As the world of work adjusts to a normal following the COVID-19 pandemic, Caroline Casey writes that this presents a perfect opportunity to ensure the workplace, and society as a whole, going forward can be as disability-inclusive as possible.

As society and business recovers from the pandemic, it is important to use this moment of national rebuilding to create a new and better normal. To transform our society into a community that is accessible, accommodating, and respects the equality of all people, including persons with disabilities. Because while many employers advocate for a fully inclusive world where everyone is respected for who they are, there are still real barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Barriers to inclusion that mean that many people with disabilities are held back more by society than by their differences.

Putting inclusive employment on the business agenda

Disability is not a minority issue. 14.1 million adults in the UK live with a disability. That's one in every five adults. People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the UK, yet they are too often the least accounted for when it comes to equal rights and opportunities. We need to bring together employers and policymakers to level out the playing field for employees and potential employees with disabilities. And that doesn't just mean equality of pay but equality of opportunity too.

That's why we need every business to adopt practices that close the opportunity gap and make disability central to their business strategies. But right now, 80 per cent of the companies we talk to don't know where to start with their disability action plans. This needs to change. There are a range of simple strategies that businesses can implement to ensure they are considering people from all walks of life.

One step in the right direction is flexible working practices. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to a more flexible work culture. Hours have become more flexible, and more people have opted to work from home. From the start of the pandemic, offices across the country adopted more employee-centric working practices in response to the threat to employees' health posed by COVID-19. These transformative structural changes are especially beneficial to employees with disabilities since they can more easily schedule their workdays to accommodate their needs.

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If, in times when our collective health is under threat, we can find the resources to help people to continue to work, employers should be able to do the same for people with disabilities. By promoting flexible working practices, businesses would not only help people with disabilities find and continue to work but expand their talent pool at the same time. We need to work together as a society. Not only when times are hard for all of us. But when times are better too. This is what we must remember as we come out of the pandemic.

Tackling the opportunity gap

The truth is that we still have a long way to go. In 2020, only 17 per cent of people with a disability were employed in the UK. For people without a disability, the employment figure was more than three times higher at 75.2 per cent. With such low representation, it is no surprise that people with disabilities are not yet fully considered in the workplace.

But in recent times, positive steps have been made. US President Joe Biden's decision to appoint a director of disability policy within the Domestic Policy Council and his administration's Plan for Full Participation and Equality for People with Disabilities is a step in the right direction. Now we need to involve the business world. Companies have a huge role in tackling exclusion and have to be held accountable for fair and inclusive hiring strategies. And there's a business benefit – a recent report from Accenture showed that companies that offered an inclusive working environment for people with disabilities on average had 28 per cent higher revenues: 30 per cent higher profit and two times higher income than industry peers.

There is no innovation without inclusion

Beyond the pandemic, we are facing a future with challenges on multiple fronts. If we are to overcome the global problems facing us today, we need everyone at the table. Those of us who live different lives may have insights that could be a superpower. Different ways of seeing the world are even more powerful when the world as we know it has changed. There are also financial benefits to be had here. Research by the World Economic Forum shows that those businesses which include people with disabilities are twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns than those who choose to exclude. This may be because the disabled community control almost £10 trillion in annual disposable income across the world. It is a smart business move to recognise people with disabilities as customers and employees, and to provide them the same opportunity to contribute. We know that increasing diversity in business increases innovation. Now is not the time to slow this innovation down. It is the time to bring everyone together to tackle the problems of the future.

COVID-19 has been a powerful lesson. We are not immortal. If we all live long enough, we will all become disabled. This highlights the need for companies to take a longer-term approach to investment in the planning, design, and construction of their business. The pandemic has shown us that we need to change the way we interact with disability. Disability can affect each and every one of us. That is why we need action that ends the exclusion of those with disabilities through a truly inclusive business culture. A culture where businesses take practical steps to embrace difference and the potential it creates. If we revert back to the practices and policies of the past, we will have missed one of this generation's most powerful opportunities to grow. But if we seize this moment and make businesses truly open to everyone, businesses will not only be welcoming new employees but also new ideas and new horizons, and new customers.

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