we know, was probably very difficult, but he was a visionary. And he wanted to create the most beautiful products that everybody else in the world could use. That's called universal design.
Apple was the very first brand in the world to reach $1 trillion. Why do you think that is? It's because there are more of us who can use their products. Actually, Apple is a brand that most of the disabled community will choose.
JUNE SARPONG: So was that a consideration when they were designing--
CAROLINE CASEY: Yeah. He just wanted to have--
JUNE SARPONG: Wow, their hardware.
CAROLINE CASEY: --beautiful products--
JUNE SARPONG: I had no idea.
CAROLINE CASEY: --for everyone. Now, they don't shout about being an inclusive or an accessible company. It's universal design. Sometimes we forget that if we get design right for the full spectrum of disability, we'll probably get it right for all of us.
I kind of think the business case to incentivize business, let me just tell you, it's an $8 trillion market. It's a brand opportunity. It's an uncluttered space. It's the acquisition and retention of talent. It's about innovation. It's productivity.
The next generation really care about spending money and working with companies that allow you to be who you are. Why have we not seen accelerated change? I'll go back to where we began-- because the most powerful force on this planet is making a decision to leave the disability community as an invisible market.
And unless it gets into this game, meaningfully invests in it, we will continue to see, no matter what-- no matter what legislation you do in the world, because let's be honest. Money runs the world-- power, money, business. It affects politics. And I don't think any legislation will be able to solve this if businesses don't take responsibility, but-- and take up the opportunity.
I believe diversity has a triple-line benefit to business for innovation, productivity, and bottom line. It's a triple-line [INAUDIBLE], the individual, to society and peace at large, and to the business bottom line. I mean, what is not to like?