At the start of this year, I was reading an article in the business section of one of the leading newspapers. It was about an inspiring man called Steve Ingham who is CEO of a leading company, PageGroup. Ingham is a 6ft 4in former rugby player who was fit and active until a skiing accident in March 2019 left him without the use of his legs due to a spinal cord injury. He is now an ardent campaigner in the field of disability and workers’ rights.

Many of us will be only too aware of the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act when it first came into being in 1995 and subsequently the Equality Act of 2010. These Acts were meant to recognise the particular constraints experienced by and acting upon disabled people. Much has been made in recent years of the need to recognise gender and ethnic diversity in the workplace and this is a major area of concern for many company boards and employers in general. However, the sad fact is that while these areas have received a high level of attention the situation faced by disabled people in the workplace is far behind where it should be. Businesses often focus their attention on boosting the needs of other groups but there should also be space to equally represent disabilities.

According to the major charity Scope there are 14.1m disabled people in the UK and nearly 20% of working age adults have some form of physical or mental disability. In 2019 nearly 82% of non-disabled people were in employment while this fell to just 53% of the disabled population. Further to this they found that disabled people on average were likely to earn 20% less than non-disabled workers. These statistics are really quite disturbing. The sad fact is that many companies may, through corporate processes, and individual sole traders through conscious or unconscious bias, exhibit outdated misconceptions when it comes to employing disabled people.

In reality, many disabled people have overcome, or overcome on a daily basis, significantly bigger challenges than able-bodied people and as such have often learned much from their experiences that can be of benefit within the workplace and therefore often have much more to offer than their able-bodied counterparts. Sadly, this is very often lost within the mire of outdated thinking.

With this in mind I turned my thoughts to the optical sector in particular to see how well we fared. In the last Optical Workforce Survey there was absolutely no mention of disabled people at all. Within the final recommendations there was reference of ‘employers should consider whether there is equality of opportunity for all employees by examining pay, appraisal and career progression and promotion’ with disability markedly absent from this recommendation. Of course, this survey looked solely at optometrists and dispensing opticians, not the wider practice workforce.

The question therefore, is how many practices in the UK employ disabled people? I can find no statistics to answer this question. As optometrists we come across people with sight impairment daily. This can range from sight impaired to severely sight impaired. In my time as a trustee for a sight impaired charity I often came across people with visual impairment either working for the organisation or volunteering within the organisation. But I cannot think of a time when I have met a person with visual impairment working within an optical practice. The question surely has to be, why not? Surely a person with visual impairment would make an ideal employee. An optometric practice is a perfect setting for a person with a visual disability to work. How ironic then that we as a sector seem not to recognise this fact.

It is clear that, like many other work spheres, we have a long way to go to embrace the topic of disability within our workforce. I know our professional bodies will have much on their agendas as we start a new year. But I wonder whether any of them have even the slightest reference to increasing opportunities for disabled people within our sector? My suspicion is that this has probably not even been thought of, let alone acted upon. Disability and its place in the workplace is going to become an increasingly important debate during 2021. Just where are we as companies and individuals when it comes to employing disabled people? Is it something we have even given any thought to?

The start of a new year is a time to review and to plan. It is clear that there is a highly capable and willing workforce within our population that we currently have not really paid heed to. Will this be the year when our sector along with others takes the long overdue step to adopt an inclusive stance when it comes to disability?

If you are currently reviewing your workforce and your plans for the coming year, I would like to actively encourage you to review your current policies on, and towards, disability and disabled people and cast off any negative attitudes towards disability.