Building back better: Improving disability inclusion in the workplace, with Diane Lightfoot

In this episode we're joined by Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum. Listen as we talk about the opportunities arising from our evolving workspace. And uncover how businesses can maximise these opportunities to 'build back better'. You'll gain advice to help you improve disability inclusion, and reshape the future world of work.


You can find out more about the Business Disability Forum and how to become a member by visiting their website at We also have a Disability Inclusion webinar series, where inclusive organisations like the EW Group and The Clear Company share their advice to help you become more inclusive.


Stuart Blair (00:07):


Stuart Blair (00:15):

Welcome to Texthelp Talks podcast. We'll be bringing you a host of experts, covering a range of topics from education right through to the workplace. Make sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. In this episode, you'll be hearing from me, Stuart Blair, the workplace product, monitor a Texthelp. I'm delighted to be here with Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum. Diane is a renowned diversity champion sitting on boards, such as the government disability expert advisory panel, work autism and the Institute of codings diversity and inclusion board. Today, we'll be chatting about the opportunities arising from our current evolving workspace. Diane will be sharing advice on how organizations can maximize these opportunities to better support the disabled community in the workplace. It's great to have you here with us, Diane. Thank you so much for joining.

Diane Lightfoot (01:09):

Thank you for having me.

Stuart Blair (01:09):

For those of us who aren't aware of the Business Disability Forum, can you tell us a little bit about BDF and the work that you do?

Diane Lightfoot (01:20):

Of course, and also thank you for that wonderful glowing introduction. I'm not sure I've ever been renowned before. I rather like that. Business Disability Forum is a not-for-profit membership organization. We exist to support businesses, ultimately of all shapes and sizes and sectors to get better at recruiting, retaining and developing disabled employees and also at supporting disabled customers. Ultimately, I always say that we are here to transform the life chances of disabled people as employees and consumers. When you look at some of the facts and figures around the disability employment gap, for example, it's clear that unfortunately many disabled people do not currently have the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers. We were set up almost 30 years ago, not by me, but as the employers' forum on disability. We've since changed to become Business Disability Forum to reflect that customer angle as well.

Diane Lightfoot (02:24):

When we were set up, it was in the context of the development of the disability discrimination act, which came in 1995. We really wanted to make sure that any legislation was going to be really practical for businesses to be able to implement and not just a really nice set of intentions. Fast forward on almost 30 years, and we now have about 350 members and partners who collectively employ about 20% of the UK workforce and an estimated 8 million people globally. We provide them with lots of really practical support and advice via our advice service, which is expert confidential advice, very pragmatic solutions to meet what's actually possible within business resources, events, task forces, round tables. All these things provide a safe space to share what works and what doesn't.

Diane Lightfoot (03:21):

Then the other side of the coin, if you like, is that we use this really rich evidence-based to feed into policy, into thought leadership and campaigning to try and affect change and make sure that new policies and legislation is really positive for disabled people, and again, practical for business.

Stuart Blair (03:41):

That's brilliant. Thank you for the introduction. I know firsthand some of the great work that BDF does and I've sat on some of those task forces and being part of some of that. It really is inspiring work. It's true that your vision at BDF is to create a disability-smart world. Could you tell us what you mean by that?

Diane Lightfoot (04:03):

Disability-smart is the phrase that we coined and which we use across quite a lot of our work to mean going beyond disability confidence to the next level. Really knowing what to do and what to action to provide a great work and customer environment for everyone, including disabled people. Our ethos is that to get it right for disabled people, it means a cross-organizational approach. It's not just about the responsibility of HR or diversity inclusion teams. It actually cuts across the whole business from senior leadership to line managers, to procurement, to IT, to communications, to premises. Not that we're in premises at the moment, but in normal times. We call that being disability smart, getting that right. About half of our members and partners operate beyond the UK, so we wants to reflect that in our vision.

Diane Lightfoot (04:57):

It might seem a bit ambitious, but if there's anything that the pandemic has shown us is actually that is a very small world. Some of the boundaries of divides we had, we're working very different ways across boundaries. This morning, I did a webinar that was with an organization based in India and broadcasting out to 40 different countries. That's just a normal thing that we can do now. That's why we say world in the vision and the vision is actually creating a disability smart world together because we passionately believe it's going to be a joint effort for all of us, business, government, disabled people, advocacy groups. It's up to all of us to make this change and make this happen.

Stuart Blair (05:39):

No, absolutely. That's actually really interesting about the webinar you were doing this morning. I think the pandemic's taught us one thing it's that digital is going to be a massive player in the future. You would have such a larger global reach when you do things digitally.

Diane Lightfoot (05:54):

Completely. Some of these things I don't think we'll ever go back to doing in-person. Certainly things with a global focus. It just makes it so much easier for different people to join.

Stuart Blair (06:04):

Get your message out there worldwide. You recently carried out some research with over a hundred global brands on the topic of developing a global disability inclusion strategy. More than 80% of the participants stated that working towards building a disability-smart organization allows them to access a wider pool of talent, drives employee motivation and has an impact on businesses' objectives. For organizations wanting to better support disability inclusion, what overarching advice would you give to help them drive meaningful change throughout their organization?

Diane Lightfoot (06:44):

I think whether you're thinking globally, or just from a UK perspective ... When I get asked about where to start, I cite three things. The first is senior leadership and a senior champion. Actually having somebody, a senior level, that routinely talks about disability, that sets the tone, that says this is important, has a disproportionate impact in what matters around here and sending the message about this is really, really important. In our global study, which we carried out pretty much a year ago now, pre pandemic, but launched the findings in July that was with our partner, Shell. In that study, 91% of people responding, agreed that identifying a senior champion is absolutely critical to driving a disability inclusion strategy. There's that whole piece as well about we manage what we measure and the valuable 500 campaign, which I'm sure you're well aware of is all about a commitment to have disability discussed at the highest board level on at least an annual basis. That visibility piece, if you like.

Diane Lightfoot (07:58):

Senior leadership's the first. The second one is line or people manager confidence. I often say you can have the best policies and procedures in the world, but they live or die on the confidence of a line manager to have a conversation, to ask someone if they're really okay and what they need, and actually take a step back and wonder if there's something else going on. It's not about line managers being an expert in disability at all. It's just about that willingness to ask some really quite simple questions like, what do you need to do your job well? What do you need to do the best possible job for us? What would help you? Also, is there something else going on if somebody does something or looks or behaves or reacts in a way you're not expecting. Rather than leaping to conclusions, just thinking, is there a conversation I should be having here?

Diane Lightfoot (08:46):

Then the third thing really is really great practical processes that underpin those. Particularly a really great workplace adjustments process. By great, I mean timely, well-publicized, available to everyone and where the manager knows where to go to it to get that support that provides that practical support. Also of course, alongside that, inclusive design of products and processes and services so that you reduce the need for individual adjustments further down the line. The other thing I say, though, is for global organizations, disability inclusion is a pretty new space. Actually participating and doing something means that you will probably amongst those that are leading. A really strong message that resonated from the survey was about not being daunted and a quote that keeps being repeated is focus on intentions, not perfection. [crosstalk 00:09:42] Get started rather ... It's good, isn't it? Rather than letting perfection get in your way and understand that it's all right if there are different motivations and different things that help you engage in different locations. That's fine. Whatever helps you get traction on the ground and get going is great.

Stuart Blair (09:57):

No, that's brilliant. A couple of things I really liked that you said there. The buy-in from key stakeholders, senior leadership. The phrase used there, setting the tone. I think that's so important. That has to come from the top. I think that's so important. One of the things we find in our line of work as well, as what you mentioned there is that inclusion angle, that accessible for everybody, making sure that everybody is aware within an organization, what is available to them. If you use some of those sorts of ideas and think about actually recruitment processes, what sort of consideration should organizations be ticking when they're thinking about potential future employees and inclusive recruitment?

Diane Lightfoot (10:38):

Recruitment really ... That's a whole podcast in itself, if not [crosstalk 00:10:42] Encouragingly, we are seeing our members that are saying that one of the silver linings, perhaps of the pandemic is that they are thinking differently about how they can recruit inclusively, but there's loads you can do. I think first and foremost, reframing the conversation around talent and disabled people are a talent pool and a too often untapped talent pool. It's been in the news again actually, but before COVID, there was Brexit and there still is [crosstalk 00:11:18] Oh, yes. When we were first talking about Brexit, there were already skills shortages in many sectors. Construction is a notable one.

Diane Lightfoot (11:28):

I was listening to the news the other day, and there was conversation around whether people from the rest of Europe ... We are still European even if you're not in the European union. Having to get special permits and visas to come over and work on farms in the UK. I thought, actually, there's this whole talent pool that's being overlooked. There is an opportunity there to think about that.

Diane Lightfoot (11:51):

Then some practical things about recruiting. I think firstly, whenever there's a post to fill ... If someone tells you they're leaving, the temptation to dig out the job description and maybe even the advert you used before, give it a quick once over and then push it out again unchanged is very strong, particularly because people are very busy. They want to get roles filled. If you can take a step back and say, do you know what? Do I really need five years experience? Do I really need a degree? Do I really need a driving license? Does it have to be full time? Are there different ways that this job could be done or different things that I could ask for or not ask for that might open it up to applications and people with different life experiences and different journeys?

Diane Lightfoot (12:34):

It's this whole thing about focusing on what you need done rather than how you need it done or indeed, in the case of office-based jobs, where you need it done. Of course that's not always true for service delivery. That can make a big difference.

Diane Lightfoot (12:48):

Then disability smart. Obviously I've already talked to you about being disability smart. An approach that focuses all the way through on being inclusive from the attraction piece to onboarding. Attraction, it's the imagery, it's the language you use. If you've got examples of adjustments that you already have in your workplace, then that can make a big difference to disabled people thinking, you know what? Actually, I believe this. I believe they would meet my needs and they genuinely want me.

Diane Lightfoot (13:18):

Also imagery of disabled people and making sure that's consistent with the rest of your brand. Quite often organizations create a lovely little micro site to advertise job roles, but the messages are completely different from the corporate site. You get that kind of cognitive dissonance really, so watching out for that. Procurement as well, making sure that if you use an online portal that it's accessible to screen readers. Loads of them aren't. If you are buying new technology, get it tested by disabled people and make sure it's compatible. Also if you're in a stage of procurement, thinking about the technology piece, design now algorithms. So many online recruitment portals have automatic sifting that would say remove someone who has a gap in their CV, or doesn't tick a certain box for qualification. That might really disadvantage someone who for whatever reason, hasn't had the same opportunities to access that education or employment.

Diane Lightfoot (14:18):

One thing I really, really think is easy for organizations to do is testing the right skills at interview as well. Panel interviews are still the standard aren't they? Question and answer.

Stuart Blair (14:32):

We all love them.

Diane Lightfoot (14:33):

Oh, we all love them. They test how good you are at panel interviews and selling yourself. That's fine if you're going to go and do a sales role or a public speaking or promotion. Then maybe that is a good test, but if you're doing something that's maybe technical or back-office, it's just not about public speaking. Then giving someone an opportunity to show you how they do the job rather than try and tell you about it makes a big difference. Times tests as well can be a big disadvantage. I don't know anyone who likes time tests. I did time test to get this job actually and I really thought that was the end of that.

Diane Lightfoot (15:11):

I had a conversation with someone who was going through a grad program a while back who had dyslexia. She was saying to me ... It was just a break at an event. "I don't know whether to say to them that I have dyslexia and ask for more time to do the test because I'm worried if I do, that there will be a mark against me on my application. If I don't, I know I won't finish the test." Lots of organizations are moving away from that. Again, if the job is one where you need to be able to respond quickly under time pressure, then it might be appropriate, but if it isn't, maybe best not to do it.

Diane Lightfoot (15:50):

Asking candidates ... I told you, this was a long answer. Sorry. Asking candidates for adjustments every stage, rather than whether they have a disability and then getting the onboarding rights. If someone has adjustments then working with them about how you communicate that to the wider team. For example, and again, this is more about a physical office. If someone has a fixed desk in a hot desk environment, or has a parking space or whatever it is that others don't have, it could be really easy for there to be resentment in the wider team, if they don't understand. Working with the individual on what they're happy to share. That's crucial, you mustn't tell people without that, can make a really big difference. Sorry, that was recruitment 101 in five minutes.

Stuart Blair (16:34):

To be fair, you gave us a pre-warning and I think you're absolutely right. We probably could have a follow up podcast solely on the recruitment process. One of the ideas that I love that you said there was actually tailoring the interview more to the role. I think that would give every applicant a chance to shine. Obviously we're a tech company so I think tailoring the interview more towards coding or software development or something like that. If your sales, more towards selling. If it's admin, more towards processes. I think that's a fantastic idea and something more organizations should adopt. Obviously the title of this podcast is Is Building Back Better. At some point in time, we had to come on to focus a little more on the pandemic. Obviously the current pandemic has led organizations to face many challenges and it continues to do so. With over 300 members as part of BDF, what sort of challenges have your members been experiencing and what key learnings are you finding to be common amongst them?

Diane Lightfoot (17:33):

We carried out a survey right back in April at the beginning of the first lockdown. We were it was only going to be three weeks. Remember that?

Stuart Blair (17:42):

Absolutely. Working from home for six weeks. That was nine months ago.

Diane Lightfoot (17:47):

That was nine months. We were asked by lots of our members about what others are doing. We did a survey, which we only shared amongst our membership, but there were some very common factors that people were citing. Obviously, they were moving at great pace to homeworking. A big issue was knowing who amongst their employees were working with adjustments so they could reach out to them. A lot of them didn't have a central log, so it was based on people remembering and different line managers. That didn't work as smoothly for many years, they might have not done. Again, continue with adjustments, actually portability and being able to get kit to people and know what people might need in a homeworking environment. For some people, of course, that was great because their adjustment was flexible working or homeworking, but for others who needed specific bits of ergonomic equipment, that was quite difficult.

Diane Lightfoot (18:43):

We are now very used to using Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, et cetera, et cetera. I'm not embarrassed to say that before the pandemic Teams was a thing that popped up when I started my computer and I just waited for it to load and then closed it before getting on with my day. Actually inclusivity of those platforms was something people struggled with. How to make them accessible for people who had a visual impairment or who are deaf and captioning and compatibility with screen readers, all those sorts of things was a steep learning curve.

Stuart Blair (19:15):

I think Microsoft and Google on that point specifically have made great strides through the last nine months to really adapt their online platforms. We see auto captioning. Credit to the big players in the space. They have adjusted very quickly.

Diane Lightfoot (19:33):

Massively, and they have continued to innovate. Microsoft's one of our partners and they are absolutely committed to getting it right across their products and services for their employees. Seeing them build in more inclusivity on an ongoing basis is brilliant.

Diane Lightfoot (19:50):

The other thing that was right up front at the beginning was mental health and spotting the signs that people weren't coping and really practically knowing how to help people manage their wellbeing remotely. That was the initial stuff. Then since then a lot of them, even actually at that point for some, lots were saying, they don't expect to go back to how we worked before. They're starting to train managers in how to manage remotely. We have a new people manager toolkit I should plug, which also includes a lot of information on that.

Diane Lightfoot (20:23):

Also looking at how to risk assess people returning to the workplace. Something that we were worried about in the bit where we were returning to the workplace was a conflation or confusion between the term vulnerability and disability and a risk of lumping everyone with a disability into a high risk group to come back, which clearly is just not the case. We've done a lot of work around the importance of being person centered and individual around that.

Diane Lightfoot (20:51):

There's been some really great stuff though. I think a more human style of leadership, just the fact that I know that our listeners won't be able to see us, but we can all see each other and into each other's houses in our respective Christmas jumpers or not, but that more whole person stuff. You don't have that workplace armor and hierarchy in the same sort of way. Then there's been also some great practice that some of our members have done. I happen to be in a large branch of Sainsbury's. This is a while back. They had a regular announcement about remembering not all disabilities are visible. It was related to the wearing of face masks and social distancing. I thought that was great that they were doing that. Actually lots of really positive stuff starting to come out.

Stuart Blair (21:36):

That's brilliant. You touched on, briefly there, mental health, something that sits pretty close to my heart. I'm a mental health first aider here at Texthelp. One brief follow up question on that. Have you seen any really good practices with helping organizations cope very specifically in terms of mental health? Have you seen any organizations really get it right in terms of mental health?

Diane Lightfoot (22:00):

I don't know about organizations getting it right, but it's certainly come right up the agenda. The business in the communities, annual mental health report ... That's not its proper name. Please do look up the proper name of it, that came out in October around our annual conference was actually showing increased confidence in people, in talking to their employers around mental health, which is fantastic to see. There was much more going on around world mental health day, mental health awareness week, and people having those conversations much more. Ultimately, going back to that line manager piece, the ability of a line manager to have what can feel like a difficult conversation and a sensitive conversation and spot the signs. Even things like people not turning their camera on if they usually do or behaving differently. We've produced a lot of guidance about that, but it's obviously going to continue to be an issue, particularly as we continue with winter and COVID and all that goes along with that.

Stuart Blair (23:00):

A hundred percent. One of the things I learned going through the qualification to be a mental health first aider was that it's actually a lot more about being an evangelist and being outspoken and letting people know that there's support there. Being proactive as opposed to being reactive and trying to spot the signs, but everything you said there is exactly right.

Diane Lightfoot (23:19):

Yeah. I completely agree about being proactive and also people sharing their own stories. I talk about my experience of having depression quite a lot, but only really because it has made it easier they've told me for others to talk about it.

Stuart Blair (23:36):


Diane Lightfoot (23:37):

Just that normalizing the conversation, getting it out there is hugely important, isn't it?

Stuart Blair (23:41):

Absolutely, fully agree. Alongside all the challenges that the pandemic has presented us with, it's also presented some real opportunities to reshape the future and essentially quote the title, Build Back Better. With regards to disability inclusion, what sort of changes do you see happening within the workplace now that will benefit us into the future?

Diane Lightfoot (24:05):

At the start of the pandemic, I was really braced for our members and partners saying this is really important, but we just got too much on our plate at the moment. Actually, that hasn't happened and indeed the opposite has happened. We've continued to get new members and new partners. They have been saying that they're joining because of the difficult time and it's given them a time to think. It's made them realize that they need to be inclusive across all strands of diversity, that the pandemic has really highlighted that. Also they have had a chance to really focus and plan for a new normal whenever or whatever that is. I think in terms of building back better, changes around remote working and technology are just huge.

Diane Lightfoot (24:48):

When we had our annual conference in October, one of our speakers, again from Microsoft actually, remarked that this was a digital pandemic and how different this would have looked ... I was going to say 10, but maybe even five years ago. We probably wouldn't have been able to operate like we do now. Making sure that we keep some of those real positives. So many organizations are saying they don't ever expect to be going back to nine til five, five days a week. That can make a massive difference for all sorts of people, not just disabled people. Also working across boundaries, hearing stories of people who are now saying, I can get a job in a company that works in a different country. It doesn't really matter. I was talking to someone who ... She actually is based in France, does a lot of work with the UK, but has employed someone who's based in South Africa. It doesn't matter cause they're even all the same time zone. It makes absolutely no difference.

Diane Lightfoot (25:40):

We've also proven that working from home works. Before the COVID pandemic, working from home was the most frequently requested workplace adjustment. Although loads of organizations are great at it, there were still those who really wanted to see everyone lined up in rows outside the boss's door. We've proven that. They're also telling us that not traveling is good for the business and also good for work-life balance and that they have been thinking much more holistically around adjustments really for everyone. They're even also saying that improving expertise and profile around disability can be a competitive advantage.

Diane Lightfoot (26:21):

There are lots of negatives. We're going to have a financial downturn. We've got Brexit. There's lots of challenges, but if we can all make sure we don't lose some of the positives and challenge the notion that once there's a vaccine, we will just flop back to what we were doing before, I think that could make a huge, huge difference to many people.

Stuart Blair (26:40):

Myself, personally, and I think a lot of our listeners will have resonated with the not missing traveling to work. I do not miss the two hour commute that I used to have to the office. The five minute commute to a different room in my house is much easier.

Diane Lightfoot (26:56):

I saw it on Facebook, a friend of mine posted recently to say that ... She was talking about missing people. She said, I even miss standing in the rain, waiting for the bus. I thought, good Lord. I don't miss that. I do miss seeing people. I think that kind of mixed economy of home and office working or whatever it is ... We are social animals. Most of us need to see people, but yeah, goodness, I don't miss charging up the road to the train every day.

Stuart Blair (27:28):

To help organizations evolve their working environments, at BDF, you've launched a new forum, which you're referring to as the BDF Think Tank. Could you tell us a little bit more about that please?

Diane Lightfoot (27:41):

As I mentioned at the beginning, we have this really rich evidence base from our members of partners across so many different sectors. We and they are really keen that their experiences of what works and also really what doesn't work is fed back into policy and into government. As a result of that for the last few years, we've been doing tons more in the policy space, responding to consultations, engaging directly with government, doing our own research. It sounds a bit grand to call the thought leadership, but really trying to try to push the agenda, the what's next piece.

Diane Lightfoot (28:17):

Particularly in these difficult times, again, we're finding that members and partners want to feel like they're part of a movement really that is going to make things better and not just maintain the status quo, but what's next. What can we do to really push disability inclusion? We wanted to formalize that really with the forum. We've called it a think tank, which again is rather grand. We are producing so much stuff and we are using it as a platform to bring together businesses across all sectors, academics, policymakers, and crucially disabled people to feed into policy and campaigns and make sure that it is rooted in the lived experience of disabled people and also businesses. We're going to hold three or four meetings of the forum per year, obviously remotely to start with, possibly remotely forever. The first is planned for the first quarter of 2021. The initial priority will be the national disability strategy that is due to be launched in the spring of 2021. Really looking at what businesses and disabled people want to see in that.

Stuart Blair (29:23):

That's brilliant. Thank you very much for giving an insight into what's coming. Look forward to maybe even potentially taking part in some of that next year.

Diane Lightfoot (29:33):

Yes, please.

Stuart Blair (29:35):

Diane, it's been lovely chatting with you and I'm sure our listeners have learned a lot from hearing from your experiences. Thank you very much for joining us.

Diane Lightfoot (29:43):

Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Stuart Blair (29:45):

You can find out more about the Business Disability Forum and how to become a member by visiting their website at That just leaves me to say thank you everyone for listening and be sure to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode. Thanks again. Goodbye.