Breaking barriers: How accessible is it to work as a disabled person within the charity sector?

The charity sector claims to be at the forefront of inclusion and diversity, but how accessible is it really for those with disabilities?

Recent Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)figures showed that in 2021,
female and disabled charity workers earn “significantly less” than their counterparts. For every £1 earned by a male worker, disabled charity staff earn 87p. Women earn 86p.

The same figures also showed that a fifth of charity sector roles are held by someone with a disability. But if you are one of that 20.6%, what is it really like?

For the people we spoke to, it was mixed. Often, the charities whose services support those with disabilities are better at employing staff with disabilities, with processes in place to make the recruitment process more accessible and work spaces adapted for those who needed it. For other charities, it can almost be like a lottery.

“Negative attitudes about disabled people are prevalent across all sectors,” says Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK. “Incorrect assumptions, low expectations and prejudice are all too common.”

Disabled people in the sector know that all too well. Roughly five years ago, freelance comms professional, Francesca Baker was offered a communications position at a charity. When waiting for the contract to come through, she notified the organisation that she would need a couple of hours off a week for therapy, which she would then later make up. Four hours later, the offer was revoked because the charity was restructuring.

Baker says that at the time, she didn’t say anything. “Now I would be braver and speak out. I was quite surprised and it was a shame because it was something in my corporate jobs before that was quite easy.”

Covid-19 has now necessitated a need for greater flexibility, and Baker recognises that some things have changed since the pandemic, but feels that charities should be held to account. Hadi adds: “For office-based staff, the pandemic has opened up opportunities for flexible and remote working. Some disabled people have found this shift very positive as it enables them to better balance work with fluctuating health conditions or energy limitations. It also cuts out or reduces some very difficult and stressful commutes to work.”

Similarly, Sophia Kleanthous, a campaigner for disabled rights has previously worked in the sector and recently began the twitter account @CharitySoAbled, which aims to encourage individuals from across the sector to share their experiences.

Around seven years ago, Kleanthous started working in campaign and policy roles, and when applying for these, she was often asked to declare any disabilities. “I started noticing that when I declared my disability I wouldn’t get interviews, and when I didn’t declare my disability I would get an interview,” she explains.

She also found that recruiters were reluctant to pass details on as soon as she mentioned accessibility needs or part-time.

A 2022 survey by recruitment consultancy Prospectus found that 38% of its respondents said they were disabled, with 30% revealing they have not declared it to their employer. Nearly a quarter said they were not aware of any disabled people in their organisations.

A positive example

But it’s not all bad – there are charities who do provide an accessible workplace for their employees.

Zara Borji Pour is employed by FoodCycle as a project support officer, moving up from a volunteer to her current role. She has spina bifida, which affects her mobility and requires her to use a wheelchair.

“This is my first job in the charity sector and I feel [FoodCycle] has been very understanding and accommodating towards my needs,” she says.

She believes overall there could be more representation within the sector, but FoodCycle has made an effort to be more inclusive. “There has been a great deal of effort made to recruit volunteers with disabilities and it’s been great to see the influx of volunteers with disabilities.”

Meanwhile, Mencap are one of the charities setting an example for others in the sector, employing over 200 people with a learning disability. Ismail Kaji is the charity’s parliamentary affairs support officer and the co-clerk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Learning Disabilities. He also has a learning disability, whereby communication
can be difficult, particularly if complicated phrases and jargon are included.

In his role, Mencap provides the support he needs to do his job effectively, such as reviewing his tasks, reading text aloud and help in meetings where needed. Like Borji Pour, Kaji hasn’t worked for another charity, but has worked within different roles in the organisation and praises the charity’s commitment to people with accessibility needs.

A changing environment

So what can other charities do to encourage more inclusive recruitment processes, and make workplaces more accessible for disabled staff?

Recently, Guide Dogs pledged to tackle ‘disabling’ work environments for its vision impaired staff. It admitted that its “built and digital environments, processes and culture has and can be disabling” for some of its vision impaired team.

Its diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for 2022 said: “Guide Dogs recognises the value of staff who are vision-impaired in shaping the organisation. Crucially, we recognise
that their experience of working here hasn’t always been positive”.

A compulsory training scheme for staff on vision impairment is to be introduced, with bi-annual refresher sessions. “We will equip them by raising awareness to ensure they always consider the intent and impact of their actions,” added the charity.

Guide Dogs has also pledged to improve diversity by reviewing and refreshing unconscious bias training as well as working to “celebrate the range of lived experiences” of its colleagues and volunteers. This includes “ensuring under-represented and often excluded voices are amplified”.

But an accessible workplace starts right at the recruitment stage. Kleanthous has had to ask for extra time on application tests and believes things like this should be offered immediately; whether that’s asking for the application form in a different scale or having the questions for the interview beforehand.

“They may seem like an advantage but actually they’re putting the disabled person on the same level as someone who isn’t disabled,” she says. “I think a lot of people are scared around offering accessibility, but it works for everyone and it can improve work and your change of success at work.”

Giving the accessibility support at the recruitment stage, Kleanthous argues, also shows that the organisation is willing to show disabled applicants that they’re not going to be discriminated against. Having a disability group and disability advocates can go a long way to doing that, she adds.

The recruitment process and the way that’s framed is also essential.

At Mencap, Kaji was able to demonstrate his skills in an interview instead of just talking about them, and a panel assesses the candidate, asking what they know about learning disabilities and other such questions.

“Recruitment processes can be very formulaic, often including a wordy advert, long personal
statements and an interview with set questions,” says Hadi. “This often benefits people who are comfortable and used to this system.

Job adverts should be clearly written and more widely circulated amongst under-represented groups. Assessments should be more flexible and designed to enable the candidate to share their skills and abilities.”

Borji Pour agrees that job descriptions should make it clear that anyone is welcome to apply to the role. “Let them express their abilities and limitations and don’t allow any misconceptions cloud your judgement on whether a candidate is right for the role.”

Hadi concludes: “Asking whether people have specific needs or require support should be part of a regular review and appraisal meetings. Many people with impairments or long-term health conditions may not identify as disabled, and discussing whether adjustments are needed would send a strong signal that the organisation wants to support, not exclude, disabled people.

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