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So your organisation is enlightened enough to have employed disabled people; you have invested the time in researching the well documented business benefits employing people with disabilities brings; you know they are likely to be  equally as productive as your non-disabled colleagues, stay in their job longer, take less sick leave, be at least as qualified as others, and what’s more your new company can justifiably bask in the glow of its new reputation as an ethical business that values diversity, boosts morale internally and is favoured by customers for valuing diversity. Is that it? A marriage made in heaven?

Maybe not. A recent study by ACAS has pointed out rather concerning findings that disabled people have far lower levels of engagement and organisational commitment than average workers. Even more startlingly these statistically significant findings are not found in other differences of gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

To be clear on what we mean by engagement, the study defines it as: “A workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being .” (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009, 9)

What’s happening? Are disabled employees side-lined, not consulted on business decisions, do they feel they have little say in the running of the organisation, are they excluded and marginalised? Perhaps once they are “in” these employees are being forgotten about and left to get on with things by themselves?

The ACAS report does not go into possible reasons for lower engagement. Perhaps there are hidden barriers to communication because of a disability. Are communication tools set up to accommodate those with sight or hearing difficulties? Are managers aware of how best to communicate with a person with autism or a learning difficulty? All these are crucial considerations, but also we believe there are key general skills managers need to be effective at fully engaging their staff, especially the disabled:

Caroline Dove, Personal Effectiveness & Leadership Coach at Success Inspired Partners, sums it up brilliantly in the recent blog she wrote for Evenbreak: “When managing a disability or long term health condition your manager is an important part of your team. The refrain “people join organisations but leave managers” gets to the core importance of having a good relationship with your manager in order to thrive. From my experience of managing two long term health conditions for most of my professional life, and with my hat on as a coach of mangers and leaders, a couple of my managers have been true catalysts of my success”.

Here are Caroline’s tips for the best managers:

  1.  They were interested in me as a whole person neither avoiding talking about my disability nor being fixated on it.   I felt supported in how, when and who I shared my story with.
  2. They made it clear that the organisation was more interested in what I could do rather than in what I couldn’t.
  3. They encouraged me to be candid and solutions focused about where I needed help even when I didn’t realise I was soldiering on excessively.   These were the building blocks for my way of being resilient and adaptable as my health conditions (MS plus visual impairment) fluctuated.
  4. There was an interest in keeping up to date on any adjustments I needed, being prepared to step in to encourage things to happen so that I could perform at my best – an A3 printer and Zoomtext software where quite non-standard for our IT department.
  5. Disability related challenges were seen as an opportunity for learning and progress in getting my team to work together more closely. My expertise was showcased for others to learn from me whilst I benefitted from less experienced colleagues boundless energy and keen eyesight when having to wade through organizational charts of 200+ people on one page or produce the packs that accompanied my leadership training sessions

In addition, Caroline suggests conversations disabled employees can initiate to help their managers to be effective:

  • I’d like you to understand how I manage my disability / impairment at work.   The practical adjustments that enable me to be most effective are [provide details].
  • The support / guidance I need from you to be at my best is [insert your requirements].
  • I’d like to keep you in the loop on my adjustments.   It would be helpful if we could do this [state if there are any outstanding adjustments that are affecting your performance and any help you need from your manager to accelerate progress].

If businesses are not sure how to best engage their disabled employees, there are many organisations such as The Business Disability Forum that can give advice and help. CEO Susan Scott-Parker, states that “if it’s a business issue, it’s a disability issue” and organisations must engage with their disabled employees equally.

Kate Nash Associates deliver advice and support to employers to set up support networks for disabled employees and run training courses for staff and employees to ensure they are the best they can be at work.

Perhaps the ACAS report is a wakeup call for each organisation to take a cold hard look at whether they are including their disabled employees in the values, goals and organisation of their company. Research shows that “employers of choice” are those that value and nurture their employees, including the disabled.

Employing disabled people could be one of the shrewdest business decisions you ever make, for all sorts of reasons, but you will only reap the full benefits if, like a marriage, managers work at engagement to get the best out of their employees.

Jane Hatton M.Sc FCIPD FITOL, Director, Evenbreak