Did you know that there were 5.15 million working-age disabled workers in employment from January to March 2023?  Now this may sound like a big statistic, which it is, and it is actually an increase of 325,000 from statistics gathered in December 2021. However, when we look at the comparison between disabled people in work as opposed to non-disabled people who are currently employed, this really does highlight that there is still significant work to do. 

The percentage of disabled workers in employment at the start of year was 53.7%, and this is actually unchanged from the year prior. So, the comparison, the employment rate for people who are not disabled and in paid employment was 82.7%. A significant difference.

So, what can be done to help narrow this gap?

If you have a colleague who is a wheelchair user, have you ever thought about how you treat them?  Have you ever asked them about their experience of being treated as being somehow ‘less’ than someone who can walk, rather than moving around using wheels? If you did, what would they say?

Many people who have a disability such as wheelchair users face micro-discriminations on a daily basis and frankly it’s exhausting to continually have to point them out. Yet if we don’t point them out, how will anyone learn to accept us for all that we can do – rather than assuming we ‘cannot’ complete tasks, get to places, move around, drive or interact independently?

In the workplace, it’s refreshing when your colleagues simply stop seeing a wheelchair and start to see you – as an individual, as a functioning intelligent being with much to offer.

Is your workplace like that?

What does a ‘reasonable adjustment” look like?

The Government states that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments, to ensure that workers with disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions, are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their job. This rule applies to all employees at every level, including trainees, apprentices, contract workers and business partners.

To give you an idea of what a reasonable adjustment could look like, here are some real-life examples where employers have listened and adjusted their workplaces, which has resulted in that employee thriving and fulfilling their role to their maximum potential.

A young man with autism, who is known to me, wanted to apply for a role in a builders/warehouse type setting. Part of the recruitment process was all online which for this young man wasn’t suitable. The employer allowed this person to have 1-2-1 support with the online application components which needed completing that way, and the rest of the sections were printed off for him to complete by hand.

Due to his autism, he also worked best when being given one task at a time. He worked just as efficiently (actually more efficiently) than his colleagues, but the way his daily tasks were given to him were just delivered in a slightly different way.

This is a simple example of a reasonable adjustment which means now the young man is in a job he loves and is thriving at, and the employer is retaining an outstanding member of staff, and what did it actually cost? A few printed sheets of paper.

When someone becomes disabled while of working age:

Something which often gets forgotten about is that an employee may actually acquire their disability whilst in their job. I have seen several people being offered a phased return to work following an accident/injury or health condition, including options such as flexible/part-time working hours, which has allowed them to eventually return to their role, often in the same capacity as they did prior to their time away from work.

Train your staff to help them be more inclusive:

Another important factor to consider is offering employees training opportunities to become more educated on how to engage with disabled people, this is something else which can make a real difference both at work and at home and here’s why. 

I have lost count of the number of times that I have gone to pay for my own shopping in a store and the cashier/person behind the desk has either spoken to/given change/receipts to the non-disabled person with me, even though I personally brought the items to the till. This is just one simple example of everyday discrimination that someone who gets around via wheels will have to face.

A very uncomfortable situation I was put in once when I was shopping alone, I had paid for my items and my change was given to a complete stranger in the queue behind me. They looked totally confused but sadly I immediately recognised what had happened.

The stranger was very embarrassed and apologetic (which obviously there was no need to be) and made it clear to the cashier that we didn’t know each other. I politely asked the cashier why that had happened, and the reply was ‘I just assumed they were with you’. I asked why, given that I had carried my own shopping to the till, and paid with money from my purse but they had no adequate answer. I then just explained calmly and politely to please not make assumptions and, in the future, to just return change/shopping to whoever gave it to you in the first place.

My need to use a wheelchair does not automatically mean I am dependent on others around me. When this happens, I’m being disabled by someone’s behaviour and my dignity is eroded. This example shows the importance of educating staff on basic social interactions with disabled customers or colleagues and help them to understand the best way to treat them.

This is incredibly important, not just as a matter of respect but also can have a significant effect on a business’s reputation.

Another scenario both myself and others with disabilities often find themselves in, is being spoken over in various settings, in social settings such as restaurants or even in work meetings, just because we sit below someone’s eyeline.

Too often, a serving member of staff or a supervisor, will ask the person I am with what I would like to order. When this happens, the answer is always swiftly, to ask me. I’ve had this type of thing happen in queues too, when people have asked the non-disabled person with me what’s wrong with her? Or can they move me out the way or along the queue or worse, just come and push my wheelchair out of nowhere – to get me out of the way?

I always say if you feel like you’d like to offer help, which of course is a nice gesture, you must ask first, and if ‘no thank you’ is the answer, accept that. To just move someone out of the way is rude, intimidating and is invading my personal space. Yes, just because I use a wheelchair, does not mean I’m not entitled to my own personal space.

If I were to just grab someone’s legs to move them because they were deemed to be in my way – can you imagine the looks/ comments I’d get?

Accepting ‘no’ as an answer?

But back to accepting ‘no’ as an answer. It’s such a nice thing when someone offers help, whether in the workplace or not, and I personally really appreciate it. However sometimes I really don’t need it and if I say ‘no’, that should be the end of it. But I have experienced on countless occasions, people linger and keep insisting they feel they ‘should’ help me, even though I’ve said I’m fine. Like it’s some moral duty they have to fulfil.

I’m aware of a colleague who started working with a new colleague who was blind with a guide dog. She asked him if he needed any help on the stairs around the office – he replied ‘no’ because his dog helped him by barking for each stair. She asked, he was grateful but said ‘no’ and she respected that. She admitted to me that she was fearful and felt anxious for a few days however had to respect her new colleague’s wishes.

I’m so glad she did this because sometimes people don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I remember on one occasion in a supermarket car park where I was getting my wheelchair in the car and I basically ended up in a tug of war with a stranger who insisted on helping with my chair and wouldn’t let go of it.

Although this example isn’t in a work setting, this is a good scenario to look at for employers, as they also need to understand that actually, reasonable adjustments are great and absolutely necessary for some people, however sometimes, they aren’t needed at all.

All that is needed is just the acceptance that an individual is okay to go about their day just like all other employees, disabled or not.

My wheelchair is a positive tool:

My wheelchair is my lifeline, the amazing piece of equipment which gives me total independence in life and is literally an extension of my body. Often people don’t see mobility equipment that way but that is what it is, our lifelines, part of our bodies, so please don’t interfere unless asked to do so.

What I would really like people to understand is we are all the experts in ourselves (disabled or not) so trust our words and what we say. Just because another part of our bodies may not work perfectly well, it doesn’t mean we’re unable to make decisions for ourselves, be independent and earn our own living.

Simply ask, and then listen to the answer, and accept it. I’d love us to get to a place where the world isn’t so surprised by disabled people’s independence and what can be achieved alone.

A disability does not mean ‘inability’

Disabled people are thriving in many industries all over the world because we are so capable and it’s our deep-rooted resilience and determination which comes from us living with our disabilities every day which makes us exceptional problem solvers and committed hard workers.

If you are interviewing someone for a job – and you realise that this person is perfect for that role – don’t let a wheelchair or any other disability cloud your judgment. Don’t look for ‘legitimate’ reasons to turn them down because you are afraid to embrace this person’s perceived problems. Simply ask what reasonable adjustments might be required in your workplace to accommodate them to be the best that they can be.

Often, it’s something quite small. Making physical changes to the workplace, like installing a ramp or an audio-visual fire alarm doesn’t cost a lot, but can be the make or break for that person being able to work there. Simply letting a disabled person work somewhere else, such as on the ground floor for someone who struggles with stairs is an example of a cost-free way of adapting.

It’s often the smallest things that make the biggest differences. A great example of my own was a building I once worked in didn’t have a disabled or women’s toilet downstairs, but they did have a men’s. They simply changed the sign on the toilet to unisex and made one cubicle bigger for my wheelchair. A simple solution which benefitted and worked for all.

Also if this is the first person in your business who uses a wheelchair to get around – don’t be afraid to ask that person to perhaps give a talk to other members of staff about their story. Educate through action.

So in summary how would I/ other disabled people like to be treated?

Simply with no assumptions and respect just like you’d treat everybody else.

And if you’re ever unsure, just ask, and listen to the answer without letting your assumed bias and opinions take over.

Louise Hunt
Motivational Speaker | Website | + posts

Louise Hunt Skelley, a former Paralympic wheelchair tennis player with Spina Bifida, defied her disability to achieve success in sports and retired in 2021 after competing in two Paralympic Games. She now actively engages in commentating, mentoring athletes, consulting on accessibility, and motivating audiences with her inspiring journey as a disabled woman in sports.