Disability and the accounting profession
This guide has been prepared by accountants with severe disabilities and draws on their experiences of adaptive processes and procedures in the workplace.
What's on this page
- Advice for firms who employ or seek to employ staff with disabilities
- Practical guidance on the adaptations needed to meet the needs of disabled employees
- Information on the practical and financial support available to employers and disabled staff
Disability and the law: where do you stand?
If your firm seeks public sector work, you will be asked about your diversity policies. That's because there is a legal duty on all employers to treat disabled candidates, staff and clients fairly.
UK equality legislation encompasses disability and the UK has extensive legislation and case law on discrimination against disabled people. Moreover, the government has recently expressed concern about the high level of unemployment among disabled people and pledged its commitment to improving their employment rates.
ICAEW, as a public interest body, is committed to extending equality of opportunity as part of its work to enhance diversity in the profession.
The business case for equality
Legality aside, however, there is also a compelling business case to be made for making changes to accommodate disability needs.
Unlike other types of diversity, disability may require physical adaptations to premises and equipment, as well as changes to working practices. A small firm may decide to make such adaptations on an individual basis, but for larger firms with a number of offices, it is advisable to have a suite of policies and procedures to ensure a unified approach across the organisation. (A diversity and inclusion guide for businesses can be found on the ICAEW online library catalogue.)
Such adaptations, however, can actually benefit employers in unexpected ways. Speech-to-text software, for example, can provide a quick and easy report writing method for all staff. Lloyds Bank is just one company that has reported a significant reduction in sickness absence in the 62% of staff who went through workplace adjustments.
How to ensure a fair recruitment process
In large firms, recruitment teams are trained to understand disabled candidates’ needs and the process is adapted accordingly. If you don’t have a specialist department, however, there are several organisations which can provide help and advice according to the type and level of disability. These include Access to Work, Disability Rights UK and specialist charities such as those which participate in the Disability Charities Consortium.
If you use recruitment agencies, check that the agency is able to deal properly with applicants who have disabilities. This might include checking the accessibility of the premises, as well as ascertaining that the staff are adequately trained.
Check out the ICAEW Library page on Recruitment for information on best practice throughout the recruitment process.
Online applications and adverts
Whichever recruitment process you decide upon, you should ensure that any online forms are user-friendly. It’s also important to make it clear that any applicant with a disability can contact the firm to discuss their condition and how the recruitment process could be managed. Example wording might be:
"We have outlined the recruitment process below. If you have any special requirements for us to consider, please get in touch with our Student Recruitment team."
The disability confident symbol can be placed on adverts to show that you encourage applications from disabled people. This is available free if you so sign up as a disability confident committed employer.
Adapting the workplace
- The work accountants do is very varied, and firms and candidates need to consider the practical aspects of managing disability in the workplace. Requirements for a disabled member of staff need to be put in place before they join your firm, so that they are comfortable from day one. If someone acquires a disability during the course of their employment, you should implement adaptations as soon as possible. These include desks, computers, software, any parking allocation and arrangements for carers. You should make a full assessment. Both your firm and employee should contact Access to Work or a specialist organisation to work out what should be put in place and arrange funding where necessary.
The availability of special software has transformed the way in which disabled people work. The ability to change fonts and background colours can be immensely helpful to partially-sighted and dyslexic staff. Software which turns speech into text is also invaluable to dyslexics and those with limited manual dexterity.
However, sometimes standard accountancy software – audit packages, for example – may not have the required adaptability. When planning to buy new software, then, you should ensure that it is accessible, preferably by involving the potential users in advance. Inform your IT staff about any special needs so that they can work with the relevant person to assess the packages on the market. This may necessitate negotiating with software providers, as well as ensuring that the package is compatible with your firm’s technology and software strategy.
Hardware needs may be different, too. It is often helpful for dyslexic staff to have larger screens as well as software adaptations, for example.
Travel needs are varied and you should be prepared to be flexible. Office-based staff may require a disabled parking space. Others may not be able or permitted to drive at all but can take advantage of bus passes and rail discounts such as the disabled railcard.
Some staff may not be able to carry equipment to a client’s office and may need to use a taxi. For client-facing staff, you may need to consider the location of clients to avoid unnecessary journeys which may impose a strain on someone with a physical disability.
Professional qualifications and training
If your employees (or potential employees) intend to acquire professional qualifications, you need to address the examination process as soon as possible. ICAEW is very accommodating of candidates’ requirements - find out more in the Access arrangements section of our exams page.
Make sure your external trainer can cater to the needs of your chartered accountant students. The training database should also identify which staff have special needs so that the course organiser can identify any special requirements in advance.
Venue and IT requirements
Venues must be suitable, with wheelchair access and loops, for example, and lecturers must be aware of the students’ needs. Deaf candidates may benefit from using a Palantype operator, either in the room or remotely, which will need to be set up well in advance. Alternatively, the training firm might provide detailed notes.
IT requirements must be addressed as well, with training material produced in an accessible format. Videos should be subtitled where possible.
CPD requirements are often addressed through online training and it is important that your software is in an accessible format. If subtitling is not economically feasible, each video should be accompanied by a document for deaf candidates.
- Appraisal is a difficult area. Sometimes staff are doing a brilliant job despite their disability, but do not score so highly when compared with their peers in areas such as hours worked or efficiency. Senior staff may also find it difficult to understand the impact of disability. Not only can this be demoralising for the person concerned, it can also leave an employer open to legal challenge. It is therefore better to assess people on their own merits and not to compare them with their peer group.
- It is very important to ask staff to declare disabilities, and to reassure them that it would not count against them. Equally, it’s vital that disabled staff are open about their condition, otherwise the necessary facilities will not be made available, and their health could be put at risk.
Distinguishing between disability leave and sick leave
- Some disabilities require treatment or special training, while others are unchanging and do not need regular intervention. A clear distinction must be made between sick leave and disability leave. For example, diabetics and those recovering from cancer may need periodic monitoring appointments, which are not classed as sick leave as such. This distinction can help you to assess what further work might be done to help the disabled person in the workplace.
Training for emergencies
You must make special arrangements for certain staff. For example:
- Fire wardens need to know who will need physical help in an emergency and what to do.
- If someone is at risk from anaphylaxis, people around them need to know where to find the EpiPen and how to administer it if necessary in the office, or at a client’s.
- Similarly, if there is an epileptic or diabetic member of staff, first aiders should be trained to deal with any situation that may arise.
- If a member of staff with a disability works more slowly than an able-bodied member, you can assess the value of the work and charge accordingly.
Line manager awareness
- It is often very difficult for senior staff and line managers to understand the impact a disability can have on an employee. Failure to recognise this can cause huge problems on both sides, when managers fail to make adjustments. Occasionally a disabled member of staff may make unreasonable demands which the manager is unable to deal with. Specific disability training for key staff can assist in managing issues before they escalate, just as in any other kind of staff disputes.
- The number of disabled staff in any firm is generally only a very small percentage of those employed, even in the largest firms which disclose statistics on gender and ethnicity but not disability. If you find yourself in a new situation, it is helpful to talk to other firms and members of staff. ICAEW/CABA also has a list of people with experience of working with a disability who are happy to provide help and guidance to both firms and staff.