Construction’s Attitudes Toward People with Disabilities Need to Change 

People with disabilities make up a fifth of the UK population, but only 9% of the country’s construction workforce. According to industry experts, the sector is missing out when it comes to employing people with disabilities. Is the built environment heading in the right direction on this sensitive issue?

How many people with disabilities work in construction? 

According to a report published by the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board earlier this year, there are around 2.4 million people working in the country’s construction industry. 

Of these, an estimated 65% are employees, with the balance being self-employed individuals. 

The percentage of construction sector workers who identify as having a disability is a mere 9.3%, according to a 2017 survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This compares with 20% of the total UK population who have a disability, as defined by the 2010 Equality Act.  

At a time when there is such a skills shortage, the industry is missing out on a wealth of talent because it fails to sufficiently recognise the contribution that people with disabilities can bring to the built environment. 

Attitudes towards disability in construction 

There are several reasons offered for the lack of diversity and inclusion in construction, including cultural attitudes toward disability. But being able to develop, harness and unleash talents and skills doesn’t end when someone has a disability. A growing number of companies in the sector recognise this and are seeking to change. 

The ONS survey also found that more than half (58%) of workers with a disability in construction were worried that if their employers found out about their condition, they would lose their job. This aspect of the industry also needs a fundamental shift. 

In recent years legislation has been introduced to protect the rights of people with disabilities, notably employees, including the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities and was replaced by the 2010 Equality Act.  

But, beyond legal obligations as an employer, are companies doing enough today to invest in people with disabilities, treat them like any other member of the workforce and benefit from their skills?  

Changing mindsets and ways of working 

Industry leaders have for years been urging more people to consider a career in construction, and the skills shortage across the sector is a matter of great concern to companies and clients alike. So it makes sense to tap into underutilised people who have a lot to offer. A key aspect of this, however, is ensuring workers with disabilities are not at risk or disadvantaged when doing their jobs. For example, the degree to which a person is physically disabled could impact their ability to perform certain onsite tasks, but tasks and equipment and working practices can be adapted, and the industry recognises that it is not doing enough to attract, train and work with people with disabilities and offer them opportunities across the breadth of the sector’s work. 

Employers also need to consider that disability in construction is not always visible, particularly when it extends beyond the physical. Some staff may have autism or other impairments or health issues that are not immediately obvious and which, while affecting much of their lives, would not be a bar to them doing a job in construction as well as their colleagues who do not have such conditions. 

Changing the stereotypical face of construction 

Writing in Building magazine a couple of years ago, James Wates, chief executive of Wates Group, said traditionally the sector has been thought of as being for men and requiring physical, on-site work. That image is changing, he added, but such shifts are too slow.  

Wates urged the sector to communicate better, to show that roles across the industry were “very diverse, often involving skills that you would not think of as being needed.” 

“Across our whole workforce, we need to provide training and raise awareness to ensure that everyone understands how to help colleagues succeed. A good first step here is to provide basic do’s and don’ts for how to treat people with disabilities in common work situations,” he added. 

Meanwhile, a US survey found that three-quarters of all firms employing people with intellectual and development disabilities reported such hirings as being a positive experience for their organisations. “Further, nearly one-third said the experience had thus far exceeded their overall expectations,” it added. 

Diversity often leads to solutions to problems that hadn’t been considered before. Providing access to premises or locations for all employees can often be overlooked, despite being required by law. Staff with movement issues can often spot weaknesses in a workplace which go unnoticed by more able-bodied colleagues. 

Embracing diversity and inclusion in construction 

As Wates highlights, perceptions of disability in construction need to change.  

Others echo his argument. Inclusivity consultancy Built By Us argues the sector has “failed to make the most of diverse talent, despite a continuing and ever growing skills gap.” 

Construction can and will benefit from making its workforce more diverse, which includes attracting talented people from all walks of life, genders and health. 

The advantages of a workforce that represents society more widely is that inputs from individuals can shed light on new ways of working. 

And as technology including drones and robots develops and creates new opportunities across the industry, the traditional view of what makes a construction worker is inevitably going to change. 

The industry certainly has more work to do; the likes of Wates and others call out unsatisfactory practices whenever they can. And programmes to improve inclusivity are increasing, while awareness among companies around the issue of attracting, employing and retaining staff with disabilities is growing.  

The sector still has a way to go when it comes to reflecting broader society among its ranks, but it is at least heading in the right direction. 

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