Disabled man in wheelchair looking at mirror

It is now nearly 20 years since the passing of the first Disability Discrimination Act outlawed discrimination against those with a disability. However, despite substantial progress, disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people and recent research from Scope highlights that negative public attitudes towards disability prevail. Scope reports that:

  • Two thirds (67%) of the British public feels uncomfortable talking to disabled people.
  • Over a third (36%) of people tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else.

The Government and employers have worked to address inequalities at work for people with disabilities and progress has been made, but clearly there is still some way to go.

Over the last few decades’ new research from the fields of neuroscience and social psychology has shed light onto the working of the human brain and the concept of unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are simply our unintentional people preferences, which are created and maintained by the way our brains work, to sort data quickly and are influenced by our upbringing, the media and our life experiences.

The Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei) have worked with employers for some time to understand and mitigate against the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace and in doing so spotted a worrying trend: Unconscious bias against disabled people appeared to be higher than any other social group.

As a result of this observation, enei conducted research to explore:

  • If the strength of bias against disabled people is stronger than for the characteristics of gender and race.
  • If unconscious attitudes towards people with disabilities has changed since the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Unconscious bias was measured using a computer-based test called Implicitly®, which measures the speed and response patterns in the way people carry out simple sorting tasks.

The findings are remarkable. enei results show that:

  • Over one in three people show an unconscious bias against those with a disability, higher than levels of bias on the basis of gender or race.
  • Despite claims that the London 2012 Paralympic Games signalled a change in attitudes towards disability, levels of unconscious bias are higher now than they were in 2010/2011 before the Games.

The results demonstrate an alarming level of bias against disabled people and that despite the apparently positive impact the Paralympic Games has had on public attitudes towards disabled people, this may not translate into the unconscious perceptions and biases that influence decisions.

Whilst unconscious bias is developed and maintained by the brain’s automatic sorting process, there are ways to mitigate against the effects and action must be taken now to change public attitudes and reduce inequalities for people with disabilities, both within society and the workplace.

enei recommend that employers take the following actions to reduce the impact of unconscious bias against disabled people in the workplace:

  • Measure the unconscious bias of recruiters and key decision makers to raise awareness of bias, as understanding your own biases, learning how to overcome them whilst having the right tools and support in place, is key to removing barriers for disabled people.
  • Encourage recruiters to put forward more candidates with disabilities to break down stereotypes and build more role models.
  • Review positive action programmes and the process for agreeing reasonable adjustments for the risks of triggering stereotypes amongst decision makers, the staff (including staff with disabilities) and the public.
  • Consider confining work on reasonable adjustments to a small group of staff to minimise the exposure to staff that don’t understand the process and could make negative assumptions about the cost and impact.
  • Avoid ‘talking up’ the impact of interventions which were thought to make disability bias less likely until the hard evidence is to hand as there is a risk of ‘back-lash’ effects.
  • Review the impact of disability initiatives such as ‘two ticks’ and the ‘Disability Confident Campaign’ to ensure they are producing long term and lasting effects on the experiences of disabled people.
  • Use positive disabled role models to show the positive effect disabled people can have at work. Focus on their achievements at work and not on their disability.
  • Encourage honest discussions about disability in the workplace. Train line managers about different types of disabilities and how to talk to someone about their disability, giving them the confidence to have effective communication with different types of people.
  • Review approach to reasonable adjustments to allow provision for extra help, reduced or different hours, reduced workload or different duties.
  • Make sure key people in the organisation are aware of Access to Work, the support offered and the funding that may be available.
  • Monitor disability within the workforce to gain management information to help inform future decision-making. At a minimum monitor disability: At recruitment stage and of staff with different performance ratings and of Leavers