The government’s scheme aimed at encouraging employers to take on disabled staff is “trivially easy to abuse” and allows organisations to describe themselves as “Disability Confident” even if they do not comply with anti-discrimination laws, new research suggests.
The scheme has also been criticised this week by a leading organisation of employers, the Business Disability Forum.
Gillon’s analysis comes just days after Disability News Service revealed that many of the organisations that have signed up – and have declared themselves “disability confident” – have troubling track records when it comes to their attitudes to disabled people, including outsourcing giants Capita and Maximus, as well as Northampton police, which has had to refer two separate incidents involving young autistic men to the police watchdog.
Gillon says Two Ticks was “a sham” and “rarely policed”, but Disability Confident was even weaker in some key areas.
He says: “The reality for disabled people was that employers would sign up to Two Ticks, add the logo to their headed paper in order to impress their customers and the great and the good, and then carry on not employing disabled people in just the same way they always had.”
He says employers will be able to do exactly the same if they sign up to Disability Confident.
Research published in 2014 by academics at two business schools showed that less than one in six (15 per cent) organisations that displayed the Two Ticks symbol kept all five of its commitments, while almost one in five (18 per cent) carrried out none of them.
But Gillon says that employers can get away with keeping fewer commitments than under Two Ticks and still display the Disability Confident logo, while any pretence at monitoring by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been dropped.
Under the newly-relaunched scheme, employers can apply for three levels: Disability Confident Committed (level one), Disability Confident Employer (level two) and Disability Confident Leader (level three).
Employers can reach the first two levels simply by assessing themselves on their own performance, after which DWP will send them a badge and a certificate that they can use to promote their “disability confidence”.
It is only if they want to become a Disability Confident Leader that their self-assessment has to be “validated” by another organisation.
Gillon says employers can declare themselves Disability Confident by doing less than under Two Ticks, because at level one – the level likely to be chosen by most employers – there is no longer a requirement to provide disability equality training for all staff, and no annual self-assessment of how to improve.
And he says that the new commitments that were not offered by Two Ticks, and which an employer must make under Disability Confident level one – such as making reasonable adjustments for disabled staff and jobseekers, and ensuring an inclusive and accessible recruitment process – are no more than are required under the Equality Act.
Of the nine level one options, of which they have to to choose only one, an employer could become Disability Confident simply by offering unpaid work experience.
At level two, employers must make more commitments, but most of them would be considered reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, says Gillon, while there are still no checks on whether the employer is carrying out these pledges.
One of the few strong new measures is to encourage suppliers and partner firms to be Disability Confident, and to identify and share good practice with them, he says.
But employers can still assess themselves as level two – and be assessed successfully by another organisation as a level three employer – if they have an inaccessible environment for both employers and customers.
This is because “providing an environment that is inclusive and accessible for staff, clients and customers” is only an “option”, and so an employer can choose another option instead.
Gillon says this suggests that membership as high as level three can therefore be granted to employers that are still breaching the Equality Act.
And he says it is also possible to achieve Disability Confident level three – becoming a Disability Confident Leader – without employing a single disabled person.
He concludes: “We were promised a stronger scheme with increased external supervision, [but]we have been delivered a weaker scheme with no external supervision.
“The replacement for Two Ticks turns out to be worse in almost every respect.
“It is trivially easy to look at the way that Two Ticks was abused and see that Disability Confident further enables that abuse rather than preventing it.”
The Business Disability Forum, a membership organisation, formerly known as the Employers’ Forum on Disability, which “makes it easier and more rewarding to do business with and employ disabled people”, is also critical of aspects of Disability Confident.
George Selvanera, the forum’s strategy and external affairs director, said the process of improvement on disability employment was “not straightforward” and requires “strong leadership and must always be grounded in the lived experience of disabled candidates and employees themselves”.
The forum runs its own Disability Standard, a “best practice management tool that helps employers plan and measure their disability improvements across 10 functional areas of any organisation”.
Selvanera said that Disability Confident was “helpful in drawing light on the benefits for employers from recruiting and retaining disabled people”, but he said the forum believed that level two status should “only be available to employers that are experienced at employing disabled people”.
He said: “It seems risky to the scheme to have employers self-assess and then publicise that they’re confident at recruiting and retaining disabled people when they don’t have any actual experience, whether in the past or currently, of doing so.
“We think as well that it will be helpful to make sure only organisations with appropriate expertise are validating organisations as Disability Confident Leaders.”
He added: “It’s not yet clear what metrics Disability Confident will use to measure success and its own contribution to the recruitment and retention of the one million plus extra disabled people the government aims to have in paid employment as part of halving the disability employment gap.
“So we think it’s important also we must not have excessive expectations of what Disability Confident on its own [will]deliver.”
A DWP spokeswoman dismissed Gillon’s analysis.
She said: “The researcher appears to have misunderstood the scheme. The scheme was developed by a task group that included employers, disability charities, and disabled people*.
“This has helped ensure a balance between a scheme that is accessible and straight-forward for employers to use – particularly smaller employers – whilst being rigorous and commanding the confidence of disabled people.”
And she suggested that Disability Confident could not be compared directly with Two Ticks.
She said: “The new scheme is fundamentally different and explores a whole range of employer practices to ensure disabled people can be successfully recruited, retained and developed.
“Building on the previous two ticks scheme, we have worked with employers and disabled people to develop a new Disability Confident assessment and accreditation scheme, that is both accessible for employers, particularly smaller ones, and rigorous enough to command the confidence of the disabled community.”
Asked whether employers could call themselves Disability Confident while still breaching the Equality Act, she said: “Legally all employers must comply with the Equality Act.
“The DC scheme is about encouraging employers to be inclusive and to do more in recruiting, retaining and training disabled people.”
And asked if employers could achieve level three status with no disabled employees and an inaccessible environment for staff and customers, she said: “The scheme has been designed so that all employers, regardless of size or sector, can sign up.
“Some employers may not be in a position to take on permanent employees but can still offer opportunities including apprenticeships, training or supported internships.
“‘Proactively offering and making reasonable adjustments as required’ is a core action within the Disability Confident Employer level (page eight) and ‘Ensuring there are no barriers to the development and progression of disabled staff’ is also a core action (page 19).”
But Gillon said in response to the statement: “As a replacement for Two Ticks, Disability Confident is confused, opaque, and has gaps so wide you could sail a supertanker through.
“It could have been so much better, and could easily be reworked to address its flaws.
“But ultimately, the disability employment gap will only be filled when employers treat disability as normal and employ disabled people as they would any other.”
*In July, Mike Adams, the disabled chief executive of Purple (formerly ecdp) – and a member of the task group – said he would have liked to have seen the new version of Disability Confident “much stronger and more ambitious”.
Picture: David Cameron speaking at the original launch of Disability Confident in 2013