Willing and able: Why employers should take a chance on a talented and enthusiastic disabled workforce

07 April 2019 by

The final article in our series on the staffing crisis in hospitality looks at how employers can adapt their workplace to be more welcoming to staff members with disabilities and special needs. Vincent Wood reports

While the unemployment rate among jobseekers for the country stands at 3.7%, the figure rises to 9.3% when only considering people with disabilities actively looking for a job. Of the nearly one million people with learning disabilities in the UK, only 6% are in paid employment – including only 15% of people with autism and Asperger's.

As much as businesses miss out on potential staff through this employment gap, the country as a whole is also affected – with a 5% rise in the number of disabled people in the workforce, GDP would boost by £23b.

But for those who do decide to take on employees with disabilities, the result can be a remedy to many of the staffing issues faced by the sector. Geor-Dan, who lives with ADHD and moderate learning difficulties, was introduced to the Hilton Birmingham Metropole after training at Foxes Academy, a hospitality and catering college for disabled people in Minehead, Somerset, complete with a public hotel operation to give students 'real world' experience.

Foxes Academy student
Foxes Academy student

Having worked at the Hilton site for three days a week for three years, Geor-Dan has built up an enviable track record on the larder team in the kitchen, turning up early every day, always staying late when needed and only taking one day off sick across her employment.

"It's like a family, as the team look out for Geor-Dan," said chef Michael Lennon, who has admitted he would take her with him if he ever left the site for another kitchen. "She is reliable and just gets on with the job."

Marketing manager for Foxes, Clare Walsh, says this is a common story for the school's trainees, who "bring a passion and happiness into the workforce", as well as breaking down barriers and bringing teams closer together. Over the past three years, 83% of academy trainees have gained employment through the programme, which also incorporates soft skills like independent travel and social training – often barriers to employment. Meanwhile, over the three years that the academy has worked with Hilton hotels as an employer pathway, 100% of trainees have stayed with the company.

Walsh explains: "Even people who left 15 years ago have stayed in the same job. Our young people are very dedicated, very reliable and they tend to have very low sickness rates. They're extremely committed to their employer and really just grateful to have that job."

It's a trend seen elsewhere, and Angie Marshall, manager at Café Leep, hears the same from her service users. The hospitality operation in Leeds is staffed and run almost entirely by people with learning disabilities – in particular people living with autism and Down's syndrome – with their work geared towards achieving NVQ level two and food hygiene qualifications at industry level. "They don't get any special dispensation because they have a learning disability," Marshall says. "They take the same exam anybody else would."

Café Leep
Café Leep

Marshall adds that the pay-off for businesses also means a life-changing benefit for the individual: "They're so happy that they've been given a job. The feedback we've got is that they feel they've been accepted in society – that they're not on the outside anymore."

Creating a warm welcome

Making a hospitality environment more inclusive can be easier than employers may think. When it comes to mobility issues, reasonable adjustments needed to create an accessible workplace can often be financially covered by access to work grants from the government.

As for the broad spectrum of learning difficulties and sensory issues that can affect people with disabilities, it's just a matter of talking to the individual and seeing what they need. While this can apply to eliminating barriers in the workplace, it can also mean adapting the number of hours worked to ensure employment does not interfere with a prospective staff member's state disability benefits.

Marshall says: "When they come for an interview, it's a case of going through it with them and saying: 'So you're in this situation, how do you want us to cope with it? How do you want us to deal with it?' It can't be a case of 'well, if that happens, you're out,' because it doesn't work that way. But in return an employer will get the most loyal and hardworking person that they've probably ever employed."

Foxes Academy staff and student
Foxes Academy

One of the team

Matthew Food Prep
Matthew Food Prep

One company that has adapted its workplace towards inclusivity for people with disabilities is the Yummy Pub Co. Working in partnership with LVS Hassocks, a school for people on the autistic spectrum, the firm began to take on staff with learning difficulties and found that the best way to support new staff was to train the entire team. At first the skill development was offered to those looking for career progression in the firm, but before long it was incorporated as an online course in its compulsory training, alongside the likes of COSHH and manual handling.

Tim Foster, co-founder, said: "It's about not singling out the individual and highlighting individuals failing. I've got three guys with ADHD currently and you wouldn't know if you came into any of my sites. The whole premise of what we're trying to do is to make sure the team are aware that there are these individuals, because we've had conversations with those teams in those sites, but if you floated in from one of my other sites to cover, you wouldn't have a clue.

"It's made everybody more aware that there are quite a few disabilities that we may not have been aware of before – and it's made the working environment that much better for the individuals who have the disability, because they know that everybody has been trained and they're not being singled out."

Foxes Academy staff and student
Foxes Academy

Of course, individual training can also help disabled people to develop their own skills, as well as assuaging concerns within the team at large. As Marshall of Café Leep notes: "Invest a little in guys who you have coming to you. A lot of the stigma with people with learning difficulties is from people questioning if they are going to be clean; or if they are going to be doing this and that with their hands. My guys are so well trained because we stick to NVQ guidelines, so if you're scared that's going to happen, send them on a course so you know it's not.

"They will work so hard for you, but it is about give and take. Employers have to invest in somebody with a learning disability to get something out: it is a two-way street."

Individual members of staff stepping forward can be a key part of building an inclusive environment. Walsh of Foxes Academy says asking people if they would like to serve as a mentor can break down barriers for the rest of a team. "Many chefs I know have children with learning disabilities, and therefore they are much more open. I think it's fear that stops people, but once they get over that, they see the benefit."

Foxes Academy staff and student
Foxes Academy

Another such employer is Robert Richardson, general manager at the Grand hotel in Folkestone, Kent. Working in conjunction with disability charities, the firm ensures its approach to staffing is as inclusive as possible, achieving disability-confident employer status and now bringing in trainees for two weeks of classroom education and two weeks of on-the-job training, with aims to get more than 40 people through the door by the end of the year. The policy helps enfranchise jobseekers and offers a public service, while also giving Richardson a talent pool of stand-out candidates. Often those are people with clear dedication and desire to progress.

He says: "We strongly believe that we can teach any skill, but we can't teach enthusiasm. So we look for that enthusiastic person, irrespective of backgrounds, and what we have found is we've got increased retention and we've got a happier team, which has translated to a better customer journey. We've won a lot of awards for high levels of customer service and that is inarguably because of the team we've got.

"We keep hearing about a skills crisis and the staffing crisis and I think non-traditional methods of recruitment are definitely more valid now than they've ever been. Ultimately, we've got to cast our net wider."

The Caterer's staffing special

In light of the sector's well-publicised staffing woes, operators need to be thinking more outside the box than ever when it comes to recruitment. In this, the final in a series of features detailing how to engage previously under-utilised demographics, we investigate how businesses can tap into the talent pool of workers with disabilities.

From our sponsor

Over time, sustained efforts in education, advocacy and legislation have promoted integration and removed many barriers people with disabilities and special needs face in daily life. The focus has shifted from a person's disabilities to instead highlight their strengths. Now the impetus is on society and businesses to create opportunities for people to realise their potential.

However, despite the progress made, the unemployment rate for people in the UK with a disability was 9.3% in July-September 2018 (the figure is 3.7% for people without disabilities).

Gainful employment gives people independence. Existing workplace obstacles include inaccessible buildings, prejudiced attitudes and ineffective promotion of job opportunities.

Hospitality employers must ensure their workplaces are designed to be accessible for people with both physical and mental impairments. It's vital to cultivate a respectful atmosphere among staff members, with transparent procedures if workers feel they're being treated unfairly.

As this feature demonstrates, the hospitality sector should continue to publicise its activities with disabled people and people with special needs. In promoting the available opportunities, a route is created for people to meaningfully utilise their talents, and progress.


Foxes Academy www.foxesacademy.ac.uk

(01643 708529)

Café Leep www.leep1.co.uk (0113 243 6791)

Disability Confident employer scheme and guidance www.bit.ly/UeFlJn

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