A confession by Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

Published: 10 Jun 2020
Last reviewed: 29 Sep 2020

I love working in membership organisations. I love their mission, their accountability to the membership, the rich evidence base that they provide, and, sometimes, their eccentricity.

Business Disability Forum is my third (after NCVO and the Pre-school Learning Alliance, both some time ago). But every now and then, there are whispers that membership as a model is over; that organisations are looking for a more direct, transactional relationship, specific projects rather than a subscription. I don’t believe that. We humans are pack animals (I won’t say herd, for obvious reasons!). We need to belong. And many of us need to feel we have a purpose that drives us and motivates us and connects us with those around us. In the charity space, an organisation that marries mission with membership can create a movement – a force for real change.


As CEO of Business Disability Forum, I see this at first hand. Our 300+ members want not just practical support and advice – though they absolutely do want that too – but they want to feel that they are making a difference. They care passionately about transforming opportunities for disabled people in the workplace and in society and it is perhaps no surprise that whenever we survey our members, the opportunity to get together and tackle some big issues in our taskforces, networks and roundtables consistently comes top of the list of the benefits that they rate. But it’s not just the taskforces themselves; it’s the opportunity to come together, to share what works – and what doesn’t in a safe space with their peers.


In preparing for memcom interactive, I have been reflecting on belonging and what it means in relation to disability. I’ve been working in the disability sector for over 16 years and I’ve seen time and again the impact of good work  in transforming people’s lives, not just in terms of financial independence – though that’s of course very important – but in self-esteem, identity and belonging. After all, “what do you do?” is still one of the first questions we ask when we meet someone new. But for too many disabled people that it is a difficult question – pre Covid-19, only 50% of disabled people in the UK were in employment vs 80% of the working age population overall. For too many, work is a tribe to which they do not belong.


In D&I terms, disability is too often the Cinderella and parked in the “too difficult” box. Yet, arguably, disability is the one strand of inclusion that can and will affect us all. With 83% of disabilities being acquired rather than present from birth, it is part of the human condition.


Too often people do – or say - nothing in relation to disability because they are afraid of getting it wrong. But it really doesn’t have to be difficult – and there is much that we can learn from the different ways that we are working now, as a result of Covid-19.


We are seeing a much greater acceptance of different ways of working:  we are all now working with “adjustments” whether that’s about using technology, working flexibly, or indeed working from home. The things that might have been deemed “too difficult” when requested as an adjustment by a disabled employee are now happening routinely and at scale – indeed, working from home is the most frequently requested adjustment! So surely we can’t go back to saying it’s too difficult or tricky or that everyone needs to be in the office from 9-5.


But the key is systematising this approach, otherwise, each individual’s experience will be reliant on the understanding and awareness of their manager. Don’t get me wrong: the confidence of people managers to have a conversation about adjustments and the trust in turn that an employee has to be open and ask for the support they need is critical. But it needs to be backed up by systems and processes that make it easy to put the practical action into place. The signs are good – when we surveyed Business Disability Forum members about their response to Covid-19, 90% agreed that responses to Covid-19 will result in a lasting change in attitudes to flexible and home working.


Why is this important? Without such an approach, employers are missing out on a huge potential talent pool. Not only do we know that diverse teams perform better, but also that there is a growing skills shortage. Before Covid-19 we had Brexit (remember that?!) and sectors which have historically been reliant on a migrant workforce - including construction, hospitality and care – need to cast their nets as widely as possible if they are to recruit the talent they need. We also know that disabled people are disproportionately affected by financial downturns. We have a duty to stop this happening in any post Covid-19 recession.


For too long, disability has been framed around Us and Them. Perhaps now, thanks to the pandemic and the ways we are working now, that divide is going. Let’s make sure hang onto that and retain a more mixed economy of work for the future – a future where we can all belong.


Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum 

Follow on twitter @DianeLightfoot and @DisabilitySmart