This conversation is part of our series, Walking the talk, which explores the diversity of the UK’s charities and foundations, with perspectives from both in and outside the sector. Find the full collection here. 

Change 100 is a national internship programme for students and graduates with disabilities or long-term health conditions — including physical, visual or hearing impairments, mental health conditions and learning disabilities and difficulties like dyslexia and dyspraxia. We spoke to Victoria Passant, Programme Manager at the charity Leonard Cheshire, where she oversees the Change 100 programme and other employment projects for young disabled people.

You spend a lot of time working with employers to improve their accessibility and inclusion. What are the most common barriers you see?

For some employers, our programme is the only thing they’ve ever done on disability, whilst for others this is part of a much bigger push – so there’s a huge range of challenges. But there are three things we see often:

  1. Employers tend to take one diversity at a time, which can mean keeping disability high on the agenda is tough. Getting them to think about intersectionality is a challenge and it can feel like disability is competing with other characteristics, which it shouldn’t be.
  2. We have to work with employers to demonstrate that workplace adjustments, like giving someone extra time in recruitment tests, or flexible working patterns, is not giving them the upper hand, it is helping them compete at the same level as non-disabled peers, and levelling the playing field. There’s a common misconception that disabled people can’t perform as well in their roles, or produce work of the same quality as their non-disabled peers, which is absolutely not the case – once adjustments are in place, disabled staff will excel.These assumptions create a ‘business case’ to discriminate and may account for the fact that 24% of employers we’ve spoken to openly said they would be less likely to hire a disabled person, despite the fact that this is illegal!
  1. Big gaps in knowledge between HR and other teams. HR professionals are often knowledgeable about workplace adjustments and mental health support, and so the challenge is how to ensure all levels of an organisation are comfortable and confident with disability, especially hiring managers. Programmes like Change 100 can be a great way to help raise awareness of disability internally.

What surprises employers most when they join the scheme?

A lot of their first assumptions are that disability is mainly physical – they are expecting an intern who is a wheelchair user or someone with a visible disability. Employers are often surprised by the breadth of disability and the sheer level of talent of our interns. The latter comes from a good place, but it is an unconscious bias nonetheless. The way we combine disability and talent seems to be powerful in challenging these prejudices.

Employers are often expecting to have to invest in expensive software and physical changes to the office and are surprised at how subtle the adjustments can be – averaging at about £30. Adjustments are often things that all employees want anyway, like flexible working. Most employers are shifting in that direction anyway, and the knock-on effect is not only great for people with disabilities, but all staff.

How do the young graduates you work with view their journey into the working world? What are they looking for from work?

We work with mainly 20-25 year-olds coming out of university, and we can see just how ethically minded young people are today. It is really important to young people that they are working in inclusive environments, and they don’t want to be put in specific boxes based on their identity.

We work with interns to recognise that in the future, when applying for roles outside of Change 100, they are interviewing their potential employer as much as they are being interviewed for a role. But there is still a lot of fear and lack of trust around sharing information about disability or health condition. They are still worried about the implications of bringing their whole self to work and the assumptions others will make.

You might be thinking; how can an organisation encourage people to bring their whole selves to work? Really it’s about a personalised approach to adjustments and recruitment. Even simple things like interviewing in non-formal rooms can help you make sure you get the best out of people.

What do your interns find most difficult about the programme?

Many of our interns will be undertaking work experience for the first time through Change 100 and are understandably anxious about sharing details of their disability or health conditions with their managers and team mates.

Knowing how much to share and what you are legally entitled to is a challenge for interns. And this is all on top of the standard challenges that young people face when they start out in the working world. Disability adds complications that get woven into everything else. Luckily Change 100 is a safety net of support for them to test how they want to handle these difficulties. But the onus shouldn’t just be on the employee, which is why we work so hard to influence the culture of employers.

Young people have usually only ever dealt with their disability in the context of education. University can be very structured, such as giving a standard 25% extra time in exams. But where we see adjustments in the workplace work really well, even better than at university, is where they are personal and tailored, and where employers are willing to regularly review an intern’s adjustments throughout their employment.

How does disability intersect with other protected characteristics or forms of diversity such as class, and how do you address them at Change 100?

Our interns often have double or triple disadvantages when it comes to employment. We have a really diverse group of candidates – almost half are the first to go to university in their families, and many are black or ethnic minority. We tend to have more uptake at universities who are already quite good at having disabled students, and those universities tend to therefore be better at inclusion in all ways. Disadvantage is interconnected – if you don’t have parents that went to university, you’re less likely to know how to navigate leaving university for the workplace, and that puts you on the back foot.

Where next for Change 100?

We’re committed to growing the programme in 2020 and reaching new employers and young people. We are keen to increase our partners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure we’re reaching all parts of the UK.

One of the things I personally would like to focus on is career and leadership development for disabled young people. Disabled people are more likely to be overlooked for promotion – many will stay in their organisations for a long time and not progress as quickly as their non-disabled peers. I’d like to look at piloting and testing a leadership programme with Change 100’s first year alumni who are now five years into their careers. And I’d love to do more longitudinal evaluation to understand the impact of the programme further down the line.

What advice would you give to an organisation who knows they lack diversity and inclusion and want to take steps to improve?

  1. Be honest with employees – you will not have got things perfect but show them that improving your diversity, equality and inclusion is a priority for you.
  2. Upskilling all staff on inclusion – HR teams are often brilliant at it, but we find there’s often a missing link filtering this knowledge down.
  3. Employers often beat themselves up about not doing enough – but the fear of not doing enough means they don’t do anything at all. Make positive first steps but keep it intersectional.

Victoria Passant

Victoria Passant is the Programme Manager – Youth Employment at Leonard Cheshire. She has has spent her career in the not-for-profit sector leading programmes focussed on young people and equality. At Leonard Cheshire she oversees multiple programmes that support young disabled people in the transition from education to employment. Her flagship programme Change 100, is a talent programme connecting disabled students and graduates with some of the UK’s top employers through paid summer internships. Partners include ASOS, Barclays, BBC, BMW, Intercontinental Hotels Group, and Zurich.  Victoria previously worked for Teach First and the National Union of Students where she ran programmes focussed on social mobility and educational inequality.

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