Kate Bennell: How Sightsavers is becoming a more disability inclusive employer

25 Jun 2021 Voices

Sightsavers realised it needed to practice what it preached around disability inclusion, so in 2015 it launched an empowerment and inclusion strategy. Kate Bennell explains the journey the charity has been on, and what comes next

I’ve worked at Sightsavers for over 20 years and have spent much of my time here helping to make real the organisation’s vision of being an employer of choice for people with disabilities. Over the last six years we have hit some amazing milestones in our commitment to recruiting, training, promoting and ensuring the wellbeing of people with disabilities in the workplace. All thanks to the work of committed teams and individuals across the organisation. 

It hasn’t been quick, and it’s a process that’s still ongoing, but it’s been very worthwhile. We hope other employers will be able to replicate some of these approaches to nurture disability inclusion in their workplaces.

We knew that as an organisation that campaigns for the inclusion of people with disabilities in global development, we needed to look at ourselves to make sure we practice what we preach. For this reason our empowerment and inclusion strategy, launched in 2015, focused for the first time on both our programmatic work on inclusion and our internal processes. This was a crucial milestone, which signified our commitment to becoming a more inclusive employer.

It also coincided with the creation of the UK government’s Disability Confident Employer scheme in 2014. The scheme encourages workplaces to be more inclusive by supporting employers that are committed to equality. This had previously been the Two Tick scheme, which Sightsavers were members of, and we were automatically transferred to level two of the new system. If your organisation is keen to promote disability inclusion in the workplace, I would certainly recommend that you join the scheme, which is a way to demonstrate your commitment and learn from others.

Creating a community of practice 

The following year we launched Sightsavers’ Disability Inclusion Working Group, a cross-departmental community of practice made up of staff members that champion positive change. The group was officially launched by the CEO, which was an important signal to show senior management were committed to inclusion. Creating a community of practice can also be an exciting way to promote staff engagement from the bottom-up and to foster a sense of ownership.  

The group designed training for staff members to introduce them to the concepts of disability inclusion. The training focuses on understanding inclusive language, models and definitions of disability, barriers, accessibility and an introduction to inclusive development. 

We launched this in 2017 and continue to provide the training (now also online) as mandatory for all new staff members. It is led by trainers with and without disabilities in the UK, East and West Africa and has enabled us to bring our staff on the journey towards inclusion.

Recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities

From the start of this journey, our HR teams have explored multiple ways to recruit and retain employees with disabilities, ensuring everyone has the support to work at their best. 

They have successfully piloted new ways of recruiting and selecting a more diverse range of candidates by enabling people to apply and be interviewed in the way they felt best demonstrated their skills and experience. Applications could be submitted via CV, by writing an essay application or even submitting a video. We also introduced different interview options, such as doing interviews by phone, via video or in a neutral location. 

The pilot helped guide our general recruitment practices and some elements have continued in our mainstream recruitment process. 

Our in-house design and digital teams have done an incredible amount of work to ensure all our websites are fully accessible, and to develop accessible templates and guidance that are available to all staff members. They have also worked for years on our Perspectives initiative, which is a great resource for promoting accessibility in design and communications.

Understanding people’s experience

Another key process in our journey has been running internal staff disability surveys, so we can better understand how many people we employ who have disabilities and what their experiences are. 

In our second survey in March 2018 the results showed that 8% of Sightsavers staff identified as a person with a disability. In our 2020 survey this had risen to 9.4%. This 1.4 percentage point rise may seem small, but it coincided with us growing our staff numbers from 413 to 709.

We have also seen an increase in the number of staff who had declared their disability to Sightsavers – from 61% in 2017 to 84% in 2020. This result suggests that employees with disabilities feel increasingly more comfortable with sharing their disability status, and it is a good indication of the success of our work around inclusion in all areas.

One of our latest milestones was the launch of our Disabled Employee Network in October 2019. The network is made up of employees who provide a voice for staff with disabilities. Working closely with the Disability Inclusion Working Group, members share their personal experiences, suggest improvements and support us in our mission to be disability-confident. 

The work is not yet done

In February 2020 we reached level three in the Disability Confident scheme, making us a disability confident leader organisation. This, and all of the above achievements and more highlighted on our website, represent the hard work of many teams across the organisation. It has been a truly collaborative effort to get to where we are today, and I am so happy to see how much we have progressed as an organisation.

After years of hard work and many achievements, however, our work is not yet done. In 2021 we’re launching our new social inclusion strategic framework, and disability inclusion in the workplace remains a core priority. We are currently doing a lot of work to improve the accessibility of our offices across Africa and Asia, to ensure managers have the skills and confidence to support employees with disabilities, and to motivate other employers to follow a similar journey.  

If you want more tips or information on how to make your workplace more inclusive, please visit our website or feel free to get in contact with me to find out more. Inclusion is a journey not a destination and we’re all in it together. 

Kate Bennell is organisational inclusion coordinator at Sightsavers UK 

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