People Management: The workforce's forgotten minority

Only 1 per cent of the voluntary sector workforce has a disability, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

Most charities would balk at the very suggestion that their employment practices were discriminatory against a significant section of society.

Yet only 1 per cent of voluntary sector employees are disabled.

This was one of the shocking findings of People Count 2003, the study into the sector by Agenda Consulting for the Charities HR Network. This figure only rose to 2.1 per cent for respondents from disability, children and family charities.

Andy Rickell, executive director of diversity and corporate policy for Scope, believes it's up to charities to take a more proactive approach.

He says: "Charities often seem to take a fingers-crossed approach. There sometimes seems to be a preconception that making 'reasonable adjustments' will be expensive and difficult, when the opposite is true.

"Even if it is not a disability charity, disabled people have a lot of useful experience to offer and can relate to people who have suffered discrimination for other reasons.

Toni Court, employee relations manager at Rethink Severe Mental Illness, where 6.8 per cent of staff have mental health problems, agrees that a disability can actually be an asset. She says: "We ask all our applicants if they have experience of mental health, and employ a lot of carers and service users. We guarantee interviews for all applicants who have mental health problems who meet the minimum requirements."

At Scope, only 4 per cent of employees are currently disabled, compared to the 20 per cent of people of working age with disabilities.

The charity is only too aware of this glaring inconsistency and is aiming to reach 20 per cent by 2007 through its Diversity Works campaign.

Rickell explains: "One of the main ways we will attempt to achieve this is through reserved posts for disabled people. From now on, recruiting managers will effectively have to put forward the case for why the post shouldn't go to a disabled person.

"We are also establishing a database to keep details of disabled people who apply for jobs with Scope but are unsuccessful, so we can let them know if a new post is coming up".

He says the requirement for formal qualifications has been removed from the job specification, but all candidates will have to prove they can do the job, even in the reserved posts.

"Of course, we realise that this doesn't in itself mean anything, but the important point is that disabled people should now feel more confident about applying for jobs," he says.

But even if Scope does reach its target, Jonathan Lepper, campaigns director for Radar, believes this is still not going far enough. He says: "At Radar, 65 per cent of our employees are disabled and we believe that other disabled charities should also employ a majority of disabled people where possible."

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