When chancellor Philip Hammond suggested that Britain’s falling productivity is linked to rising rates of disability in the workforce, says Nasser Siabi, he misunderstands how disability works – and misses the opportunity to get the best out of every employee
There was an outcry in the charity sector when Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, pinned part of the blame for the UK’s falling productivity on its success in bringing disabled people into the workforce.
“It is almost certainly the case that increasing participation in the workplace, including far higher levels of engagement by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example, of disabled people – something we should be extremely proud of – may have had an impact on overall productivity,” Hammond told the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee on 7 December.
Charity heads lined up to accuse the chancellor of perpetuating negative stereotypes of people with disabilities, with the deputy chief executive of mental health charity Sense describing his comments – which came in response to a question about a 0.1 percentage point fall in UK productivity – as “shocking” and “outdated”.
Less outrage, more clarity
But for Dr Nasser Siabi, Chief Executive of Microlink PC – the UK’s largest provider of specialist disability support in the workplace – the remarks provoked an impulse to clarify the complex relationship between disability and employment. Given good management, he says, productivity rates can be raised across the workforce.
“Philip Hammond’s comments are very misinformed and misguided,” says Siabi, who founded the company 25 years ago and has built it into a £10m business. Microlink has now helped more than 300,000 people in education and the workplace, and works with many of the UK’s biggest companies.
“The whole statement gives the impression that all disabled people are going to be unproductive,” he says. “That’s not true. Some of the most successful people in the world are disabled, such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.
“You can say: ‘If you are disabled and you get the wrong environment to work in, the wrong job, and the wrong tools then you won’t be able to perform’. But how’s that different if you aren’t disabled? If you get the wrong job, tools and training, then anyone is unproductive.”
Making everyone productive
Siabi says the way forward for employers – whether in the private or public sector – is to treat people with disabilities just like everyone else: plug gaps in their skills, provide training where necessary, and give them the right tools for the job. “This is where Mr Hammond missed a trick,” he says. “I think he needs to look at this from a different point of view.”
The chancellor should be encouraging employers to address the issue of disability as part of a wider spectrum of health conditions, and within the context of an ageing population and legislation that bars discrimination against disabled employees and job applicants, Siabi argues.
“The conversation needs to be more positive,” he says. “There are solutions for almost every condition. What you do is reduce or eliminate the impact of that condition on the individual’s work performance, their job. That is the most important thing.
“The target has been getting people into employment. But the first priority should be to stop disabled people falling out of employment – and it’s down to employers to make sure that they get timely intervention.”
Nobody’s perfect; everyone can be helped
Understanding disability as part of a spectrum affecting the whole population – including conditions that may be acute or chronic, permanent or temporary, limited or severe – is critical to organising an appropriate response, says Siabi.
Disabilities such as autism, dyslexia and blindness are regularly accompanied by compensatory strengths that can provide huge benefits, he adds. Both Albert Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci are believed to have had dyslexia, while mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing showed many of the signs of autism.
And many disabilities can today be addressed with technologies that minimise or eradicate their impact on individual’s productivity: Siabi cites Orcam, a tiny camera that can record any text or image and read it to the user with a simulated human voice.
“If you can move your tongue, your eyes or your toes, then you can use a computer to do everything you want,” he says, pointing to the world-renowned physicist Steven Hawking, who has motor neurone disease.
Assisting the whole workforce
But one of the strongest arguments for getting the assistive technologies offer right across the workforce, says Siabi, is the potential to raise productivity across the organisation – not just among registered disabled staff, but for everyone with physical or mental health issues. “In order to get the best value for money and the most effective solution, you need to provide a one-stop shop, a single point of contact and a joined-up service,” he argues – with services available to all those who would benefit.
Siabi points to a study of the impact of Microlink’s 2014 contract to provide support to the staff of Lloyds Bank, which found that a programme of support averaging just £128 per employee generated a 1% improvement in productivity across the business. “There is no other way that you can get a 1% improvement in productivity at £128 per head,” he says. “And the planners within the government sector, in particular, should take a lead. The government has announced that it wants to make the civil service the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020.
“In order to do that, they really need to get back to basics. Are the people in need of help and support getting it as quickly and smoothly as they should? I would say the answer is ‘No’. But this is a core business requirement. It needs to be treated like any other important issue that impacts on the business.”
Microlink PC are sponsoring the Panel Sessions theatre at Naidex, where Dr Nasser Siabi will be taking part in a panel exploring employability.
Credit – Naidex