Disability over-confident

Commitments to inclusion not being put into practice
Illustration of a glass window with framed certificates and awards celebrating "accessibility matters, inclusion first", "disability confident", and "100/100 disability inclusion champions". With a background of other office buildings.
Window Dressing, by Sonaksha

Dear Debriefers,

Sometimes inclusion doesn't go beyond a sign on display.

This edition explores recent news to see the challenge of taking inclusion beyond a commitment into something real. Our focus on what needs to change needs to be accompanied by an exploration of how things change.

I look in particular at cases in employment and how disabled people are being failed by established mechanisms to promote inclusion. And, more widely, we see why disability policy in low- and middle-income countries too often stays on paper.

Plus, an example showing how tech made by disabled people not only solves our access needs but creates a virtuous circle of a more accessible world.

Reader support makes the Debrief possible. Thanks to Alix for a new contribution.

Disability over-confident

In the UK “Disability Confident” is a government scheme for employers. It's meant to be “creating a movement of change” in how employers conceive and take action to recruit and support disabled employees. The scheme has been running since 2016, and has almost 19,000 certified employers covering a workforce of more than eleven million people.

But recent research shows it's not working. Academics Kim Hoque and Nick Bacon connected data from employee engagement surveys to which employers are supposedly “disability confident”. The damning finding is that:

“The percentage of the workforce that is disabled is no higher, and disabled employees’ experiences of work are no better, in organisations in the Disability Confident Business Leaders’ Group than in non-Disability Confident organisations.”

They advise both jobseekers and employment advisors not to assume that “Disability Confident” organisations are more likely than others to hire them or give a better experience of work:

“In many instances, Disability Confident certification may represent little more than window-dressing that masks ongoing disadvantage.”

I would add that this also makes it less useful to employers themselves, many of whom would have signed up to it in the expectation it would provide a way to evaluate their progress.

The research provides concrete proof of what we've known from lived experience. One of the tenets of the scheme is to offer an interview to disabled people who apply to a position and meet the job criteria. My own and many others' experience is that you still don't get the interview.

Pursuit of favourable rankings

It's not just in the UK that we have reasons to be sceptical about employers' claims to be inclusive. In the US, Kole Petersen explored Disability:IN's Disability Equality Index. Petersen sees it not as a measure of disability inclusion but rather a “continuation of the pattern of corporate misrepresentation in pursuit of favorable rankings.”

This index is set up differently from Disability Confident. Rather than a government scheme, it's provided by Disability:IN, an organisation that works with corporates and styles itself as the “leading nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide.” They say they provide the index to benchmark inclusion policies.

Like the UK scheme, the index is based primarily on how employers describe their own actions. But one of the most frequent criticisms of the Disability:IN index is the ease with which companies get the highest score. In the 2023 report, 294 out of the 385 participating companies (61%) got 100 out of 100.

As Petersen says, this means you can't tell the difference between different companies seen as the best places to work for disability inclusion. Companies are given an equal categorization when they shouldn't be:

“a company infamous for child labor and a company known for its unsafe working conditions sit alongside a company that is genuinely involved in improving accessibility and inclusion among its staff. Thus, the Disability Equality Index and its methods of deciding scores make it even more difficult for disabled people to determine if a company cares about disability inclusion or the label that mentioning ‘inclusion’ brings.”

Neither coach nor referee

The challenge of knowing whether a commitment to inclusion reflects actual inclusion is inherent to the place of commitments in processes of change. Statements saying you'll take action are one of the ways that organisations can signal their intent and get a framework going forward. Easy wins are often first steps in a longer journey. But unfortunately commitments can also be part of what you would do to avoid making change. Make the promise, and do nothing.

One of the solutions proposed to this problem is for more tangible assessment. In the UK, disability organisations and wider civil society have been calling to reform the Disability Confident Scheme. In a charter for disability employment they call for a minimum percentage of disabled people in the workforce. But it's not clear to me that the answer is so simple.

Inclusion is complex, multi-dimensional, and hard to pin down through specific measurements. Assessing it through the proxy of a minimum percentage of disabled people in the workforce can be gamed like quota systems are, or simply met by a change in how an employer gathers info on disability.

The path to inclusion isn't a straight line. What works to generate momentum might not be what's needed to take things further. There's a tension between encouraging progress and holding folk responsible. A tricky balance between supporting, cajoling, and calling out.

Both the US and UK initiatives are caught somewhere between wanting to be coach and referee. But you can't be both, and as the lines between them get muddied, the harmful result is that mechanisms for inclusion no longer serve to promote it.

“In a way, things are changing”

A couple of case studies from Asia show the complexity of countries trying to get more persons with disabilities into work.

A Fora Education report from Malaysia explores how youth with disabilities transition from education to employment. It shows the deep challenges from the interlocking conditions between each area. Opportunities are emerging from social enterprises or corporates that want to hire disabled people.

Part of that increased interest from employers comes from the commitments made by international businesses and here too we see the difficulty in their realization:

“The challenge is that often these directives to hire persons with disabilities – as positive as this may be – are coming from the top of the corporation but the actual day-to-day inclusion and implementation of these inclusion policies fall to middle-managers and below whom do not have much training or understanding about persons with disabilities and how to accommodate them in the workplace.”

And in Singapore, reporting from Nicole Lam shows mixed progress in getting more people with disabilities into work. Over the past decade there is a significant growth in organizations trying to hire people with disabilities or support them into work. Physical accessibility has improved and the government offers employment credit to offset wages.

Lam spoke with many people with disabilities celebrating the opportunities they've found. But they nearly all point out that they can't expect the same treatment elsewhere. Reena Deen is one of those quoted in the article:

“I think, in a way, things are changing. But then again, I know my experience [of being open about her dyslexia with her manager] is an exception, not the norm.”

The growing knowledge economy

If all this talk of big businesses makes you wonder about those left behind, then that is explored in a paper on China and the situation of disabled migrant workers in the labour market. Written by Cunqiang Shi and Debbie Foster, it explores the hukou system, which codifies various social inequalities by classing the population into two classes, rural or urban.

Interviews with disabled people show the authors that the difference in supports offered to urban and rural citizens stratifies the opportunities for disabled people:

“Findings suggest that, in urban job markets, migrant workers are more likely to be concentrated in low skilled manual work in small and medium sized cities. This is despite such jobs often being viewed as unsuited to disabled people because the jobs are physically intensive and little consideration is given to adapting the jobs. In big cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, nevertheless, this study suggests that disabled people fared better where they were able to access white-collar jobs in the growing knowledge economy, which required educational qualifications.”

Turning policies into practice

Of course it's not just in employment where policy-level commitments are not matched in reality. A study from he UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities draws lessons and conclusions from situational analyses they did in 34 low- and middle-income countries policies on disability. Last month I mentioned briefly its conclusion of concern that these policies would remain “empty promises”.

It's worth spending more time with the report as it explores what prevents the policies getting off the paper they're printed on. Some of these challenges are those faced by any type of policy change in developing countries: implementing, enforcing and monitoring. Big ambitions aren't accompanied by budget allocations or accountability.

Other challenges are specific to disability-inclusion. These include “stigma, prejudice, and a persistent medical view of disability”. All 34 countries report insufficient participation of disabled people's representative organisations. And too often the responsibility for disability rights is assigned to the country's Ministry of Social Welfare, “which lacks the authority, capacity and budget to fulfil this mandate”.

Progress is made harder precisely because people don't see the route to it happening. Where mainstream services aren't a good quality, segregated solutions for disabled people remain popular:

“It is not surprising that segregated solutions are still part of all countries’ service systems and that persons with disabilities and OPDs [Organisations of Persons with Disabilities] themselves often prefer them – in the short term. They are reluctant to give up these few opportunities before confirming that a better (or similar) inclusive option is available.”

And one of the important findings of the report is about the folk who are working for progress. We aren't playing nicely with each other:

“Competition for funding between CSOs [Civil Society Organisations] and OPDs (at the national/local level), the branding practices of international organizations and agencies, donors’ requirements for separate reporting on the results of their funding (moving away from basket funding), and the practice of funding the strongest CSOs (based on bids) - rather than supporting those most in need of greater capacity - have devastating consequences for coordination and OPD capacity development.”

Empowering a generation

I don't just want to share the challenges of systems change. A cheering example comes from a GitHub profile on the NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) screenreader. As well as a longer report on “software for the blind, by the blind” there's a heart-warming video profiling the creators and folk that use the software to work, study, create music, and lead the lives they want to lead.

NVDA is an open source screen reader, meaning that it's free and can be adapted or extended by anyone who can code. And it's one of the tools we use to make the Debrief. Áine Kelly-Costello uses it in their climate reporting and work with me in taking the newsletter forward. Áine told me:

“I really love the ethos of NVDA, which has prioritised making sure those who due to financial barriers would never have had access to a quality Windows screen reader before now do. The community has translated it into many languages and created so many helpful add-ons to customise it further. For instance I use add-ons to customise how Braille is displayed, to copy the last spoken item to the clipboard, and to conveniently save text strings and links in one spot available from anywhere. Choice of screen reader remains important and I would love to see all screen readers embrace a bigger focus on community needs and input.”

It's not just us that benefit from this virtual cycle. The GitHub article profiles Derek Riemer as an example of how NVDA has helped “empower a generation of blind and low-vision developers”. Riemer wrote his first NVDA extension in 2013 and since then he's written twenty more. NVDA doesn't just let him use a computer, but its community provided an experience that he sees as a key part of preparing him for working in tech. He's now a software engineer at Google where he has carried on promoting accessibility.

Coming together

This week is the Conference of States Parties in New York, where governments and civil society come together every year. If you're one of the Debriefers there, I'd love to hear what you're getting out of it.

All best in building a more accessible world,


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A welcome back and thanks to Sonaksha for the illustration.

Thanks, as ever, to the individuals and organisations whose support makes the Debrief possible.