Tab Ahmad is the founder & CEO of EmployAbility, which helps employers to become more inclusive by providing expertise and knowledge. EmployAbility also supports talented disabled students and graduates to help them to compete on a level playing field to get the roles and careers in tech that they deserve. Tab, a passionate advocate of disability, equity and inclusion, discusses what leaders can do to be more inclusive of disability.
Hi Tab, and welcome! You’re the Founder and CEO of EmployAbility. Can you tell us a bit more about EmployAbility?
Our mission is to create a truly neurodivergent and disability-inclusive workplace. We support neurodivergent and disabled people to build their careers, and we work with organisations to guide them towards becoming more inclusive, more valued employers where everyone feels that they belong.
We’re proud to have supported over 20,000 students and graduates into employment since we set up. Our work with companies is comprehensive, looking at organisational culture and what policies and practices are in place to ensure inclusion and equity.
And what encouraged you to set up EmployAbility?
When I started working in this space in 2001, disability was not on companies’ agendas, and it was the poor cousin of the other diversity strands. Over time, people have become more aware, but there’s still a lack of understanding of what disability means and how to provide meaningful support.
I set up EmployAbility in 2006 because I noticed a real market gap in the support offered to talented neurodivergent and disabled graduates, and they remain our beneficiary group.
At EmployAbility, we talk a lot about the Next Generation Inclusive Thinking journey for organisations: but it has also been a journey for us in terms of the work we do.
We were finding that disabled individuals were opting to stay in education after graduating in much higher numbers than their non-disabled counterparts or simply choosing not to apply for jobs – effectively falling by the wayside and failing to realise their potential. In many other cases, they were applying for roles but not getting through the process, again, to a disproportionate extent.
They were failing to get the careers they deserved. And companies were losing out on a fantastic talent pool. And, I just thought, ‘What a massive waste’.
As students and graduates remain our beneficiary group, we support them for free to access the job market from a level playing field. Our work with companies focuses on embedding equity and inclusion across the whole employee life cycle and at all levels, including attraction, recruitment, onboarding, retention and promotion.
Do you think there is a tendency for employers to view disability as physical and potentially fail to acknowledge what they can’t see? Do you have any advice for leaders around this?
Historically, that was definitely the case. When I first stepped into this work some 20 years ago, I initially thought I knew nothing about disability, but I was wrong. Like many, I thought it was something physical and visible. And that image is constantly reinforced, as the disability symbol is, in fact, a wheelchair.
70% of disabilities are non-visible, including neurodivergence, mental health, organ conditions, epilepsy, diabetes, and a range of other conditions.
Things have definitely shifted, and the term neurodivergent has come to the fore in recent years. There’s a lot more recognition, but the tricky bit is that even if some of these conditions are known about in theory, that doesn’t equate to knowing how to offer and effect support. And many people still find it challenging to ask for what they need: rightly or wrongly, they worry about how this will be perceived.
Inclusion is more than just a company policy or two. So, what can leaders do to ensure that their cultures are inclusive of people with disabilities?
HR may be responsible for the processes or be the first port of call. However, it’s crucial that leaders and team members, too, are involved. They will often be the ones providing the adjustments on the ground, especially if it’s an adjustment of understanding or ‘attitudinal’ adjustment – not drawing adverse conclusions when a person’s behaviour is different to what is expected.
For example, autism can make it difficult for some people to engage in eye contact. Where that’s the case, it will be for managers to ensure that neither they nor other colleagues make negative judgements. This is what is meant by attitudinal adjustments, and making changes of this sort is at the heart of creating an inclusive working environment where disabled employees know they are valued and belong.
And there is the issue of buy-in by leadership. Without it, change doesn’t happen: it happens when there is both a top-down and a bottom-up ‘on the ground’ approach.
What advice do you have for our technical leaders, and how can they encourage an inclusive workplace?
I would break it down to the 3 Ps.
Practices – Under this comes education. So, leaders should take steps to understand more about what disability means, the different conditions which are covered, their impact, and more globally, how to create that inclusive culture. This extends to prioritising understanding and education not only for themselves but also for their teams.
We’re not expecting people to become experts, but we are striving for a level of understanding which makes it possible to behave appropriately and be systematically supportive of those they are managing and of colleagues.
Processes. What do your processes look like? How does somebody ask for an adjustment? Have you created a system where they feel comfortable doing so? What happens to disability and adjustment information? The likelihood is that most organisations will have many more people with disabilities, neurodivergence and mental health conditions than they are aware of.
Having an easy-to-engage, well-defined, and transparent adjustment process for employees that feels safe, and is well-publicised, is critical.
Policy. Ensure there’s a robust high-level policy in place that underpins these practices and processes. This is essential.
How can leaders make adjustments/ accommodations for disabled people from the start of the recruitment process, and what should they be aware of?
From a legal perspective, employers have a duty to provide adjustments to remove any barriers for disabled and neurodivergent applicants, and this applies to both adjustments (or accommodations, as they are also called), for the workplace and in recruitment.
However, under section 60 of the UK Equality Act, and in many other countries with similar legislation, it is unlawful for employers to ask any health-related questions during the recruitment process. That means they can’t ask what condition somebody has, how someone is impacted by their disability, or even if someone has a disability or any other health condition.
There are some exceptions, perhaps the most important of which is asking whether a candidate needs disability-related adjustments during the recruitment process. Asking, ‘Do you need any adjustments?’ allows an employer to create a level playing field for the applicant. What they mustn’t do is ask any further questions or for any evidence that the person is disabled.
We educate companies we work with to ensure that they are aware of these restrictions and so don’t fall foul of the law. Our mantra at EmployAbility is ‘Best practice beyond compliance’, but as a first step, it is vital that companies understand what compliance looks like in each jurisdiction they work in and make sure they meet those standards.
Equally important is for disabled people to understand these rights. Not asking for adjustments because of a fear of having to share sensitive health information is incredibly common. Arming people with the knowledge that they don’t have to hand over this sort of information goes some way to alleviating the fear of discrimination and, in turn, making it likely that more disabled people will ask for the adjustments that are often the key to accessing the job market.
Language, too, matters. Employers should be inviting adjustments in a way that is encouraging and which sends the clear message that there will be no discrimination as a result. The language should speak to their genuine commitment to attracting disabled talent and the value they place on equity.
And inviting adjustments shouldn’t just happen at the beginning of the recruitment process, but rather at every stage. It is about giving people as many opportunities to ask for what they need as often as possible.
Once someone has an offer, the rules change, and companies can ask health and disability-related questions to ensure they have all the information they need to provide the appropriate adjustments. This duty is far-reaching, and employers are expected to be creative and solution-focused in providing a level playing field.
Thanks, Tab. You have a background in recruitment and selection. How has this helped you develop EmployAbility?
We add value through our in-depth knowledge of disability and employment and how different disabilities impact someone going through the recruitment process or in the workplace. We don’t ascribe to lowering the bar or feeling sorry for people.
What we believe is that every employer should be doing all that they can to remove barriers in the workplace, to ensure that applicants and employees have a level playing field for showcasing and demonstrating their skills and competencies equitably.
We also have a deep understanding of different recruitment processes, organisations’ expectations, the types of roles available and what these involve. Broadly speaking, the key sectors we specialise in are tech, finance, investment banking and corporate law – and that’s because many of our team members come from these sectors. It gives us first-hand experience, which in turn means we can add real value.
Do you have any final thoughts or recommendations for tech leaders?
Ultimately, inclusion comes from understanding, so it’s about creating a safe space for people to learn and ask questions in a way that they don’t feel judged. We take a building block approach to knowledge, starting with the basics and then broadening and deepening that.
Usually, I would recommend disability empowerment sessions tailored to different teams. The idea is to provide a safe learning space and pertinent knowledge to ensure equity and inclusion.
It doesn’t matter what sort of company you work for or your level of seniority. What matters is the culture, what you can do to help build that, and how you can provide the right support to ensure you get the best for you and for your employees.
For more information about EmployAbility and how it can help your organisation, please visit their website.
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