Irish companies still failing those with disabilities in work

Even in organisations championing the inclusion agenda, only a few have targeted recruitment for those living with a disability

Dublin-based chief executives Dee Coakley and Cat Noone are passionate about including more people with disabilities in the Irish workforce. Coakley runs Boundless, an employment services platform specialising in managing remote teams. Noone is a product designer, techstart mentor and the founder of Stark, which helps software designers and developers to make their products more accessible and compliant.

When the two women met they realised they both wanted to make the world of work more accessible to those with disabilities. They began looking at why Ireland has one of the lowest rates in Europe for working-age people with disabilities in employment, and came to the conclusion that one of the underlying reasons was a lack of easy access to guidance on the matter for employers.

This has prompted them to start putting together a series of information guides covering the legalities and life experiences of living and working with disabilities in different countries, starting with Ireland.

New research from the ESRI, published in September, underlines why their initiative is timely. In short, Ireland has a poor track record when it comes to employing people with disabilities. Just 36 per cent of those with a disability are in the workforce compared with two-thirds of those without. This statistic puts Ireland fourth from the bottom in a ranking of 28 countries in Europe. But we’re not alone.

The International Labour Organisation which collects disability-related labour force statistics notes: “All high-income countries with available data had a noticeable gap in unemployment rates between those disabled and those not. The biggest differences were found in Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia, Italy and Malta, which all showed gaps of 20 percentage points or more.”

The smallest gap was in Norway (two percentage points) where the government has been pro-active in removing barriers to exclusion.

Even in organisations loudly championing the diversity and inclusion agenda, only a very small proportion have targeted recruitment aimed at attracting those living with a disability.

This is despite the fact that there is a strong business case for doing so. Companies that employ and support employees with disabilities outperform their peers and experience improved engagement across the board.

The Disability Inclusion Advantage, a report produced jointly by Accenture, Disability: IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, says employers have failed to leverage the disability inclusion advantage for three key reasons: a lack of understanding of the scope of the talent available; a poor understanding of the potential benefits; and misconceptions about the cost versus the return on investment of disability inclusion.

"In fact two-thirds of accommodations cost nothing – things like changes to work practices, clarity in instruction and flexibility in working hours to suit medical needs. Other support costs that are more significant are mostly covered by government grants," says Dara Ryder, chief executive of Ahead, an Irish not-for-profit that promotes inclusivity in education and employment for people with disabilities.

“On paper employers here value diversity and disability and recognise the business benefits of a more diverse workplace,” Ryder adds. “Our research shows that more than three-quarters of medium to large Irish employers now have a diversity and inclusion strategy, and the vast majority of businesses believe that hiring people with disabilities is of benefit to their organisation and helps them to innovate.

“However, in practice, there is still a lack of understanding of disability amongst HR staff, with negative words like ‘limitations’ or ‘challenged’ being the first that come to mind.

“Also there’s a tendency to think of physical disabilities first when most disabilities are in fact hidden. This lack of understanding tends to lead to a disconnect between a strategic aspiration to hire more people with disabilities and actions on the ground.”


Ryder says that in many cases people continue to hide their disability from their employer because they are unsure of the reaction and most will weigh up the signals coming from an employer before they decide on disclosure for fear of it hindering their job or promotion prospects.

“It’s a very sensitive topic and most will have experienced discrimination in the past, so a lot of factors go into the decision,” Ryder says, pointing out that young graduates going for their first job can feel especially vulnerable about disclosure and that few employers understand or acknowledge this.

Dee Coakley founded Boundless as a remote first business almost three years ago and the company’s 23 staff are spread across seven countries. “Our staff typically come from HR, compliance, software and payroll backgrounds, and they have all been working from home since well before the pandemic,” she says.

“Being able to offer permanent home working opens up opportunities for those with disabilities. It also gives us access to a largely untapped talent pool and allows us to cast our net more widely geographically.”

Asked if Covid has helped or hindered people with disabilities seeking employment, Ryder says, “on balance, I think it has helped. Covid has changed expectations for everybody about how and where we work. We all expect more flexibility and many of us are moving towards hybrid and remote working.

“These types of changes are particularly beneficial for the community of people with disabilities – particularly where they have flexibility to choose what’s best for them as individuals.

“I also think that Covid has made managers more in tune with the needs of their employee base generally. Because they’ve experienced difficulties themselves they are more likely to empathise with the need for more flexibility and understanding.”

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