New concerns have been raised about the government’s Disability Confident employment campaign, after a leading disabled social entrepreneur said that some businesses could be finding it easier than intended to secure the highest level of accreditation.
Mike Adams, chief executive of the social enterprise Purple, said he was concerned that some organisations providing Disability Confident accreditation might not be as strict on potential “leaders” – the highest of the three Disability Confident levels – as they should be when carrying out the validation process.
Disability Confident has previously been heavily-criticised, with critics arguing that it is easy for employers to sign up to the scheme, but still continue to discriminate against disabled people.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has itself been validated as a Disability Confident leader, despite being found guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of the UN disability convention, and a Civil Service survey showing that more than 1,400 disabled DWP civil servants had claimed they had faced discrimination in the workplace.
Purple offers a strict, detailed accreditation process for employers that want to be approved as Disability Confident “leaders”, but Adams fears that other organisations offering accreditation are making the validation process far easier.
He said he believed there was a “quality assurance issue” over how validation is carried out, and that the government had not been clear enough about which organisations can carry out this process.
Adams said that Disability Confident would only work if the organisations carrying out the level three validations were as thorough in their demands as Purple is.
The organisations carrying out the validation might not even be accredited themselves as a Disability Confident “leader”.
Adams said: “The issue is, it is not in the public domain who did the validation.
“If Disability Confident is going to be the driver that the government want, then it has got to set out its real credentials around what it is and how people get it.
“We have had people come to us and go, ‘Your template is a bigger hurdle than the template DWP use and you’re charging us. We could go somewhere else and get it for free and the hurdle’s not so big.’
“And we go, ‘Well, don’t come to Purple then.’ We’ve done that on a number of occasions.”
Adams said he still believed that the government had “missed a trick” by not insisting that organisations should also be accredited on how “disability confident” they are in the relations with their disabled customers, and not just on their disability recruitment and employment policies and procedures.
He is still pushing the government on this issue.
But he does still believe that Disability Confident is a useful way of having “different conversations with businesses”.
Only last week, one of the organisations that Purple has validated as a Disability Confident “leader” said that it was about to appoint its first disabled employee as a result of being “inspired” by the training they had received from Purple.
He said: “On some levels you can say Disability Confident is just a bit of paper, but what we are starting to see is real changes, real impact on the ground.
“In the organisations that we have a relationship with, we are starting to get traction.
“If you come to Purple and we take you through Disability Confident, we scrutinise everything that gets said and we ask challenging questions, and we expect them to have an action plan.”
A DWP spokesman said: “We frequently hear from employers, disabled representative groups, and disabled people themselves that Disability Confident is a big step forward from what went before.
“It is much more comprehensive, assessing a wide range of practices and procedures that employers need to follow to successfully recruit, retain and develop disabled people, and coupling that with advice, guidance, case studies and more so employers can get better.
“Disability Confident has always been seen as a journey. Employers can progress up through the levels, but even if they reach DC Leader stage we encourage them to continue to develop and improve their practices.
“And the scheme itself will continue to develop to ensure it keeps up to date with best practice and continues to be respected and valued.”
He added: “Mike Adams was part of the original task group that developed the Disability Confident scheme and keeps in touch with the department about further possibilities for developing the scheme.
“He has raised these and other points with us and we will work with him and other experts to consider them and see where it makes sense to incorporate them.”
Adams was speaking as Purple launched a new campaign to encourage retail and hospitality businesses to provide disability awareness training to their in-store staff, and to sign up to Disability Confident.
Help Me Spend My Money has been backed by the shopping centre owner intu, Marks and Spencer and the Institute of Directors.
It calls on businesses to sign up to Purple’s charter, which commits them to provide disability awareness training to instore staff, provide an accessible website, provide key customer information in large print, Braille, and easy read formats, and sign up to Disability Confident.
And it points out that – according to the Extra Costs Commission set up by Scope – three quarters of disabled people have left a shop or deserted a business because of poor disability awareness or understanding.
Adams said that that research was backed up by the disabled people and their families that he spoke to in the day he spent at intu Lakeside shopping centre when launching the campaign last week.
They described how retail staff would often “swerve down the aisle to avoid having to meet a disabled customer” because of a fear of “saying something that is unintentionally offensive or wrong”.
He said: “What we have been saying is that can be rectified through your customer service training that you should be having anyway.”
Adams said that organisations that sign up to the charter “absolutely have to do something”, rather than just express support for its principles.
He said that “investing in disability confidence isn’t just about social responsibility, there’s also a big commercial opportunity to be had if you get it right”.
Almost exactly a year ago, Adams announced that the disabled people’s organisation (DPO) he ran, ecdp, was ending its commitment to being a user-led charity in a bid to become a national player in the employment support market, and was relaunching as Purple, a community interest company.
A year on, Adams says he has no regrets about extending the services the organisation offers away from a focus solely on providing services to disabled people and towards also finding disabled people permanent jobs and supporting businesses to become Disability Confident.
Despite that change in focus, Purple – which no longer calls itself a DPO, although three-quarters of its board are still disabled people – has secured disability-related contracts worth more than £650,000 in the last two months, including direct payments support contracts in both Essex and Cambridgeshire, and it is hoping to secure another direct payments support contract in the north of England.
Adams said: “Our absolute commitment to the legacy services, of what ecdp stands for, absolutely remains, as we build the offer to business as well.”
Picture: Adams (centre) with intu’s Helen Drury and Alexander Nicholl, at intu Lakeside