Five suggestions for removing barriers to disabled people in the civil service

On International Day of People with Disabilities, parliamentarian and Paralympian Lord Holmes shares ways to improve the behaviours and culture of civil service organisations
Access, diversity and inclusion should be hardwired into decision making. Photo: Adobe stock

By Lord Holmes

03 Dec 2021

This week I took part in a conversation on disability and leadership with civil service disability champion Sarah Healey. The event was hosted by the Treasury, chaired by Katharine Braddick and Will Garton and open to all departments. There was a great turn out and quality discussion which I have tried to do justice to in my "how to" list below.

My own experience of disability began when I lost my sight, age 14. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in the Paralympic movement (both as a swimmer and later a director at London 2012) and have served as a non-executive director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Channel 4. As a parliamentarian I have a policy interest that spans departments but can be best summarised as a focus on inclusion and digital technologies for the public good. I’ve also advised the civil service on diversity and written an independent review for the Cabinet Office on how to open up public appointments to disabled people.

One observation made during the discussion was about the vast number of reports that are produced within the civil service setting out how to remove barriers for disabled people, often with a heavy focus on the disabled individuals, whether that be development programmes, mentoring, networks and so on. Whilst many of these recommendations may well be useful they are heavily skewed towards looking at the disabled people as both the problem and the way to fix the problem. The other, far more effective, way to approach this challenge is through addressing the behaviours and culture of the organisation and individuals within it.

So, with that in mind, what are the five things we can all consider doing?   

Be inclusive by design

Considering disability at the start of a project is absolutely essential. When I was working on the London 2012 Games we hardwired access, diversity and inclusion into all decision making. This was putting things the other way round, asking questions about accessibility and planning at the start of the conversation rather than bolting on an accessibility impact statement at the end.

Nail the basics

Looking at what you are doing, make sure you are doing it well and that it is working as intended. Whether that means how you are implementing the Access to Work programme, making reasonable adjustments or recruiting disabled talent, make sure you are doing it brilliantly. On recruitment, for example, look harder and further for disabled talent, reach out to organisations, use connectors, make sure candidates are enabled and empowered. Make sure your equipment does what you need it to. I use assistive technology and am rationally positive as to the transformational potential of the emerging digital technologies but again these are just the latest tools at our disposal. Technology does not need to be miraculous but it must be sufficient. Does it solve a problem? Does it enable and include?

"Look harder and further for disabled talent, reach out to organisations, use connectors, make sure candidates are enabled and empowered"

Consider the culture

We all have such an important role to play here, leadership is absolutely key but so is feeling comfortable calling out problems at every level. Everyone must feel comfortable, empowered and included. When I chaired a group at Channel 4 with a specific focus on disability we did some work around self-declaration, making sure people with a disability felt happy to declare it at work. We produced short films and ran an internal communications campaign and without employing any more people, our disability data rose from 3% to just under 12%.

Remember that a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer

I’m borrowing this one from Ellie Simmonds, who also spoke at a civil service disability event this week! There is absolutely a competitive advantage in making sure you are getting the best out of your employees. Many private sector organisations I work with are making efforts around diversity and inclusion because they understand the positive impact it has on their bottom line.

Know that if it matters, it matters

 One of the ways I will know we are making the progress we need  is when we have more robust evidence that it matters. Disability consultancy will become lucrative rather than outsourced to the networks, over-relied on for free advice,  disability data will be firmly on permanent secretary, and ministerial, dashboards and it will be included as a measure on performance related pay. Believe it matters.  

We’ve all been through an extraordinary period in history; Covid has had a significant impact on the world and all of us. Some positive such as the acceleration of digital and transformation of flexible and remote working but equally devastating for so many. So if I can leave with just one final but most important suggestion: be kind; to each other, to our colleagues and to ourselves.

Lord Chris Holmes is Britain’s most successful Paralympic swimmer and was also director of Paralympic integration, responsible for the organisation of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. He blogs about his work at and his website is


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