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Perverting the course of prejudice

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Councils must set an example and eradicate discrimination against disabled staff.

Did having bulimia make John Prescott less effective as a politician? While his admission that he suffered from this condition throughout his career raised eyebrows, the general consensus is that his performance as a senior politician is a separate issue. And he is not alone in holding down a challenging job when in less than perfect health.

Disabled people are an important part of the workforce. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are more than 6.8 million people with a long-term disability in the UK, just under 20% of the working age population. Around half of this group are in employment.

The common assumption is that a disabled person will be less effective than their colleagues, but evidence suggests the real barrier to their success at work is prejudice and lack of understanding shown by employers.

Challenges facing disabled people include inaccessible workplaces and inadequate public transport. A survey published by the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability found that 41% of respondents had experienced discrimination or prejudice in the workplace and 18% believed they had been passed over for promotion because of their impairment.

Although local authorities are covered by the statutory Disability Equality Duty (DED), which says all public bodies must pay “due regard” to the promotion of equality for disabled people, their performance as employers is patchy, according to the disability charity the Papworth Trust.

Scope, another charity which supports people with cerebral palsy, says the average number of disabled people employed by local government is around 3-4% of its workforce. While the DED has had some impact, Scope says because the Local Government Act prohibits positive discrimination, limiting positive action to increase the number of people with disabilities within a workforce.

However, the successes of disabled staff in local government could be unrecognised because they may be reluctant to disclose their disability. “There could be a far higher number of local government staff who are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act than official statistics suggest,” says Chris Sherwood, Scope’s access and diversity manager.

Senior roles

Councils also have work to do in getting more disabled staff into senior roles. Research by the Disability Rights Commission found that disabled people are more likely to be in junior posts than technical or managerial posts.

“Line managers need to support disabled staff, recognise their career potential and create a culture where talent is spotted and nurtured,” says Mr Sherwood. “More needs to be done by the government centrally to promote and support the employment of disabled people, but this should not be used as a get-out clause for local organisations. They should take the initiative and make their own improvements in areas they can change.”

Tower Hamlets LBC has made significant progress here. After consultation with its disabled staff forum it developed a number of initiatives including training and increased management support for disabled staff.

“We have 10 disabled staff undertaking a management training programme, and all disabled learners are allocated a learning coach,” says Deb Clarke, joint director of human resources.

For Stephen Moir, head of people and property at Cambridgeshire CC and president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association, a key priority for councils should be integrating their approach to the recruitment and development of disabled people.

Cambridgeshire has disabled staff in a range of management and front-line roles, and Mr Moir says it’s vital that people with disabilities are recognised for their skills if they are to be given the best chance of succeeding. “We are not looking at segmenting

issues, but having a single equality strategy, which is anticipating a single equality act,” he says. “Diversity is common sense in employment terms. Forget statutory obligations, it makes business sense for local authorities to have a workforce which reflects its community.”


  • Take the initiative and improve recruitment and development opportunities for disabled staff

  • Review the progress of disabled staff once they are in post, and offer training and support

  • Use mentoring and coaching to help them progress

and don’ts

  • Wait for central government edicts before taking action on employing disabled people

  • Assume that ‘ticking boxes’ and getting a few disabled people in a post is enough

  • Assume that all disabled staff face the same problems or have the same work ambitions

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