A rising purple tide

Mike Adams OBE, CEO of Purple, talks to Chris Seekings about the vast pool of untapped talent available to businesses that actively seek to employ workers with disabilities

In a nutshell, what is the business case for companies increasing their number of disabled workers?

Our charity is focused on getting businesses to understand disability and the potential value of disabled people to their organisations. That could be partly driven by corporate responsibility, but also by the £249bn ‘purple pound’ – the consumer spending power of disabled people and their families in the UK per annum. On the other side of that, we know that disabled people are the most loyal in terms of brand loyalty, so our argument is that good businesses will have a widening consumer base and be more sustainable if those customers are reflected in the workforce.

What is stopping them?

We did some research among hiring managers, and something like 45% were concerned that employing disabled people meant that the job they wanted doing couldn’t be done – so that is instantly your first barrier. But it is not so much about prejudice any more, it is people being worried about the right language and etiquette, not wanting to say the wrong thing. The default position becomes swerving the conversation all together. There is still an issue around what I call the ‘first conversation’. 

How do you get businesses to have that conversation?

We have a package of support that provides customer service training, first conversation training, and then we work specifically with HR departments on their policies and practices in relation to the attraction and retainment of disabled people. The solutions are quite straightforward.

What practical steps can businesses take to attract disabled workers? 

One example I always give is around websites: most people apply for jobs online, but if you have a disability and that website is not accessible, then you probably won’t access that organisation. There is a ‘click away pound’ regarding poor customer service and inaccessible websites that is costing the UK economy around £11.6bn a year and rising. For example, screen readers, used by many blind people, will view capital letters as acronyms – so if you write in caps, it will take 10 minutes to read a sentence. If you are going to use visuals like red or green, then have the words there too – there are three million people with colour blindness who might not necessarily be able to understand the navigation of your site. We have had these fascinating conversations with web developers that are worried that they will have to make a boring site for it to be accessible, but it’s nothing like that. If you are going to have visuals, just have an alternative too, for example. These are really simple steps that are absolutely changeable overnight.

And what about retainment?

Businesses need to create a sustainable culture and environment where people with additional needs feel open to disclose those needs, so that a reasonable adjustment that would make them more productive can be put in place. Around one in five of us – 13 million people – have disability rights, so this is not a marginal issue; of those, about four in five have hidden impairments. Businesses must give out information and positive statements about what they do for people with disabilities, and encourage people to disclose their impairments. But we know that less than 10% of businesses have a marketing strategy targeting the disability market. We also know there are some people that are still worried they won’t even get short-listed for a job if they click the disabled box when they are applying. And If you look at the statistics, no business is near having one in five disabled workers, and one reason is hidden impairments that people do not disclose. Businesses need board or senior management buy-in on this issue. We wrote a comprehensive guide with KPMG last May, Leading from the front, about what boards need to help line managers and frontline staff support people with disabilities.

What are your thoughts on disability quotas?

“There is a huge talent pool of disabled people out there that will add value to your business”

I actually believe that people need to be appointed on merit, and if you are not careful you create an environment where disabled people are seen as ‘second class’ or subsidised because of the need to hit quotas. There is a huge talent pool of disabled people out there that will add value to your business, and Purple has been successful by getting companies to see disabilities as a commercial opportunity.  However, I think there are short-term measures that might need to be put in place for businesses to get traction. If an organisation has got a disclosure rate of 3% for disabled workers, we know it should be at least 10%; I think metrics focus the mind and I am not against quotas if used as a short-term solution to drive change.

Tell us about your online disability employment agency.

It is unique beacuse it targets disabled candidates, but is a networking platform as well as a recruitment platform. Rather than your traditional job board, it is more akin to LinkedIn. We know that many disabled people won’t disclose their disability, or acquire their disability in life – particularly if it is mental health or a long-term health condition – so there is a need for networks for people who are new to this and need to talk freely. Our vision is to marry talented disabled candidates with organisations that have a public commitment to disability, as well as providing a networking platform. 

Have you seen a big shift in attitudes in recent years?

I have seen some social shifts, and there are two big things around disability that will be mentioned when the history of the 21st century is written. One will be the 2012 Paralympics in London, and the other, for a certain generation and some people, was Lost Voice Guy winning Britain’s Got Talent in 2018. He brought disability into the homes of 20m people, and he won because he was funny. 

And among businesses?

I don’t think there has been a seismic shift – we are on a slow journey. But we recently had Purple Tuesday, which was a call to action around the value of the purple pound and the need to improve accessibility. You can go on purpletuesday.org.uk and see all the businesses that participated, and I would say that retail is leading the charge. I think people are starting to accept the Purple argument that disability is a value, and an opportunity for businesses that doesn’t simply fit within a corporate social responsibility role. We are working with a wide range of businesses across all sectors and sizes, who are starting to get it and want to do it for a variety of reasons. 

Further reading

Find out more about Purple at wearepurple.org.uk

Read the KPMG report at bit.ly/2WIKpHD

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