Invest to Get the Best from Disabled Employees

Helen Cooke is the founder and chief executive of MyPlus. Helen joined me for this brilliant conversation about her company which specialises in employment and disability. I met Helen years ago while working at the BBC whilst running the BBC’s disabled staff forum, BBC Ability. I was interested in the employment of disabled people within the corporation and reached out to Helen for some support and advice.
Photo of Helen Cooke

To begin with, Helen told me a bit more about herself and MyPlus.

‘Our mission at MyPlus is to ensure that having a disability doesn’t prevent anyone from having the career they want to have. For the last 16 years, we’ve worked with employers, individuals and universities to make that a reality. As a person that has a disability, it’s something I’m passionate about. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had an enjoyable career since I graduated many years ago and started work for Marks and Spencer on their management training programme.

At the time, it was pretty unusual for people with disabilities to be going to university, let alone getting a job like that. After three and a half years, I moved to Mars and the wonderful world of chocolate, initially in a commercial role. Then I moved into HR and recruitment and student recruitment.

The disability agenda is too large to recruit one or two people, pat ourselves on the back, and say that we’re doing a good job. If we’re serious about being inclusive, and inclusive of the talent in our organisation, we have to be inclusive of people with disabilities.’

I think it’s essential to add at this point for readers new to my work that I was born with a rare genetic neuromuscular disability called spinal muscular atrophy. So I’m a wheelchair user and need 24-hour care; both Helen and I have disabilities. Helen has been working in this space for quite a while now, so she has a lot of expertise. I asked her, ‘How satisfied are you with the progress being made within the disability and employment space?’

‘I’m trying to be positive, Toby. I’ve worked in this space for over 16 years and progress is being made. We’ve seen a massive focus on it in the last couple of years, but it’s slow. I get frustrated that we are still talking about the same old things. We know that companies have invested in other strands of diversity and they can make incredible progress when they want to. But for several reasons, I think disability has been the poor relation and is the area employers often look at last. It’s not surprising, therefore, that progress is slow. On the other hand, where we have seen organisations who want to support their existing staff who have disabilities and be inclusive of those they recruit, we’ve seen them make huge progress.

It’s challenging to start naming companies because there are so many. I’ve particularly seen this with some law firms that were slow to the start line, but some have gone from absolute zero to hero. For example, people like Herbert Smith Freehills, it’s phenomenal what they’ve achieved in recognising the talent pool that exists.’

What Helen says resonates with me. I sometimes talk to potential clients and they have a siloed or hierarchical approach to diversity. They think in terms of groups and cohorts, and they might say, ‘Well, right now, our focus is on women in technology or women on the board. Next year we’re going to do ethnicity because of Black Lives Matter. The year after that, we’ll do mindfulness, and then we’re thinking about doing disability after that. We’re not quite sure yet because we probably should do LGBT+ first.”

I’m thinking, hang on a sec, this is not a sustainable way of managing diversity and inclusion within an organisation. It’s also ignoring the fact that we are intersectional human beings, that you could be a woman and disabled, for instance. I asked Helen why she thinks that organisations seem to find that disability is one of the most challenging areas on the diversity agenda?

‘This is something I’ve heard, again and again. When I set up 16 years ago, the focus was on gender and ethnicity, and organisations would say we’re not doing disability. But I’m not just a woman; I’m a woman with a disability. I could be a black woman with a disability or a gay woman with a disability, but that’s not being considered. It’s a very strange way of approaching diversity and inclusion. Why do I think that organisations find disability so tricky? I believe there are several reasons.

Firstly, disability is an all-encompassing term covering so many conditions that organisations might need to do different things. When we talk about reasonable adjustments, that’s probably not the most helpful term, but everybody’s disability manifests differently, so we all manage ourselves and our disability differently. Therefore, we have to take a unique approach to everyone.

Sometimes people can get confused. Dare I say that’s about disability competence, not about being an expert in all the different types of disabilities but being comfortable engaging in the relevant conversations. I think that one is a vast topic.

Secondly, there’s this fear factor. People don’t always know what to say and what to do. As wheelchair users, we are both visible when we’re out and about, but not so much in our virtual world; actually, it’s quite funny. Before they ask if you want any help, people often say things like, “Oh, I don’t mean to be rude, or I don’t want to offend you, or I hope you don’t mind me asking.” People are so worried about seemingly getting it wrong. That fear factor is a considerable barrier.’

I’ve come across that fear factor with senior leaders. It’s like there’s this imposter syndrome as well. And it’s not just the disability space. I was speaking to a senior leader and a client of mine. It was during LGBT+ month. He said, ‘You know, who am I as a straight man to talk about LGBT+ issues in the business?’ I said, ‘Well, as a senior leader, you need to lean into those awkward conversations and be a role model so that other people feel seen and heard for who they really are.’

‘There are statistics that say one in three of us is either disabled or closely related to someone who is. I think that it’s probably higher than that. Unfortunately, most of us know somebody who’s had cancer. Even if we don’t have a disability ourselves, most of us know somebody: our family and friends or work with someone. Therefore it’s a conversation that is relevant to all of us.

I think that for an organisation that wants to become disability confident, it doesn’t only sit with D&I. It doesn’t sit with the disability network. It doesn’t sit with the HR department. If you are serious about being a disability competent organisation, every single person has to be an ally. Everyone needs to understand disability and to be comfortable to engage.’

I asked Helen what types of things organisations that work with MyPlus are asking for help with?

‘I’d be a wealthy woman if I had a pound for every time disclosure and attraction come up. I’ll start with disclosure, but I’m not a fan of that term. It’s meant to encourage people to be open about their disability, but it makes it sound like we’ve got this horrible secret that we’re going to let out of the bag. It would be much more helpful if we talked about perhaps sharing information, telling, informing, and openness.

Companies want people to be open about their disabilities for all sorts of reasons. One is to support employees; that’s probably the most important so they can put the support and adjustments in place. But I think organisations also want their metrics. They need to know whether their policies and practices are working.

When companies want to monitor their stats, they will often ask, “Do you have a disability?” But there’s no context. There’s no explanation why they’re asking or indication of what they will do with the information.

Surely if we ask the question, “Do you have a disability?” The next question is, “Do you need any support?” We don’t reassure people of confidentiality. Remember, we’re asking people about very personal information. There’s a fear that everybody will know.

I think there’s often a lack of role models within the organisation. There aren’t the senior leaders who are prepared to be open about their poor mental health or their experience of cancer, or their dyslexia. How can we expect other people to open up about it then?

There’s also the fear of discrimination and judgment. Once I’ve told someone that I have a disability, I can’t control the judgments that they are going to make. Let’s face it, I am not a negative person, but often those judgements are pretty negative. So disclosure is a biggie.

The other part is around attraction. As well as organisations wanting to look after their current employees and have that culture of openness, they want to ensure that they’re inclusive in their recruitment processes. They find this challenging.

We do a lot of work in the student space. It’s probably where we’re best known. Not many other companies are doing what we’re doing in the student space. I always say I don’t think it’s that hard. We know where students are. They’re at the university. We’re talking about the graduate recruiters here and they already have established relationships with universities. It’s about their messaging and engagement, ensuring that they’re marketing to everybody.

I think recruiting professionals is more challenging. People will often ask, “Where do I advertise to attract disabled professionals, but what about disabled job boards?” And I would always say, as a disabled individual, I don’t think people use disabled job boards.

Having said that, we just launched one at MyPlus, which I’ll come onto, but for me, the attraction is about how they position themselves. The first thing I’m doing as a candidate is to look at an employer’s website to find information about disability, their approach to it, and why it’s important to them as an inclusive employer. I’m going to look for role models. If I can’t find any of that quickly, I will move on to another company.’

When I looked at jobs, I often looked at comments on Glassdoor and Indeed and I went fishing for information to see if other people were talking about generally how inclusive it was. I always felt quite spoiled at the BBC. I was there for nine years and out of the companies I’ve worked for, the BBC was the most disability-inclusive. There were visibly many disabled people in the BBC and it was a real culture shock when I left the BBC to go and work for another company where I was the only wheelchair user in my office.

I did a diversity and inclusion survey at one of my clients and their HR information system told them that 2% of their workforce were disabled. However, when I did my survey, 16% of respondents said they had a disability or long term health condition, comparable to the number of disabled working-age adults in the UK. So there was this huge gap. We’re doing some follow-up work with them to find out what is preventing people from being so open about disability and health conditions on their official HR systems and what more could we do to support disabled staff.

Helen agreed, ‘That’s interesting, isn’t it? When we look at how broad disability is, 16% of the working-age population has a disability and 15% of students in UK universities. Whether they know it or not, companies are going to be recruiting disabled individuals. They’re going to have disabled individuals, and if people aren’t talking about it, in my opinion, that’s telling me something, and that might be that this company perhaps isn’t as inclusive and as open as they should be.

I think that when we ask, “Do you have a disability?” the wording means some people will often say no because they don’t see their diabetes or their epilepsy or their dyslexia as a disability. When we broaden it to ask about long term health conditions or explain what we mean by including poor mental health or long term health conditions, neurodiverse conditions, this gives people more understanding. They can then identify with the condition more than just disability, which is, let’s face it, perceived as a negative term. We don’t seem to come up with a better one, but it’s a negative term.’

When it comes to recruitment, I know Helen thinks it’s time that employers should stop tweaking their processes and implementing short term initiatives. I am on the same page since I make the point in my book Inclusive Growth. I asked Helen, ‘What do you think employers should be doing instead?’

‘I think we have to remember that the organisation has to be proactive to attract talent. The same is true when it comes to those that have a disability. It’s not good enough to implement initiatives. We are way beyond recruiting one or two people, tapping ourselves on the back and saying, “We’ve done a great job.” The talent pool is so much bigger than that.

We need to ensure that the whole process is inclusive. For me, no organisation intentionally has barriers in their recruitment process, but have they actually looked at it objectively with a disability lens? Have they looked at how they attract? Have they looked at their marketing messages? Have they addressed disabled applicants’ concerns, particularly about disclosure and requesting support? Do they encourage people to request support and state any mitigating circumstances on the application form? Unless they are operating the guaranteed interview scheme, no organisation should be asking the question, “Do you have a disability?”

Are the recruitment team confident in engaging with disabled individuals? What about the hiring managers? So for me, it’s about looking at every part of the process. And I think the other biggie for me is to stop using the word reasonable adjustments. It’s a very legal term and people don’t know what it means as an employer. We think, well, what’s legal? How far do we have to go? The individual’s thinking, “Well, what’s reasonable, what can I ask for?”, particularly where money is concerned. We need to start talking about what you need to do your best during the process.

Asking, “What support do you need? What adjustments, any changes to the process?” So for me, as I said, it’s about taking a step back and looking at your process. It’s mainly about being proactive in the attraction. If we can get more people to apply in the first place, more people into that pipeline, provided there are no barriers in the rest of the recruitment process, more people will filter through into the organisation.’

I like what Helen has said there. First of all, there’s the confidence of the recruiters. I’ve worked with recruitment teams where they go into this tailspin when a candidate puts on their application form that they need some adjustment. In one instance, a candidate said that they needed a sign language interpreter for the interview. The panic on the face of these recruiters – I wish I could have taken a picture. So I think there’s having this confidence and being prepared to support candidates when they need help.

I also think that using the term reasonable adjustment is misleading. It’s a legal term. And in the court of law, there are ways of trying to determine whether something’s reasonable or not. Still, I’ve been in situations where an employee has requested a reasonable adjustment and the line manager has said to me, ‘I just don’t think this is reasonable.’ And reply that it is. What they’re asking for is going to cost the company 10 pounds. For a multimillion billion pound company, this is reasonable.

If you leave it up to line managers to determine what is reasonable or not, you really do run the risk of the organisation running into hot water and getting into trouble.

Helen agreed. ‘The other thing is the individual trying to work out what’s reasonable. It reminded me of years ago when I was working for Mars and I was getting a new wheelchair. I got a very lightweight chair, easy to get in the car, easy to manoeuvre and through the Access to Work scheme, I was able to ask my employer to contribute. It would’ve been about a thousand pounds. Now I worked for Mars and the Mars family is the seventh richest family in the world. I didn’t ask my manager for a thousand pounds because I didn’t see anybody else doing that for a wheelchair. Nobody else needed one.

When he found out, he was quite cross with me, asking, “What are you doing, Helen?” in the sense of my not asking for support. This was a multimillion-pound organisation, but from my point of view as an individual it was difficult to know what was reasonable. Wondering if what I’m asking for is okay? Rather than thinking actually, is it going to help me to do my job? Is it going to help me demonstrate my skills during the recruitment process? Is it going to help me to be my best?’

I can relate to what Helen describes. I was in the same situation when I was working at the BBC. I needed to get a new electric wheelchair. I think my wheelchair cost about £6,000. Access to Work is an amazing scheme and funded. I think they covered the vast majority of that, but they did ask the BBC to make a contribution. I was really anxious about asking the BBC because I was thinking, you know, the BBC’s not spending a couple of grand on other staff. I think that’s just down to my own personal relationship with my disability, but it can be really quite tricky for people. I’ve worked with people who need something that costs a tenner because they’ve just been diagnosed with dyslexia and they need a ruler and again there’s that anxiety about asking for that help.

‘It’s interesting that both you and I are both sitting here thinking no one else is asking for these things, but actually they probably are, and the organisation has been discreet. When women go on maternity leave, there’s a cost to the business, not only to pay the person that’s going on maternity leave, but there’s a cost because of the cover that’s brought in. But organisations don’t say, we’re not recruiting any more women. We’ve gone beyond that because there would be absolute uproar. We need to get to the same point when it’s a cost associated with employing and retaining disabled people in the organisation, ensuring that they can do their best.’

That’s a good way of putting it that’s helped me change my perspective.

I asked Helen, ‘What do you think employers should be doing to maximise the chances of new hires so that they can do their best work once they’re hired and stay within the business?’

‘Actually bringing them in is always the easy bit, isn’t it? You support them through that recruitment process, but then it’s about development and retention. I think it’s about ensuring that we have an inclusive culture, ensuring that we are normalising disability. Going back to what I said earlier, with one in three of us being either disabled or closely related to someone, we need to ensure that people can be open about a disability if they want to. Not everybody does but they can discuss their needs. For me, this is about good line manager responsibility. It’s not HR, it’s not D&I. In the majority of companies, the closest relationship you have is with your line manager and they need to be able to support everybody, including those that have a disability.

It’s about ensuring people have the resources to perform in their role and to realise their potential, to be able to develop and to be able to achieve. And it’s ensuring that people can access those easily; people don’t want to battle. I don’t want to have to battle to get my adjustment. I don’t want to battle to get that software or the chair that’s going to work for me or the mouse that’s going to work for me. It needs to be easy. So it is about normalising disability and the support that we provide people in the workplace.’

I interviewed Christine Hempel who runs a company called Open Inclusion that focuses on inclusion within the customer space to make customer journeys inclusive. One of her sayings is that we need to remove speed humps and roadblocks that prevent customers from completing a customer journey. And I often use that within the employment space as well which fits with what Helen said about normalising the support provided. It’s good to remember employees are on a journey too. Recruitment is a journey and there are often speed humps and roadblocks along the way that prevent somebody from getting to the end of that process.

One of the areas that MyPlus is particularly well-known for is working in the student and graduate recruitment space. I asked Helen what her advice is to companies on how to be more inclusive of the 15% of students within the UK that have a disability?

‘I’m particularly passionate about this and we have developed a lot of expertise in the area. As I said, I was fortunate enough to have joined a large graduate recruit cohort at Mars. It’s such an exciting time for people at the start of their career, but I think there’s a couple of things. First of all, they’ve got to recognise the talent pool. With 15% of students in UK universities with a disability that’s an awful lot of people to miss out on if an organisation is not inclusive.

The other thing is, and this isn’t just students, but we need to recognise the plus. This is the whole premise of what MyPlus is about. I don’t believe that I’m any more special than anyone else because of my disability, but I believe it’s given me something extra and those are the skills and the strengths and the abilities that I’ve had to develop to manage my disability in a world that’s not always geared up for it. The world is not always kind. I’m not about to tell you some sob story, Toby, about what a hard life I’ve had because I haven’t, and I suspect you haven’t either, but we probably both had challenges.

As a chair user, for me that’s often around access. The lack of dropped kerbs, the lack of lifts, the lack of ramps, the lack of disabled toilets. And it can be about attitude. As a result of that, I would say that I’ve developed to be resilient. I’m determined. I’m a great problem solver. I’ve probably got good communication skills and interpersonal skills because I’ve had to enlist others to help me when I can’t do something. And other disabled people would’ve done exactly the same. So this isn’t about Channel Four advertising for the Paralympics, saying that we’re all superhuman. I don’t believe that. But I do think that there are skills and strengths that we develop. And when you look at any job description, companies are asking for resilient, problem solving, people skills.

It’s about seeing past the disability or putting aside those negative judgments and assumptions that all too often we make, and instead flipping that and seeing the talent. You meet a 21-year-old, who’s dealt with some kind of disability and there’ll be a pretty remarkable individual who will be an asset to your organisation. So for me, it’s about recognising the talent pool.

Secondly, it’s about engagement. It’s about understanding this talent pool. I always say that disabled people as a whole look for jobs in the same way as their non-disabled counterparts, but perhaps we have another whole sway of questions and concerns going on. The fear of discrimination, of the judgement,, knowing what support to ask for.

Organisations have to address all those in the marketing, if we are going to be considered by that individual as an employer of choice, I guess that’s about being proactive. And the third one goes back to what we’ve already talked about, we’ve got to be inclusive. If we’re going to recognise the talent pool, if we’re going to invest in marketing to these guys, we have to ensure that they can actually get through the recruitment process.’

We wrapped up our brilliant conversation with the question that I ask everybody who comes on the podcast, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘It’s a great phrase, inclusive growth. For me, I think it’s about being genuinely inclusive as you progress and grow and develop, it’s about including everyone. And it’s about getting it right from the very beginning when inclusivity isn’t an add on, it’s not a nice to do. It’s not something extra. Being inclusive is what you do, you know, always and right from the beginning. That’s what inclusive growth means to me.’

To find out more about the services MyPlus offer around disability inclusion, you can visit their website or email them at or theinfo@myplusconsulting.com. To connect with Helen directly you can reach out through her LinkedIn page.

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