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Does fashion retail have a problem with disability?

3x2 disability getty images credit

Drapers investigates why people with disabilities are so invisible in the industry.

It is hard to believe that discrimination against disabled people was not made illegal in the UK until 1995. Fifteen years later, the Equality Act 2010 replaced this legislation and addressed protected characteristics including gender, ethnicity, and disability, providing guidance on areas such as employment, reasonable adjustments in the workplace, recruitment, redundancy and retirement.

Government statistics show that 22% of the UK population had a disability in 2016/17, up from 19% in 2013/14. This equates to 13.9 million people in 2016/17, up from 11.9 million in 2013/14.

Disability can include everything from physical disabilities such as paralysis to developmental disabilities such as autism, through to incapacitating conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

I cannot remember when I last saw [someone working in retail] with a physical disability. I think companies are so far behind that it doesn’t even really register

Harveen Gill, HGA Group

As the wider business community starts to take issues of diversity, particularly gender and ethnicity, more seriously, Drapers investigates what the fashion industry can do to address discrimination against people with disabilities in the workforce.

In common with other diversity issues, disability can be delicate and difficult subject to broach, for fear of causing offence and remaining politically correct. Many retailers were reluctant to talk to Drapers about their efforts in this area and data is scarce, which is perhaps symptomatic of the failure to face up to the lack of inclusion of people with disabilities in the fashion retail workforce.

“Diversity is a big topic and includes disability,” says Lynette Deutsch, founder and CEO of recruitment company Endaba. “Retail is one of the largest employers in the British economy and because of that I believe retailers should lead the way with diversity, particularly in terms of disability.”

However, recruiters admit to seeing very few disabled candidates approach them for help with finding positions in the fashion and retail industry.

Harveen Gill, managing director of fashion recruitment firm HGA Group, believes the retail industry is “far behind” in terms of disability employment: “I cannot remember when I last saw [someone working in retail] with a physical disability. I think companies are so far behind that it doesn’t even really register.”

Missed opportunity 

The Labour Force Survey of April to June 2017 showed there were 3.5 million people of working age (between 16 and 64 years old) with disabilities, and their employment rate was 49.2%. This compares with an employment rate of 80.6% for people without disabilities.

Of those working age disabled people who are unemployed, disability charity Scope and not-for-profit lobby group Purple estimate around 1 million are seeking employment but are “shut out of the labour market”.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make sure workers with a disability, or physical or mental health condition, are not substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs, and that they prevent, remove or reduce obstacles that may hinder disabled employees. This can include everything from installing a ramp for wheelchair access to regulating social interactions for a person with Asperger syndrome, to offering additional support or flexible working hours for individuals with bipolar disorder.

If we want to attract disabled customers, we need have to have disabled employees

Sophie Brooks, Marks & Spencer head of employee engagement and inclusion

Retailers told Drapers that they believe disabled applicants could be concerned “that disability could count against them” during the application process because of the need for these adjustments. Businesses might also be deterred from engaging with disabled applicants.

Nevertheless, those that have made adjustments say they are easier to undertake than anticipated.

An industry expert with 20 years’ experience gives a simple example: “During the interview with a deaf applicant we took consideration of where she sat so she could lip read and avoid unnecessary excess noise. They were very small adjustments to make to accommodate her.”

Another multiple retailer added: “We work to make disabled employees comfortable. For instance, we assign them a ‘buddy’. That person has to be on a shift with them so they have that extra support.”

Becky Brooks, member engagement manager at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI), says: “A reasonable adjustment could be, for instance, someone who panics on the Tube and comes in a bit later and finishes a bit later. Or a bit of time off to take medication or go to an appointment.”

Richard Lane, head of communications at disability charity Scope, says: “There is no typical experience, but reasonable adjustments we do see a lot are height-adjustable desks, an angle change for your monitor or a customised mouse to use.”

Making the change

One employer known for its drive to recruit disabled employees is Marks & Spencer.

In an average year it has 3,000 individuals through its Marks and Start programme, which launched 14 years ago and works to help talented people from all kinds of backgrounds into employment. It has three key focus groups: single parents, people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and people with disabilities or health conditions. Of its 3,000 applicants annually, 35% declare a disability, and 800 people apply through their partnership with disability specialist Remploy.

“If we are going to win in the market, our employee base has to be as diverse as possible to reflect the most diverse customer base. If we want to attract disabled customers, we need to have disabled employees,” says M&S’s head of employee engagement and inclusion Sophie Brooks.

“I have seen a number of stories from running these programmes where customers say that they are deaf, for instance, and walked into a store and were greeted by a deaf employee. These customers say that it makes their shopping experience so much better and often say they end up spending way more money with us than they ever would have done.”

Diversity makes good business sense. We have a very diverse customer base and to reflect that in our employee base is key

Michelle Maynard, chief people officer at House of Fraser

“There is a lot of fear,” adds M&S’s Brooks. “The world of disability is so complex, and people believe they have to be so politically correct around it. Until you partner with someone like Remploy or Disability Confident, and just try it, even on the smallest scale possible, with one individual and see what they bring and how they can transform the atmosphere of the store. They bring so much more than just their talent and skills, they bring loyalty and sense of pride and passion from you taking a chance on them and believing that they can do what everyone else can do.”

The CEO of one womenswear multiple agrees, saying: “I think that there may be a fear about getting things wrong but the counter to this is how pleased many customers would be to see a disabled person in a store – and how many new customers might that bring?”

Michelle Maynard, chief people officer at House of Fraser, highlights how diversification across its staff can contribute to improving business performance: “Diversity makes good business sense. We have a very diverse customer base and to reflect that in our employee base is key. It helps us understand our customer needs and all the research shows that the more diverse your teams are the better business decisions they make.”

Charities and organisations such as Disability Confident, Disabled Go and Remploy are helping retailers and other businesses work through issues of disabilities in the workplace, offering help in all areas from attitudes, accessibility and workplace adjustments to advice on language and etiquette.

You must start to see beyond someone’s disability and see what they can add to the business. Retailers are genuinely missing out if they don’t

Sophie Brooks, Marks & Spencer head of employee engagement and inclusion

Disability Confident is a government scheme designed to help businesses recruit and retain disabled people and people with health conditions. It connects businesses with service providers who help in areas such as disability awareness training, self-assessments, and inclusive and accessible recruitment processes.

Sarah Newton, minister for disabled people, health and work, says: “Our vision is a society where every disabled person can achieve their ambitions. The government is committed to seeing 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027, and the Disability Confident scheme will play an important role in achieving this.”

The recruitment and retention of disabled employees is a problematic area for UK businesses. The retail industry accounts for around 15% of employment and therefore should set a precedent for other industries. Working with external bodies and charities driving inclusive workforces can be an important starting point along the road to disability diversity. Equality and diversity should not just be seen as a new trend, but instead as a mandate for a successful business.

As M&S’s Brooks says: “You must start to see beyond someone’s disability and see what they can add to the business. Retailers are genuinely missing out if they don’t.”

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