Exploring the support available to disabled jobseekers and their employers 

Managing a job search, writing CVs and cover letters, preparing for interviews, and negotiating terms with a prospective employer can be difficult and stressful for anyone. But for disabled chemists, juggling access needs and worries about disclosure can compound the challenges of navigating the job market.

Disabled people make up 20% of the working-age population, but are underrepresented in the chemical sciences, facing barriers that their non-disabled colleagues do not. To overcome these inequalities, employers have a responsibility to proactively consider the needs of prospective disabled employees – from job adverts to application forms, interviewing and entering a new workplace and beyond – instead of treating disabled chemists as a burdensome afterthought.

Who do we mean by disabled chemists?

Disability is an umbrella term, referring to any kind of mental or physical difference that has a significant impact on day-to-day life. This covers a wide spectrum of experiences including mental health conditions, chronic illnesses and other long-term health conditions, neurodivergence and sensory and mobility impairments. Many of the people who fall into this category, however, aren’t aware that they can self-identify as disabled – which can impede them from getting the workplace adjustments they are legally entitled to.

What’s the problem?

Data from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)’s Pay and Reward Survey 2021 showed that disabled chemists experience less job security and satisfaction than non-disabled chemists, and are less likely to feel that their job makes full use of their skills. Disabled chemists face particular barriers to accessing and developing skills that can support their career progression, mobility and overall career and pay satisfaction. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this inequality of access to learning and development opportunities, with more than twice as many disabled than non-disabled survey respondents finding it difficult to maintain or develop skills during this period.

This has a direct impact on disabled people finding new roles, receiving competitive pay in line with their skills and knowledge, and feeling challenged and secure in their current role. It also impedes career progression; only 21% of disabled respondents reported that they held a position of high responsibility, in comparison to 37% of non-disabled respondents. This stark statistic demonstrates the negative impact that a lack of skills development can have on career development and progression into leadership or managerial roles. Moreover, barriers to progression impact significantly upon lifetime earning potential, contributing to a pay gap where the full-time median salary for disabled respondents was just £41,500, in comparison to £49,000 for non-disabled respondents.

What can we do about it?

Empowering disabled chemists to confidently navigate the job market and know their rights is crucial if we are to address this inequality. As the chemistry community, we need to do more to support, sponsor, advocate for and provide opportunities for disabled people to develop their skills and progress their careers. Part of this work is providing high-quality careers advice, information and tailored support to support job seekers and those who are looking to develop and progress their careers. For example, the RSC’s team of career and professional development advisers provides 1:1 career consultations and tailored advice and guidance via email for members, as well as monthly webinars and talks. This includes support for any aspect of managing a job search. Additional financial, wellbeing and training support is available from the RSC’s Chemists’ Community Fund.

However, individual-centred work can only go so far, and employers and recruiters hold the keys to changing the wider culture and breaking down the barriers in place for disabled chemists. In the UK, employers have a legal responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to provide reasonable adjustments for their employees, as well as for candidates during the recruitment process.

A reasonable adjustment is a change made to remove or reduce a disadvantage relating to someone’s disability when at work or applying for a job. Adjustments help to eliminate indirect discrimination – where the application of a criterion, policy or practice puts someone at a disadvantage because of a legally protected characteristic, such as disability.

What is ‘reasonable’ will depend on each situation, but if an employer is unable to make a particular adjustment – for example because of unfeasible cost or practicalities – this must be justified, and an alternative should be offered.

What kinds of reasonable adjustments might be available for a job interview?

  • Interview questions provided in advance
  • Assistive equipment or software (brought by interviewee or provided by interviewer)
  • An interpreter, personal assistant or interview buddy (brought by interviewee or provided by interviewer)
  • Alternative interview formats (in-person, phone, video call)
  • Alternative test formats (verbal, written)
  • Additional time to complete assessments
  • Camera off in remote interviews, (to reduce the pressure to make eye contact, for example)
  • Have questions repeated, rephrased or clarified
  • Take notes into the interview
  • Deliver a presentation or portfolio instead of answering competency-based questions
  • Changes to the interview space or location to improve physical access

How can employers access support and guidance?

There are a number of dedicated organisations that can provide support, advice, information and training to employers who would like to provide more support for disabled employees and candidates. For example, Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) offers advice and information to employers around making the workplace more accessible for those with a visual impairment, including specialist work-based assessments and free online training for employers. It also recently launched the Visibly Better Employer standard, which offers the opportunity for employers to learn how they can be more accessible to blind and partially sighted members of staff and earn Visibly Better Employer status. ‘Employers are not always experts in disability, but it is important they get support from those with specialist knowledge to make workplaces more accessible and cater to the specific needs of staff members and potential recruits with disabilities,’ says Alice Archer, RNIB employment coordinator.

The National Autistic Society runs the Autism at Work programme, which supports employers to make roles accessible to autistic candidates. The Shaw Trust run an intensive personalised employment service to support employers in the East of England, and many other disability organisations provide similar kinds of specialist support across the UK and globally.

‘We would like to engage with a greater number of scientific employers and encourage them to consider partnering with us to attract, recruit and retain autistic talent,’ says Susan Askew, employment engagement manager at the National Autistic Society.

But it’s not just employers who have responsibility to take action. There are steps we can all take to make workplaces more accessible to our disabled colleagues, from asking about access needs and turning on auto-captions in remote meetings, to contributing to the development of workplace culture towards greater flexibility and support for everyone’s diverse needs. Accessibility benefits everyone, and making the chemical sciences a place where disabled people can thrive is a collective responsibility – we all need to play an active part.

What small steps can everyone take to reduce barriers for disabled people?

  • Proactively ask about access needs, for example by including a brief sentence, ‘Please get in touch if you have any access needs’, in meeting/event invitations.
  • Make sure your email signature is accessible. Some disabled people use screen-reader technology, which reads text aloud, but can’t pull out text from an image file. If your email signature is an image with no descriptive alt text, screen-readers won’t be able to tell the recipients of your emails who you are!
  • Turn on auto-captions in your Zoom account settings. Captions can be beneficial for many, from d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, to neurodivergent people and those who experience variable cognitive impairment (‘brain-fog’) – and even just to anyone who has a loud washing machine running in the background!
  • Signpost colleagues to the RSC Accessibility Grants, which provide up to £1000 per year to cover additional disability-related costs for members attending chemistry-related events, whether online or in-person.