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Having just finished my career in tax as a profoundly deaf senior manager for various accountancy firms I am now taking the brave steps of venturing out on my own to talk about disability and why inclusion matters. While I feel society has made some progress in diversity and inclusion from a disability angle, I do think there is some way to go before we have a truly inclusive workplace.

While I was working at my last firm, I helped to set up a network called Ability EY for people working at EY with disabilities/abilities/impairments/long term health conditions. At the time of my departure it had over 500 members and our objectives were to provide awareness training to the firm, give mentoring support and increase accessibility for our members.

It was made clear from my work with Ability EY that while we were recruiting more people with disabilities and hence ticked the diversity box, there was still some work to do on changing people’s behaviours and mindset around inclusion and accessibility at work.

Disability can be seen as “too difficult” by some and this can render people with disabilities as invisible in the workplace. It’s a well known fact that like attracts like i.e. people tend to gravitate to similar people and so people with disabilities can miss out on cultural affinity.

So why do inclusion and accessibility at work matter?

Inclusion means every employee can bring their authentic self to work irrespective of their background. By creating an inclusive workplace employees can thrive and succeed and companies can fully access the skills they bring to the workplace. In additon employees with disabilities can feel safe in an inclusive environment to disclose their disabilities to their employer knowing that they will be supported. This creates a sense of belonging and engagement and helps the employees to be successful. So there is a huge mental health benefit from being able to disclose and work in an inclusive workplace. If you are not able to disclose, your anxiety levels can increase along with your frustration at the lack of understanding. Furthermore your levels of engagement and confidence can also fall.

Various surveys have found that majority of employees with disabilities don’t feel their workplace culture is fully committed to helping them thrive and succeed. Also a high number of people are not disclosing their disabilities because they don’t feel it’s safe to do so. Disclosure is a very personal and difficult decision. It took me years working at EY before I felt it was safe for me to disclose my deafness and as soon as I disclosed, my mental health improved.

Organisations needs to take steps to make such disabilities feel so safe and included that they are willing to disclose their conditions and thereby help their employees thrive and succeed. Without implementing these steps, it is not only difficult to create an inclusive workplace but also to confront non inclusive behaviours and change fundamental assumptions that are embedded in core values and culture.

So what steps can a business take to create a more inclusive and accessible workplace culture in which employees with disabilities can thrive and succeed?

Bold inclusive leadership – change needs to happen at the top. People look to leaders for role models and if they see leaders being proactively inclusive this will then influence their own behaviours.

Promoting role models who have disclosed and shared their personal stories – this can help other people feel more included and more willing to disclose and ask for help. Their experience can help others thrive.

Training staff in inclusive practices such as learning how to interact with disabled people. We need to constantly ask staff what they know about disability – we can’t just train them, tick a box and say we have done this. Such training needs to be continuous.

The workplace culture needs to have space to be creative and collaborative – there is no one right way to do things. Having this space will give employees with disabilities the freedom to innovate and bring their whole self to work, while providing support as and when they need it.

Formal mental wellness policies and programs should be set up. Having supportive and supported employee resource groups in place to help people with disabilities in the workplace is key. Support from the leadership for these groups is important too.

Proper processes for workplace adjustments including accessible technology should be put in place and carried out on a case by case basis.

Having an ally in your workplace is absolutely vital. While they need not be disabled themselves, having an ally who has your back and regularly checks in with you is crucial to someone with a disability. I was fortunate to have had an ally for the large part of my career at EY and it made a huge difference to my mental health.

Win the internal battle – open the hearts and minds of leadership team. Get them to experience disability first hand e.g navigating the workspace in wheelchairs etc.

Any commitment to sustainable change to a more inclusive workplace must start with establishing specific and ongoing action points which should be embedded in all areas of the business e.g recruitment processes and training. Finally such action points should be underpinned by a well thought out D&I strategy with clear goals and objectives.

Sarah Petherbridge worked at EY for 25 years in senior management with a profound deafness and set up a disability network called Ability EY to support people working at EY with disabilities/abilities - this had over 500 members. Whilst at EY Sarah provided disability awareness training, spoke at many events internally and externally around inclusion in the workplace and ran campaigns based on personal stories, amongst other activities. Sarah has recently joined the Speakers Collective as she starts her journey as an independent inclusion consultant.

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