May 20, 2022


Shopping Works Wonders

hidden disability in the fashion retail workplace

Fashion retail businesses are at risk of losing out on top talent, by not having suitable support for both attracting and nurturing candidates with a disability.

Covid-19 and social movements prompted by its onset have thrust inclusivity in the spotlight, prompting many employers to scrutinise their recruitment practices. However, while fashion retail is waking up to the need to draw on talent from all parts of society, it is lagging behind on identifying, supporting and promoting employees with disabilities.

One in five working-age people in the UK has a disability, the government’s Family Resources Survey, published in March 2021 and covering financial year 2019/20 – the most recent data available – shows. Yet discrimination is rife, and has been exacerbated by Covid-19. A poll for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found 40% of disabled workers had gone into financial hardship in the 12 months to November 2021, compared with 27% of non-disabled workers. Disabled workers are also more likely be concerned about losing their jobs – 22% compared with 11% of non-disabled workers.

If you’re not tracking the diversity of your work­force on every level, you won’t have a benchmark to improve

Elliott Goldstein, MBS

Gathering data

The government has a 10-year plan to get 1 million disabled people back into work by 2027. As part of this, at the end of December, the Department for Work and Pensions launched new support to help people with autism into work and educate employers on their additional requirements (box, below).

But a challenge facing all industries when it comes to affecting change is the lack of data. Information on the number of people working in fashion retail with a disability is scant, as there is no legal requirement for companies to collect this data and many employees do not disclose a disability for fear of discrimination. Research by disability charity Scope in 2017 – the most recent avail­able – found that as many as one in five disabled people hide it from their employer. In addition, some disabilities – includ­ing mental impairments – may not be visible.

With so little data available, the proportion of disabled leaders in the industry is unknown. Executive search company MBS Intelligence’s first Diversity and Inclusion in UK Retail report, published with the British Retail Consortium and PWC in March 2021, points to a glass ceiling: just 7% of the 200 retailers surveyed reported having at least one physically disabled person within the top two levels of executive leaders. One-third of the retailers surveyed were in the fashion sector.

Fashion brands are increasingly catering to disabled people. Asos designed the opening and closing ceremony looks for Great Britain’s team for the Paralympic Games 2020 in Tokyo in August 2021

However, Elliott Goldstein, managing partner of MBS, suggests there may be more disabled leaders at the top that are not known about: “There was an overall sense [from the survey] that everyone was comfortable with the language around gender, but not disabil­ity. Disability is a broad spectrum, and the retailers we spoke to struggled to know how to discuss it, so it was hard for them to know if they have disabled leaders in their business.

“One leader we spoke to, who is disabled, hid it for 15 years of his career because he felt it would hold him back. Data is everything. If you’re not tracking the diversity of your work­force on every level, you won’t have a benchmark to improve.”

The glass ceiling appears to be backed up by the pay disparity that exists between the disabled and non-disabled workforce. Those with disabilities earned on average 16.5% – or £3,458 – less per year in 2020, the TUC found. It attributed the gap to the fact that disabled people are more likely to work part time or in lower paid jobs, but added that they are also “under-represented in senior roles”. Discrimination, structural barriers and negative attitudes also add to the disparity. The TUC wants mandatory disability pay gap reporting – similar to gender pay gap reporting, which has been a legal obligation in Great Britain since 2017.

The rights of disabled people are protected under the Equalities Act 2010, which makes discrimination illegal. A disability is defined by the act as “a physical or mental impairment” that has a “substantial” and “long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”.

The act includes the right not to be forced to take retirement or redundancy because of a disability, receiving equal terms of employment and pay, and making reasonable adjustments so people with disabilities are not put at a disadvantage. Adjustments include remote working, flexible hours, providing equipment and different methods of interviewing for jobs.

Government help for employers

  • The Access To Work scheme can help fund some requirements for individual employees, such as hiring a sign language interpreter for an interview or paying transportation costs. However, employers are still expected to pay for “reasonable adjustments” for disabled employees, such as installing a ramp, or offering alternative ways of working]. See more information here.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions announced a package of initiatives in December 2021 as part of its plans to get 1 million disabled people back into work. In a pilot scheme, the DWP worked with the National Autistic Society to design 15 Jobcentre Plus sites to be more accommodating for people with autism. In addition, 26,000 work coaches are also undergoing accessibility training to improve Jobcentre services for people disabilities. The pilot will end on 31 March, and, if successful, will be rolled out across all 770 Jobcentres in the UK.
  • The Disability Confident scheme is a free initiative that provides advice, tools, frameworks and training to employers. See more information here.

“Some retailers can be somewhat daunted at the cost of making retail environments fully inclusive for disabled colleagues,” says MBS’s Goldstein. “Nevertheless, to create a more inclusive physical environment, there are some adjustments that can be made at little or no cost – for instance, allowing an employee to work in a part of the office more suited to their needs, or enabling someone with social anxiety to have a set desk instead of hot-desking, or ensuring there is adequate disabled parking.” The government’s Access To Work scheme can help to fund some adjustments (box, below).

A better understanding of disabilities is vital for retaining staff: 78% of disabilities are acquired after the age of 16. And senior staff, who are often older, may be more susceptible to disabilities related to ageing, such as visual and hearing impairments. Yet the MBS research found only 50% of retailers’ diversity and inclusion policies addressed disability. By comparison, LGBTQ+ identity is covered in 68% of policies, ethnicity in 90% and gender in 100%.

People should be given tasks based on their expertise and skills, without assuming what they can or can’t do because of their impairment or condition

Sally Hooper, Scope

Spanish conglomerate Inditex, owner of Zara, Pull & Bear, Bershka, Oysho and Massimo Dutti, is trying to address this through an initiative launched in May 2020 to encourage disabled staff across its UK head office and stores to share their experiences. Inditex’s 2020 annual report showed it was aware of 1,325 disabled employees out of a global workforce of 144,000.

A spokeswoman for Inditex tells Drapers: “Awareness raising among employees is a particularly useful tool. We do this through talks, workshops, training and internal campaigns whereby employees have shared their stories through the company intranet. This has helped to create an environment where more employees feel comfortable to come forward and share their experiences with managers, so that the most appropriate measures can be put in place.”

Unhidden, an adaptive brand designed for people with disabilities, launched by Victoria Jenkins (see box, bottom)

Sir John Timpson, owner and chairman of Timpson Group, which operates the Timpson shoe repair chain and dry cleaner Johnsons, says having managers who are caring and empathetic is essential to ensure all people are able to do their job. The group does not hold data on its employees with a disability and has no HR department, but it does have a director of colleagues and support. Timpson says it recently hired three employees with Down’s Syndrome in office roles, and it pro-actively hires ex-servicemen and women, who are more likely to have disabilities.

Timpson wrote A Guide To Mental Health At Work, a short, illustrated book to help people with their own mental health and also support others at work, in 2019. The company also has 50 trained mental health first aiders and a dedicated counsellor to avoid people having long wait times to access services.

Timpson, who has suffered with depression himself, says time off for an illness should be available to staff at any level: “There have been a number of very senior managers who we’ve been able to help by giving them the right time off to feel able to come back. You should come back with a very sympathetic and proper back-to-work interview. We’re making sure they’re not just showing up to be present – they’re back because they feel a lot better.”

Overcoming obstacles

But even when employees do open up about their disability, they can still face hurdles, explains Sally Hooper, manager of the Get Inclusive scheme at disability charity Scope: “One of the things we hear from our community is that people assume someone’s capabilities. People should be given tasks based on their expertise and skills, without assuming what they can or can’t do because of their impairment or condition (box, below).”

In August 2021, Asos launched an employee disability network to support colleagues and drive improvements, such as Microsoft Accessibility training for all new starters. It has guidance for managers, which includes definitions of various disabilities and advice on how to have conversations about them. Asos is also part of the government’s Disability Confident scheme.

An example of Unhidden’s adaptive clothing

Asos would not disclose the number of disabled employees it has, as it is in the process of making this information more accurate by changing its data fields, to include more disabilities and neurological conditions. It is also working with its disability network to communicate how staff can disclose disabilities.

Daisy Black, head of belonging and engagement, says these initiatives are crucial to practising the values they outwardly promote to customers. “We know from our Asos Vibe engagement survey that our [staff] with a disability want their opinions to really make a difference. That’s why we set up our Disability Network to drive the improvements that matter most. We know we have a long way to go to make Asos a truly inclusive place to work.”

The focus over the next 12 months will be education on the reasonable adjustments that can support people with a disability, improving the technology available to staff with a disability, accommodating neuro-diversity, and raising awareness of different types of disability, both visible and invisible, with all staff.

Tips for supporting disabled staff

  • Invite any senior leaders with a disability to share their experiences within the company to build confidence in disclosing impairments.
  • What gets monitored gets done. Comparing an anonymous staff survey on disabilities with existing HR data may highlighted unreported disabilities.
  • Record how many employees are sharing information about an impairment or condition within each pay percentage quartile of the organisation. This could help you identify if you have a problem with promoting disabled staff.
  • Set up a network for disabled employees to share experiences, get support and feedback areas for improvement.
  • Don’t make assumptions about disabled employees’ capabilities. Support managers to feel comfortable having conversations about disability by focusing on employees’ adjustments needs, rather than their health.

Sally Hooper, Get Inclusive manager, Scope

Meanwhile, the pandemic has led to one positive outcome, says Diane Lightfoot, CEO of not-for-profit Business Disability Forum, whose members include Inditex, John Lewis Partnership and Adidas: “Pre-pandemic, working from home was the most commonly requested adjustment. The rise of that has been transformational for people who may struggle with the commute because of acute anxiety, lack of accessible transport or helping to manage pain and fatigue.”

While retailers may be taking small, positive steps to becoming more inclusive for staff with disabilities, it still largely remains a misunderstood issue in many workplaces. A lack of data on disabled employees means few retailers have a benchmark to improve their records on recruitment, retention and addressing the pay gap. The industry must win disabled staff’s trust, support them in eliminating obstacles to them reaching their full potential and enable them to reach the C-suite.

Case study: Victoria Jenkins, garment technologist and founder of adaptive fashion brand Unhidden Victoria Jenkins Unhidden disability feature February 2022

I graduated in fashion design in 2008, started as a pattern cutter and fell into garment tech. I then went on to work for several high street and luxury brands.

In 2012, I had an undiagnosed ulcer that burst. Since then, I experience constant nausea and pain, which leads to fatigue if not managed. I have a reduced ability to move, lift heavy things and stand for long periods of time which made commuting particularly hard. Against the backdrop of what looks like quite a nice career, it was a struggle.

I would go through a cycle of working two weeks without a day off, and then be exhausted. Once a year, I ended up in hospital for 10 days.

Only one retailer was happy for me to work from home. I was told that I was impacting the rest of the team, and needed to be more of a “team player”. I was asked invasive medical questions, and some employers asked for my medical records. I was always asked to use holiday time for hospital appointments, or to recovery from surgery.

Responses included: “We don’t know how to manage it”, despite me telling my employer that what I needed was to work remotely. When I said I was having panic attacks because of their treatment, they responded: ‘If you also have mental health problems, this isn’t going to work and we need you to resign.’

In 2016 my idea for an adaptive fashion company, Unhidden, made me go freelance, and the thought that I’d be in control – now I manage my working hours. Losing all of my freelance clients because of the pandemic, meant I was able to focus on my own business and Unhidden has now been trading a year. There are a lot of assumptions about disabled and chronically sick people. Employers often think it’s going to cost a lot of money [to make adjustments to accommodate their differences], or they’re not going to get the same amount of work out of disabled people, which is the opposite. I’ve been more productive in the last 18 months: I’ve founded more than one company, and started public speaking and advocating. I’ve written a book, won three awards, I’ve been very busy – and I’m still disabled.