Decision-making around disability disclosure can often throw up issues that are thorny and tricky to work through.
Though these decisions are clearly informed by the relative visibility of an individual’s disability, there remain countless scenarios where the timing of disclosure, or indeed whether to disclose at all, becomes relevant for all disabled people.
The employment market is one such example, as, nowadays, the interaction invariably begins online, rather than face-to-face.
On the other side of the coin, recruitment is never just a one-way street and there are organizations out there keen to expand their approach to disability inclusion but without a clue on how to identify and positively select on disabled candidates.
Podium, an online marketplace launched by former Paralympic swimmer Liz Johnson during the lockdown, has its sights firmly set on bridging this gap.
Spanning multiple geographies, the premise behind Podium couldn’t be simpler. Disabled freelancers, following a conversation with the in-house team, post a profile showcasing their skills, work interests and day rate.
Those signing up include writers, translators, graphic designers and marketeers, who then respond to remote home-working projects advertised on the platform by employers.
Recruiting organizations pay no up-front fee for advertising their opportunities. Ten per-cent of the freelancer’s fee goes to their nominated charity and an additional 10% is reinvested back into the platform.
The elegant simplicity of the idea and the particular focus on freelancers carries obvious benefits for both parties.
Though the value of secure, full-time employment should never be underrated, home-based freelancing is an extremely useful option for workers who identify as having a disability due to its flexibility and the capacity to absorb some of the health fluctuations many disabled people experience.
Equally, for employers, particularly those lacking experience in working with disabled people, the platform provides a safe space for dipping a toe in the water — trialing best-practice through one-off projects but also potentially building ongoing relationships with the freelancers they collaborate with.
Born out of lockdown
Energized by the mass movement towards remote home working fostered during the lockdown, Podium was launched in May by former Paralympic, World Championship and European Championship gold medallist swimmer Liz Johnson.
Johnson, who has a form of cerebral palsy, entered the BBC’s prestigious 100 Women List in 2018. In the same year, she co-founded The Ability People – the disability employment consultancy Podium was to emerge from.
Addressing the timing of Podium’s launch, Johnson says, “Creating a platform like Podium was always in our plans but lockdown provided us with an opportunity to trial different things and there was this synergy with what was happening in the outside world.
“Everyone was becoming more open-minded towards the idea of working from home. Prior to the lockdown, people couldn’t really imagine how it was going to work because they couldn’t see themselves doing it.”
Addressing the “elephant in the room”
Johnson feels strongly that the platform has the potential to liberate both recruiters and aspiring disabled freelancers by stripping out the uncertainties around disability disclosure.
“One of the biggest barriers to engaging with people with disabilities tends to be a fear of the unknown,” says Johnson.
“When evaluating disabled candidates, employers may be wondering ‘Do I need to ask them what they can do or should I assume they can’t do something?
“On the other side, candidates are thinking ‘When are they going to ask me about what I can’t do and if I tell them, am I going to be judged negatively?’
“By engaging with Podium, both parties get rid of that elephant in the room,” says Johnson.
“In signing up as a freelancer, you are declaring that you have some type of disability and, by getting involved as an organization, you are signaling your willingness to embrace this.”
Engaging in mature dialogue
Johnson believes that generally speaking, employers’ well-intentioned desires to sidestep awkward conversations, can lead to profoundly negative outcomes for disabled jobseekers.
“People never really want to cause offense, so in order to avoid it, they sometimes just say nothing. But actually, that’s much worse because then, we do nothing to solve the problem.
“When we remove some of that awkwardness people can just start being treated as humans,” she says.
Johnson appreciates the fine line between fostering transparency and not causing offense but also feels that employers across the board simply need to use common sense and critical thinking when asking questions about disability.
“When applying for a job — a lot of visually impaired people get asked about how they are going to get to work,” she throws out as an example.
“I always say that whether someone is born with a disability or acquires one, the chances are they didn’t acquire it that morning. This is not something new to them.
“If they are putting themselves forward for a job, they have obviously already got themselves to a point where they are comfortable and confident.”
Enabling, not creating diversity
Across the U.K. today, 20% of people have a disability and for 70% of this segment, their impairment is invisible, creating additional complexity around disability disclosure.
Additionally, disabled people in the U.K. are twice as likely to be unemployed when compared to their able-bodied counterparts.
Though, a clear advocate for workplace diversity, Johnson is generally cautious about the blanket use of the term.
Her philosophy also speaks to those who might criticize a platform like Podium for ghettoizing disabled freelancers into a separate recruitment silo.
“We have always set about creating this idea of parity of opportunity by giving people an equitable experience to be successful, rather than just treating everyone the same and calling it equality,” says Johnson.
“Through our consultancy work, we want to make sure that once people are in the door, they are working in an optimal environment to show their strengths. Otherwise, far from being inclusive, you are simply creating diversity for the sake of it.”
As a successful businesswoman and public figure, one might assume that Johnson may have some insights on gender inequality but her viewpoint is certainly striking and offers up food for thought.
“I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m a woman,” she says. “The fact that people see I’ve got a disability seems to be a far bigger issue than my gender.
“This has, however, always been quite instructive for me,” she continues.
“If gender only becomes important when there is nothing else to focus on, then it can’t really have been that important in the first place, can it?”
In the meantime, Johnson and Podium will continue to help join the dots for talented disabled freelancers by pointing them towards the type of forward- thinking organizations where they can perform, inform and prosper.