“Anyone is capable of making it if they get the right support”

World expert in assistive technologies, Dr Nasser Siabi OBE, is on a mission to help disabled workers achieve their potential

By Tania Mason

For the first 16 years of his life, Nasser Siabi was told he would never amount to anything; at best, he would do some manual labour. Born and raised in Iran, almost totally blind in one eye and unable to see much more out of the other, he found learning virtually impossible, and had no reason to doubt the general consensus that he was “useless”.

But then fate, or the Iranian Revolution, intervened and after travelling to London to get treatment for Nasser’s eye condition, his family decided not to return to Iran. Aged 16, now in much smaller classrooms and suddenly able to see better, Nasser discovered that learning was easy. Science, which had always been his worst subject back home, became his best. Within a few years he had finished his PhD in electronics, computer science and solid-state physics from Southampton University, and proven beyond all doubt that “anyone is capable of making it to the top of their profession if they get the right support”.

During his final year at university he met Vee Ganjavian, an Oxford University aeronautics engineering graduate with dyslexia. Fired up by their own experiences, the two men wanted to do something to help people with disabilities.  The government had recently launched the Disabled Student Allowance to encourage disabled young people to continue their education. Siabi and Ganjavian set up Microlink, a company that provided tools and support to help them do so. It was a success, and eventually branched out to the corporate sector to help firms recruit, support and retain disabled employees.

Twenty-five years on from the launch of Microlink, Siabi is renowned as a world expert in the field of assistive technologies and inclusive workplaces, has an OBE for services to disabled people, and proudly proclaims that he has helped more than half a million dis- abled students and workers achieve their ambition and fulfil their potential.

But he isn’t done yet.

There are still far too many organisations, Siabi says, that are failing to recognise the needs of their individual employees and so are leaking large sums of money to high rates of absenteeism, statutory sick pay, employment tribunal judgements, productivity lost to conflict or stress, and high staff turnover.  Even if employers genuinely want
to do the right thing and treat their disabled staff better – which many do – there are many barriers which can make it difficult.

“Employers don’t see the hidden costs,” he says. “Everybody looks at this problem through their own lens, and it is hard to see the big picture. If you tell someone it costs £1,000 to help their disabled colleague, they will say that if you apply that to 5, 10, 20 per cent of the workforce that could be millions of pounds. So the line manager will just send someone else to do the job. What he or she doesn’t realise is that the HR department has to spend thousands of pounds recruiting and training a replacement [if that disabled person then leaves], or the legal department has to pay for an employment tribunal judgement against the company. The line manager doesn’t see this part of the cost equation, but the fact is that the knock-on effects cost the company a huge amount. The lack of joined-up thinking across the whole organisation is a problem.”

employers are missing a trick by failing to cater properly for disabled staff.

Some enlightened companies have tackled the problem in an holistic way – Lloyd’s Banking Group, for example, a client of Microlink since 2010, has invested thousands of pounds providing the necessary tools, training and support for their disabled staff. Now the process is so streamlined it costs just £650 per person – but Siabi insists the benefits far outweigh the costs anyway.

“Everyone you know will become disabled one day, because of age,” Siabi says. “So if you design your workspace to be inclusive, everyone will benefit. It cuts across every strand of diversity.”

Microlink’s assistive technology was featured on the BBC2 documentary Employable Me 2 at the end of last year, demonstrating how, with the right equipment and training, an employee’s disability can become immaterial.

Programmes such as this are incredibly powerful, says Siabi, because “people’s attitudes to disability change once they are exposed to it”. He is hugely encouraged by the shift in public attitudes to disabled people over recent years: “I do feel we are moving towards that utopia, with disability becoming like race and other minorities, where people say ‘I’m disabled’ and everyone else says ‘so what?’. That’s the way it should be, where people say ‘Ok, what do you need to do your job?’ rather than ‘oh, I’m so sorry for you’. Disabled people don’t need sympathy, they just need the right tools. If they are going to be digging the road for you, don’t give them a spoon, give them a shovel.”

Sticks and carrots

Pressed on whether government policy can play a bigger part in encouraging employers to up their game, Siabi says the right stick is already in place in the form of the Equality Act 2010, but he does have some ideas as to how incentives might be improved to get disabled people into work and keep them there.

At present, he says, providers of employment services are offered a certain fee to place an unemployed person into a job, and a higher fee if they can find a post for someone who is deemed harder to place – usually those who have been out of work for a long time, and are probably disabled.

The problem with this system, says Siabi, is that providers focus all their efforts on the easy wins, and harder-to-place people keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile.

A better way, he proposes, is for the government to only allow providersto help the easier cases once they have successfully placed a harder-to-help person.

“If you say, for every hard one I will give you three easier ones, before long you will find everyone is trying to do the harder ones as well because then they get the easy ones.”

However, he doesn’t doubt the government’s commitment to the cause, and says its new plan to get a million more disabled people into work over the next ten years is laudable.

He is also full of praise for former Minister for Disabled People Penny Mordaunt, who is now International Development Secretary and in that role recently announced that the UK would host
a Global Disability Summit in 2018. “Penny’s wonderful, very passionate and committed to the cause, and I’ve heard good things about the new minister, Sarah Newton, too.”

However, good intentions don’t always translate into achievements, he says. “The government always means well, but they are not a delivery organisation. Not all departments are on the same page when it comes to policy and delivery. I’ve worked in this area for years, been on several task forces and working groups, and sadly the concept of end-to-end delivery, which is essential for success, is not followed in most of these initiatives.

“If, for example, you are a job seeker who has been out of work for a long time, you are almost certain to have overlapping mental and physical health problems. You may be trying to rebuild your confidence through job interview training and work experience, but if you fall ill it will take so long to get a doctor’s referral that you will fall out
of the programme and be back at square one. So in order for this to succeed, you need to have health and employment programmes working much more closely together.”

Another example of where cross-cutting falls down is the transition from education to the workplace.

“If you are a disabled person at university you get great support, but once you go to work, even though there are programmes such as Access to Work to help disabled people, most of them, either through fear or lack of knowledge, fail to flag up their disability and end up falling through the cracks again. An easy win would be to bring these programmes together so people don’t have to go and find that support again. But again, these sit in different departments and it’s not joined up.

“The government needs to realise that everything you don’t do at these levels ends up costing more in the NHS further down the line, because most of these people end up out of work and needing a lot of medical intervention.”

The Civil Service has already announced its ambition to become the most inclusive employer in the UK by 2020, but Siabi is concerned that without centralising its procurement and simplifying the myriad contracts it has with different commercial providers, it won’t be able to achieve this.

“If you outsource your recruitment, training, IT, property management, assessment to different companies you can’t bring together the management information which is so key. Disability requires you to work closely with all stakeholders in a very joined-up way. But if you have a contract with a big IT firm or facilities management firm who doesn’t understand disability then it is very hard to make it work.

“There are plenty of good intentions in the public sector but unless they get rid of some of these complex issues and find a way to see the potential savings across the whole organisation, it will be hard for them to reach the levels that the private sector has reached.”

Lack of bench marking

Unusually for a diversity campaigner, he is ambivalent about the lack of benchmarking of disabled people in senior positions – nobody currently records, for example, how many disabled people sit on FTSE 100 boards. But Siabi makes the point that a large proportion of company directors are likely to have disabilities, because of their age, yet they don’t need to declare these because they don’t affect their ability to do their job.

“Show me someone in their 50s or 60s who doesn’t have eyesight failings or hearing failings or dexterity failings, or depression or diabetes or a heart condition – that’s just life. But if they can still do their job it doesn’t matter. I think these indicators are only really useful in order to paint people as role models; if you are dyslexic and you know that Richard Branson is too, then that’s helpful for you.

“There are many better metrics you can use to track progress – look at how you recruit and train people, how inclusive you are in your promotions, what you do for your existing staff who are struggling. If you are not doing anything for them then it doesn’t matter how many disabled people there are on your board. If you can design your workplaces so that people don’t even need to declare their disability then that’s the perfect outcome.”

Siabi believes employers are missing a trick by failing to cater properly for disabled staff.

“The fact is, there is a skills shortage and there are also a lot of skilled people who are out of work because of their circumstances. If you can remove the barriers then you can solve the problem.”

And disabled people can bring something unique to an organisation, largely because they have had to learn to be incredibly persistent and resilient, he says.

“If you go back in history, most of those who have had a massive impact on the direction of the human race have been disabled – look at da Vinci, Einstein, even Richard Branson. They are all different. When you get group think you just carry on evolving to the level you understand best. Only someone with a different view, who has struggled through life and come out of it smelling of roses, is the one who can take you in a different direction. Disability brings a lot of value to organisations, because of the resilience, the outlook, the ability to overcome adversity.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD. To make sure you never miss an issue, subscribe today for as little as £50 for the year.