Breaking the glass ceiling for disability

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For disabled people false assumptions of what they can and can’t achieve can limit their progress

I’ve made it to be CEO of a vibrant, growing company. I believe that everyone can. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And there are particular challenges for disabled people like me. The ‘glass ceiling’ doesn’t just exist for gender and social class – disabled people are less likely to hold top positions too. The DWP estimates that non-disabled people are three times more likely to earn more than £80,000, and our own research shows that many employers are still concerned about hiring someone with a disability.

We have a tendency to place people in certain categories based on what they look like or their background. For disabled people false assumptions of what they can and can’t achieve in the workplace can limit their progress. They are not the only ones losing out – so do the companies that overlook them.

From a young age it was my ambition to be successful in business. But subconsciously I think it was a way of proving that I’m much more than just a disabled person. I’ve certainly faced barriers, and through the social enterprise I now lead I want to bring about systemic change and a new narrative for disability in the workplace.

One of our targets is to get 20,000 more disabled people into work in the next 10 years, but it’s not enough just to get someone in the door. Maximising the potential that an individual can bring means supporting them to develop their career and rise up through the company. HR plays a vital role in nurturing talent for people with and without disabilities. It’s not a case of doing something kind, it’s about maximising the potential of an underrepresented sector of the workforce, for mutual benefit.

It begins with creating a supportive culture. Disabled people need to be able to speak openly with their managers about the support they need. Specific disability training gives line managers the right skills and confidence.

Early in my career I applied for an apprenticeship to be a business manager. It was meant to be an all-day interview but, five minutes in, the chair of the panel said: ‘I think you know and we know that this isn’t going to work, so let’s call it quits’. Perhaps if he had been trained to see potential, not limitation, things would have been different.

It also means putting policies in place to ensure that ‘the way things have always been’ doesn’t negatively affect people with disabilities. Traditional interviewing methods can put some people at a disadvantage – for example, psychometric testing isn’t great for candidates on the autistic spectrum. Working hours can be more flexible; recognising that many disabled people have to balance medical appointments with their work schedule. Often there isn’t a need for a radical overhaul, just for policies to be more widely promoted and then followed.

I’ve never wanted to be labelled as ‘disabled’: I want to be recognised for who I am and my skills. What drives me now is creating those opportunities for other disabled people.

Breaking the glass ceiling for disability represents a huge business opportunity. A diverse workforce leads to higher productivity, better skills, and lower staff churn.We know that just a 5% increase in the number of disabled people in employment would boost UK GDP by £23 billion by 2030. By changing practices and attitudes together we can create growth and success.

Mike Adams is CEO of Purple

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