Lord Mandelson: Diversity at work “takes more than putting in a wheelchair ramp.”

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Employers must be sophisticated and broad-minded in their approach to diversity in the workplace to attract the best candidates, Peter Mandelson told guests at a Whizz-Kidz event on earlier this month.

Hosted by Whizz-Kidz patron and ITV news presenter Nina Hossain, the event – In Conversation with Lord Mandelson – challenged business leaders to consider how they can embrace a diverse workforce and be more appealing to disabled candidates.

Lord Mandelson shared his experiences as a minister in delivering New Labour’s New Deal, a programmed aimed at young and long-term unemployed people that launched in 1997.

Describing the enormous challenge faced by Government to introduce employment rights for a diverse workforce at the time, Lord Mandelson said that today’s employers had as much responsibility now for ensuring a culture of diversity, as they do for meeting statutory accessibility requirements. He said:

“Businesses have to be sophisticated and think broadly. Putting in a wheelchair ramp or modifying the lavatories is now something that you just have to do; it's important for us all to remember that there are a number of stages to making a workplace truly accessible to all. What you really need to do is rethink the whole culture of the workplace – how inviting it is, not just how practically possible it is, to a diverse range of prospective employers.

“You also need to think about how you strengthen the atmosphere of a workplace by showing patience, helpfulness. Because that’s not only good for the individual, but it’s also good for the person who’s helped them.”

Attendees were shown a short film featuring Whizz-Kidz Ambassador Scott Cooper, who explained how his work placement with Whizz-Kidz partner Jardine Motors Group showed him not only that he was able to join the workplace, but also that enjoyed it.

The panel of speakers, including Whizz-Kidz Chief Executive Ruth Owen and Whizz-Kidz Patron and Ambassador Arunima Misra took questions on their own experiences in the workplace.

Ruth Owen described how – at the beginning of her career – she felt she had to demonstrate her skills to a greater extent than non-disabled colleagues, in order to prove that her disability wouldn’t stop her from achieving her goals. She said:

“I was always determined to work, though that wasn’t always the expectation of people around me – including employers. I’ve had employers ask why they should employ me, so I’ve had to fight – and harder than many of my colleagues, and prove myself ten times more than anyone else.

“For many of our young people it can be difficult, without the confidence to put themselves in a position where they can enter the workplace. Things are better than they used to be but young disabled people in the work place still need resilience.”

Whizz-Kidz Patron Arunima Misra, who had her first work placement through Whizz-Kidz at the age of 14 in a law firm, now works in finance in the City of London. She explained the importance of businesses striving to get the best minds – and to ignore physical disability – when it comes to recruitment. She said:

“I think confidence is a two-way street. Organisations pride themselves of meritocracy; employers want the best of the best regardless of their physical situation. If that really is true, if you’re looking at someone in a wheelchair, with a physical disability, the disability really shouldn’t matter. And by you saying to us – we’re going to have you because you’re the best, and we want you for your brain – you’re showing confidence in the fact that you can handle it, and that gives us confidence.”

Lord Mandelson closed the night with a question asking what single technique the public could apply in order to make diversity in the workplace a reality. He said:

“I would like to see everyone becoming more ambitious. People have got to feel that they can challenge what exists, what is done inadequately at the moment, and people have got to feel a sense of ambition about what we can achieve. I want government to come in and support it, become a propelling force behind it, but I want it to be led by the public.”

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