Civil service disability champion Sarah Healey has said difficulties encountered by departmental staff in securing workplace adjustments to allow them to do their jobs despite the challenges they face are “unacceptable”.
Healey, who is also permanent secretary of the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, made her observations in a blog marking the publication of the government’s National Disability Strategy, which contains a range of goals for the civil service.
While the document lauds departments’ progress with being inclusive employers, it also acknowledges that challenges remain – including in ensuring disabled staff get office equipment such as height-adjustable work stations that they need to do their jobs.
Healey said the strategy was the culmination of months of work that had been led by the Cabinet Office Disability Unit and that she was pleased the civil service had committed to a number of actions to improve the working lives of disabled civil servants.
“Many of these are aligned to the priorities I have set out in my role as civil service inclusion champion for disability,” she said.
“They include: supporting leaders at every level to change behaviour and remove the barriers our disabled colleagues experience; increasing development and progression opportunities for existing civil servants who have disabilities and long-term health conditions and for those wishing to join; and working as a collective to improve IT accessibility and interoperability.”
But Healey noted that the strategy’s commitment that all government departments will “ensure responsive and timely support to meet workplace adjustment needs” reflected an area where more progress was required.
“It is unacceptable that so many of our colleagues continue to have negative experiences of securing the workplace adjustments they need,” she said.
According to the strategy, measures to meet the commitment on responsive and timely support for workplace adjustments will include training for leaders and managers and ensuring that “clear and accessible” guidance is in place by early 2022.
The strategy also commits departments to developing and embedding flexible working so that it helps disabled people to thrive and progress in their careers, at the same time as working for all civil servants and meeting the needs of the civil service.
Other cross-department measures include encouraging and supporting workplace disability networks to talk about disability issues, change perceptions and encourage inclusive behaviour, and requiring departments to achieve and maintain the highest level of Disability Confident accreditation, alongside other major public bodies.
The strategy also identifies work being undertaken by individual departments and agencies.
By the end of next month the Ministry of Defence is due to set out how it will bring more people with disabilities into its civilian workforce to meet a target of 15.3% by 2030. The MoD has also been tasked with exploring ways that more people who identify as disabled can serve as reservists. MI6, meanwhile, has a target of increasing the proportion of staff with disabilities to 9% across all grades by 2025.
The National Disability Strategy said that the civil service’s “good progress” as an inclusive employer was demonstrated by the fact that 12.8% of departmental staff now identified as having a disability, compared with 10% in 2018 and 7.6% a decade ago.
However it noted that “progression remains a challenge” and cited figures from the Institute for Government’s 2021 Whitehall Tracker that said the proportion of people with disabilities at Senior Civil Service level remained “3% below what it is across the whole civil service”.
In her blog, Healey acknowledged the advances made by the civil service in recent years but said the fact that 14.2% of the UK’s working-age population identified as having a disability meant there was still “some way to go”.
She said civil service leaders needed to be supported at every level to change behaviour and remove the barriers that disabled colleagues experienced.
“It is important that we support our colleagues with disabilities to continue to thrive in their careers,” she said.
“Only by increasing the representation of disabled people at all grades within the civil service can we truly reflect British society.
“We’re all responsible for making the civil service an inclusive employer for disabled people. It is important to ensure you are thinking about disability and accessibility in all areas of your work, in how you interact with your colleagues, your wider business unit and your department.
“When developing policy, ask yourself if you have taken into account the experiences of disabled people. In an interview panel or an event, ask whether or not disabled people are positively represented. When introducing new systems or processes, question if they can be used equally by everyone. When producing communications, think through how accessible your communications are and make sure accessibility is part of your standard practice, and not an afterthought.”
Healey said the best way to glean the perspectives of a colleague with a disability or health condition was to ask them about it, actively listen and engage.
“This is more empowering and helpful than making assumptions about the best way of working or imposing limitations based on your understanding of their condition,” she said.