A man in a wheelchair looking at a sign directing him up a flight of stairs for an interview

Comment: Being disabled can make one the best job candidate

A disabled person could be the best fit for the job you’re advertising, but are you encouraging them to apply?

I’m always wary when someone says “but we must recruit the best person for the job” in response to a challenge about equality legislation or the employment of under-represented groups in the workforce. It makes it sound like the recruiter sees equality in work as something antipathetic to good recruitment. Speaking as a disabled person, I have a vested interest in ensuring that whenever a disabled person is recruited, they are indeed the best person for the job. For it to be otherwise would be unfair on the candidate and unfair on all other disabled people in society, let alone on other candidates, the employer and their co-workers.I want us to focus on the word ‘best’ to ensure we really achieve it. ‘Best’ in recruitment is a subjective word, so it depends ultimately on what you think it means. A problem for disabled candidates is that the traditional way of thinking means that disabled people are often assumed to be second best, unless they can demonstrate superlative competence over rivals.

We also need to question the belief that ‘equal ops’ recruitment processes will address any individual recruiter bias. Setting out a job description and person spec is definitely a step forward, but it is only as good as the assumptions behind it. Asking for a qualification that is not an absolute necessity creates an obstacle to all those who have faced barriers in the educational system. Other ways of addressing intellectual competence may require a little more effort, but the outcome may be you get a really effective candidate rather than one who has all the paper qualifications without the ability to deliver.

Thirdly, I doubt any thought has been given to identifying roles for which being a disabled person offers the candidate a competitive advantage. If you start to think about when disabled people might make the best workers, you soon remind yourself of the ‘equal ops’ of everyone else, and stop!

If your customers are more likely to be disabled or older (about half of all older people are disabled too, though they usually won’t identify as such), a staff member who is disabled may well be a better representative of your organisation.

This brings you to a practical problem – attracting quality disabled candidates. Recruiters who are already actively trying to do this report difficulties in getting disabled candidates at all. There are lots of reasons for this. For instance, disabled people have a preference for online recruitment, though there are also some for whom online is inaccessible, so you need a wider suite of advertising methods as well as be knowledgeable of disability-specific channels.

Disabled people are likely to have had bad experiences of job applications, so adverts need to be very positive about their candidacy. A pro-active invite to disabled candidates should appear in the main part of the advert – disabled people are quite sceptical of the ‘two ticks’ symbol, or similar, on its own.

Anything in the recruitment pack that looks like the recruiter has not thought of the issues disabled people face, such as the format for the information provided and the routes by which an application can be made, or which does not point out how disabled candidates have something particular to bring, may put off the discerning disabled candidate.

Where you are confident that only a disabled candidate can do the job, you could use the asymmetry of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, which allows you to discriminate against non-disabled people, and say the job is only open to disabled people. It is important to emphasise that everything you do to encourage disabled people is about getting the best person for the job. And having thought carefully about how to design your recruitment process, and challenge your recruiters about what ‘best’ really is, you will do.

Andy Rickell is CEO of Action on Disability and Work UK (www.adwuk.org), a national social enterprise run and controlled by disabled people that offers expertise across all disability issues, but particularly employment and self-employment.

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