THE BLOG

Are You OK With a Lady in the Gents?

17/07/2013 11:31 BST | Updated 15/09/2013 10:12 BST

Not so long ago there were separate "Ladies' Compartments" on trains. And indeed, more seriously, not only compartments of trains but also whole areas of employment that were closed to women. Now, that seems a thing of the dim and distant past. And the debate has moved on to whether we are all sufficiently cool for Ally McBeal-style unisex toilets at work.

I don't think in the whole of my adult life I have ever heard anyone say that they did not feel comfortable working alongside a person of the opposite sex, or any particular sexual orientation, or religion or ethnicity. That's because - I always assumed - we have become a much more inclusive society. And so our workplaces have become more inclusive too.

And that's a joy isn't it? Because one of the many pleasures of work is that it brings you into contact with different people and different perspectives and so it enriches your life - and hopefully theirs too.

I have never, ever heard anyone say either that they would not feel comfortable working alongside a disabled person. But if you look around you at work today, you may not see a disabled person - because fewer than 11% of the UK working population comprises disabled people. Which is odd really, because about 20% of people in the UK of working age are disabled people.

I don't believe that's because employers or their staff wish to exclude disabled people. And I certainly don't believe it's because disabled people don't want to work. And I'm certain that many, many customers would be delighted to see a more diverse workforce whether that's at their local supermarket or in their accountant's office. I think it may be something around confidence. And the good thing about that, is that it's fixable.

That's why I was delighted to be asked to be on the steering group for a major Disability Employment Conference, which is being organised by the Department of Work and Pensions and will take place this Thursday. The aim of the conference is to support employers to become #DisabilityConfident.

We know that insufficient confidence in their own abilities and skills is a major reason why well-qualified candidates sometimes don't apply for a job - and this applies also to disabled people. More importantly, even when disabled people do apply for a job an employer's anxiety about how it will work can sometimes stop them from fairly considering a disabled applicant. Often, it only takes a few simple adjustments at low cost to support someone in the workplace. And there may be public funding available for this through Access to Work.

Part of what we do at Leonard Cheshire Disability is to work with employers to build their confidence and help them understand that they and disabled people both have something important to offer each other and how it can be made possible. It is important that we are all clear that this is about give and take - a mutually beneficial arrangement.

One example is Martin. Martin has Down's Syndrome. He had been a volunteer for a number of years and is now employed as a kitchen assistant. He was offered the job because he was the best-qualified candidate on the day for the job - not because he has a disability. He tells his own story here.

It is a pleasure to be part of someone's journey into employment. But, in the future, rather than highlighting organisations that have great records on hiring disabled people, I would like to see it become the norm. We still have a long way to go before a fully inclusive workplace is unremarkable. But I hope that we will get at least one step closer if all employers become #DisabilityConfident.

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