CN meets disabled workers from across the industry and discovers how they are bringing fresh ideas and expertise to those companies that create the right environments.
“When you’re autistic, you come across as being different.
“Because of this, you’re often isolated, ostracised and feel outside the main group. You don’t get as many opportunities to thrive and grow.”
Arran Linton-Smith, a senior consultant at Interserve, has autism. It makes him see, hear and interact with the world – and other people – differently. “One of the barriers I face is social interaction,” he says. “I communicate and think differently. I don’t fit in.”
Because of this, those with autism can struggle in certain working environments – which could explain the dismally low statistic that only 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time employment.
This trend continues across the broader disability spectrum. Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, according to latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics. And research conducted by charity Scope in 2016 revealed that 58 per cent of disabled people felt at risk of losing their job because of their impairment.
Closing this employment gap could bring huge economic benefits. If one million more disabled people were supported into work, it would contribute an extra £45bn to the UK’s economy by 2030.
For construction, harnessing this pool of talent could prove invaluable at a time when reducing the shortage of skilled workers is among the top priorities for business leaders.
Latest figures from the Labour Force Survey, covering the period from April to June this year, show that 9.3 per cent of people working in construction are disabled. Encouraging more disabled people to join the workforce can bring business benefits, as Skanska has found.
“Being an amputee makes you even more conscious of health and safety. I now have a heightened sense of awareness”
Malcolm Charlton, Bam Nuttall
“Disability comes in all different shapes and sizes,” says Skanska executive vice-president Harvey Francis. “It’s not just about physical disability; it’s about disabilities you can’t see as well. Disabilities are not barriers at all, so long as there is support and the right culture in place.”
In fact, creating the right environment for disabled people ensures a greater diversity of ideas and a broader range of expertise. Mr Francis says this in turn provides higher-quality solutions to problems on projects, which ultimately leads to better outcomes for the company and its customers.
Skanska site engineer Toby Carver is one example of this. He was born with a hearing impairment and uses a cochlear implant to hear, but says this has heightened his sensory awareness. “Because I don’t have my full hearing range, I use my other senses more,” he explains. “This means that I might be able to spot something someone else hasn’t.”
Toby Carver site engineer Skanska 2
Bam Nuttall general foreman Malcolm Charlton also says he has a heightened sensory awareness after he lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident. He has worked for the firm for 17 years, but was out of work for around two years as he recovered and learned how to use his prosthetic limb. After regular contact with his line manager, Mr Charlton was phased back into work and found his experience made him more aware of accidents waiting to happen on site.
“Being an amputee makes you even more conscious of health and safety – even though I’ve always been hot on it,” he says. “I now have a heightened sense of awareness. I’m more acutely aware of everything.”
For Mr Linton-Smith at Interserve, his disability presents a different type of barrier.
Being autistic, he can find it difficult communicating with others, but finds construction provides an ideal environment for him to thrive.
As an industry based on problem-solving, people in construction tend work to together as a team. And when it comes to solving these problems, Mr Linton-Smith’s ability to think in different ways can help to speed up this process.
“I’m fortunate to work in an organisation where I’ve been able to thrive and grow as a result of feeling comfortable talking about my autism”
Arran Linton-Smith, Interserve
“A diverse team is needed so projects can develop and the industry needs people who can think outside the box,” he says. “I think there are skills I have that lend themselves very well to the industry. With my autism, I tend to work out solutions to problems much faster and I’m usually several steps ahead.”
Working at Interserve, Mr Linton-Smith feels that the company’s ability to look beyond his disability has brought the best out of him. “I’ve had discussions with my colleagues about what makes me tick and how I work best,” he says. “I’m fortunate to work in an organisation where I’ve been able to thrive and grow as a result of feeling comfortable talking about my autism.”
However, for Laing O’Rourke design engineer Michael Cattermole, it is a physical disability that he has to contend with. During his undergraduate degree, he took up two placements with the contractor in the summers of 2011 and 2012.
However, in his second year of university, he broke his neck in a diving accident. After spending the rest of his second year recovering in a spinal unit, Mr Cattermole returned to university. He is now in a wheelchair, and joined Laing O’Rourke after completing his course.
“It’s about being open and honest with the person in question and asking them what they think they need to do to do their task successfully”
Michael Cattermole, Laing O’Rourke
Both he and the firm stepped into the unknown together as they discussed what opportunities were available to Mr Cattermole. “They didn’t know what they were going to do about my disability, but they did the best thing they could: they came to me and asked, ‘What do you think you can do and what can we do to accommodate that?’”
He says the best way for companies to remove barriers for disabled employees is simply to ask. “Nobody knows better than me what I need to do my job,” he says. “It’s about being open and honest with the person in question and asking them what they think they need to do to do their task successfully.”
Despite these positive examples, a House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee report on the disability employment gap found that as of mid-2016, just 49 per cent of disabled people aged 16-64 were in work. This compared with 81 per cent of non-disabled people in the same age range.
As well as this disability employment gap, disparity in pay emerges too. On average, disabled men will be paid 11 per cent less than non-disabled men, and disabled women will be paid 22 per cent less than non-disabled women, according to research conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2010.
Harvey Francis Skanska 1
Why are these employment and pay gaps so high? It could have something to do with attitudes that surround disability, according to Mr Cattermole.
Skanska’s Harvey Francis: ‘Disabilities are not barriers at all so long as there is support and the right culture’
“There could be a stigma that the disabled community won’t be as productive,” he suggests. “It could be based on the [idea that] we might need a few more hospital visits than the average, [so] you might think we’re slower working.”
He wants the industry to recognise that disabled people are just as productive as able-bodied people – and that investing in people with disabilities will pay off. “I would say as a disabled person, you are more determined to go out and be productive,” he says. “Until you’ve experienced sitting at home doing nothing, you don’t understand how enjoyable it is to have a drive and motivation to do something in life. Having a job is invaluable for the disabled community.”
“In all honesty, nobody thought I would be doing what I’m doing. Everybody thought I’d be office or desk-bound. But I set out to get my life back, and I have”
Malcolm Charlton, Bam Nuttall
For Mr Charlton, getting his job back at Bam Nuttall gave him the motivation he had lost after his accident. Nobody thought he would be able to cope back in his labour-intensive role as general site foreman – but Mr Charlton showed that barriers people with disabilities face can be overcome. “I’m doing exactly the same job as before,” he says. “We work a lot with Network Rail, so sometimes I’ll have to walk on the railway tracks. I’ll climb up ladders, access and scaffolds – I’ll do it all.”
He feels he has more to prove as an amputee. “In all honesty, nobody thought I would be doing what I’m doing,” he says. “Everybody thought I’d be office or desk-bound. But I set out to get my life back, and I have.”
The industry has struggled to shake off these traditional perceptions of it being a rough-and-tumble sector involving physical labour. With this in mind, someone with a disability may struggle to see what role they could take on.
Mr Linton-Smith says: “Construction really needs to go out and encourage disabled people into the industry. There’s a real image problem. We’re not doing enough to sell ourselves to disabled people and show what opportunities are on offer.”
On the contrary, construction provides a huge range of opportunities for disabled people. And as technology advances further and offsite manufacturing develops, the demand for office-based and less physical roles will only increase.
The problem is communicating these opportunities, according to Mr Cattermole. “If we can sell all the opportunities that are not based on site, we should be able to attract more interest from the disabled community,” he says. “The stigma surrounding construction – that everyone is on site trudging through mud – doesn’t do us any favours.”
To shake off this image, Mr Linton-Smith suggests the industry needs to raise its profile among young people. He says construction is failing to talk to enough students in schools, and that the sector is losing out on a crucial opportunity to inspire prospective workers into the sector.
Mr Linton-Smith has certainly proved that employing people with disabilities is a good business investment – and in return, construction has given him the opportunity to forge a successful career.
“I’ve joined an organisation that doesn’t just talk about diversity; it develops it,” he says. “I’ve been able to fly as a result of that. I’m allowed to be who I am, what I am, and how I am.”