Yesterday’s meeting of NHS Employers showed how passionate the organisation is about helping disabled people into the workforce and equipping them to succeed in their careers.

Able Magazine was there to find out about what measures were being considered in order to help the disabled people already working for the NHS succeed, as well as to encourage more to seek jobs within it.

The tone at the summit, held in Leeds yesterday, was positive and confident with delegates examining ‘what they do well’ and ‘what they could do better’ in terms of employing disabled peoploe. The conversation was largely based on the hundreds of small but significant case studies and success stories and what they could teach the organisation moving forward.

The backdrop to the NHS Employers Summit is that the NHS is improving as a diverse employer but wants to do more. They broadly accept that they aren’t perfect but that within their vast infrastructure there are so many examples of best practice that hold valuable lessons that need to be used to shift the culture towards better access for jobs for disabled people and better retention levels of disabled staff.

The first point on the agenda was that according to a recent survey of around 900 NHS staff, 16% chose not to disclose their disability; the thinking behind this being perhaps that it might damage future career prospects. Although the result is low compared with other industries, it’s something that the NHS takes very seriously. The reality is that without knowing that a member of staff has a disability, adjustments cannot be made to help them and this might have a serious impact on their ability to perform to their full potential. It is also a telltale sign that there is still insecurity amongst a small portion of staff that their disability will be viewed negatively.

The results of the survey also seem to point to a form of hierarchy of disability – with physical disabilities placed at the top. This could be, of course, because it’s impossible to hide a wheelchair but it might also indicate that people are comfortable with disclosing disability that cannot be denied or misunderstood. At the other end of the spectrum, sadly, mental illness and associated disabilities were least likely to be reported, even though they are likely to be the most commonly experienced. In other words, people felt far more confident disclosing disabilities that were unlikely to have an impact on their ability to do their job.

On a brighter note, it’s clear that the NHS, as a whole, has a pretty good understanding of disability and the capability of disabled people. It was pointed out several times that if the NHS didn’t ‘get it’ – who would? Many of the managers and HR staff that attended yesterday talked about the importance of sensible application of procedure and the value of discretion.  They were also able to discuss the difficult notion of keeping other staff happy regarding their perception of workplace fairness – even though this sometimes becomes difficult where privacy and confidentiality of disclosed information is being acted on.

One of the biggest challenges that the summit identified was that managers are increasingly going to need to differentiate between sick leave and leave related to disability. Clearly, disability is different from sickness but the lines blur sometimes when time is needed to recover from exacerbated symptoms and the like. Perhaps it’s true that the future of large organisations is going to rely more on relationships than hierarchy and this will mean that disabled people will need to become more confident in approaching their managers to ask for what they need.

Although the UK has come a long way regarding disability confidence, sometimes there can be a detrimental effect to the speed of progress. The issue of complacency and the thinking that the issues are fixed is real. Head of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights with NHS Employers, Paul Deemer, responded to the question put to him by Able editor, Tom Jamison, by outlining that the first priorities were to focus on the day-to-day realities and deal with practical issues as they occur and that again the NHS would need to rely on its managers to make good decisions in relation to procedures whilst being sensible enough to consider exceptions.

One of the main ‘takeaways’ was that it was down to staff to share ideas on the good practice that’s happening in all aspects of the NHS Employers’ remit across the UK.

The NHS is undoubtedly becoming a thought-leader in employing disabled people but it does seem that it is reliant on individual ‘champions’ that appear to be randomly distributed throughout the network. With better channels for communication, more disabled people could be given opportunities to work for the NHS in a capacity that suits them and in this sense, could have their lives transformed.