The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

How Inclusive are Diversity and Inclusion Strategies for People with Disabilities in the Workplace?

Caroline McGrotty

Employment Manager, AHEAD


About the Author


Last year, in the first half of 2021, The WAM Programme at AHEAD commissioned Behaviour and Attitudes to conduct a national survey to investigate the attitudes and perceptions of employers towards those with a disability entering the workforce, to establish the main barriers involved. AHEAD initially carried out similar research in 2008 and looked to see whether attitudes towards recruiting and hiring people with disabilities had changed 13 years later. 

The survey looked at five key areas: company diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies, value of diversity in the workplace, recruitment, reasonable accommodation, and disability in the workplace. For this edition of the AHEAD Journal, we will look specifically at D&I policies and the value of diversity in the workplace. 

You can download the full findings alongside a recording of the launch of the findings in June 2021 here.

Employer Profile

Over 250 respondents with a senior Human Resources remit, and working in a company with over 20 employees, took part in this research. The research took place from late February to mid-April 2021 through an online questionnaire and through telephone interviews. 

There was a wide reach nationally, with just over 56% of employers based in Dublin, 13.5% across the rest of Leinster, 19.5% in Munster and the remaining in Connacht and Ulster. Just over half of the companies were large businesses with over 250 employees.  

Company size Dublin Rest of Leinster Munster Connacht / Ulster Grand total 
20-49 7.46% 4.32% 4.68% 3.00% 19.46%
50-249 13.93% 5.39% 6.68% 4.45% 30.44%
250 and over 34.78% 3.80% 8.34% 3.17% 50.09%
Grand total 56.18% 13.51% 19.69% 10.62% 100%

In terms of industry breakdown, 63% of respondents stated their company was in professional and business services, 25% in personal services, and 12% in manufacturing and construction.  

Diversity and Inclusion Policies 

76% of respondents stated their company has a diversity and inclusion strategy with 8% saying it was in development and the remaining were no (14%) or not sure (2%). Of the companies with a D&I strategy, 79% said their Diversity and Inclusion strategy included specific references to employees with a disability. 

In our survey, there was a strong sense from respondents that having a diverse workforce representing society at large had a positive impact on the ability to understand customers’ needs, motivate and retain staff, and innovate and generate revenue. 

This image has 4 bar charts - The first reads - Ability to understand its customers needs; 56% said yes definitely, 30% said yes mainly, 8% said not sure, 4% said probably not, 2% said definitely not.  The second reads - Ability to retain motiviate and retain staff; 53% said yes definitely, 28% said yes mainly, 11% said not sure, 6% said probably not, 2% said definitely not.  The third reads - Ability to innovate; 50% said definitely yes, 32% said mainly yes, 11% said not sure, 6% said probably not, 1% said definitely not.  The foruth reads - Ability to generate revenue; 32% said definitely yes, 29% said yes mainly, 25% said not sure, 9& said probably not and 5% said definitely not.

In terms of disability, a very large majority, 83%, of respondents, believed that hiring people with disabilities was of benefit to the organisation with a strong sense it was a moral obligation and important to help their business to innovate with less emphasis on legal obligation. 

The graphic to the right of the text is a series of 4 accompanying bar charts that give a percentage breakdown of responses of participating companies to question stated above.  Each bar chart is colour coded. Bar chart 1 is titled 'Of benefit to the organisation' and informs that 55% of respondents feel that hiring people with a disability is definitely of benefit, 28% feel they are mainly of benefit while 12% are not sure and the remaining 5% feel they probably or definitely are not of benefit.   Bar chart 2 is titled 'A moral obligation' and informs that 49% of respondents feel they definitely have, 28% feel they mainly have, 15% are not sure and the remaining 8% feel they probably or definitely do not have a moral obligation.  Bar chart 3 is titled 'Important to help business innovate'.  46% of respondents feel staff with a disability definitely do, 29% feel they mainly do, 16% are not sure and the remaining 9% feel they probably or definitely are not an important factor to business innovation.  Bar chart 4 is titled 'A legal obligation'.   It informs that 30% of respondents feel they definitely have, 31% feel they mainly have, 19% are unsure, 12% feel they probably do not while the remaining 7% feel they definitely do not a legal obligation.

While it is positive that the majority of employers have a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, and the vast majority have specific references to disability, companies need to consider whether their Diversity and Inclusion strategy supports a clear commitment to equality in the workplace. 

All Diversity and Inclusion strategies should be benchmarked against key performance indicators accompanied by focused and usable policies that clearly support processes which are regularly reviewed to ensure they reflect the current world of work. 

Targeted Recruitment

There is more involved than simply developing policies and strategies, many of the challenges arise when putting this thinking into practice. In this survey, when asked if their company had targeted recruitment aimed at people with disabilities, unfortunately only 37% of respondents said they were aware of such strategies to pro-actively recruit people with disabilities. 12% said not sure, with just over half saying they did not have any targeted recruitment. 

37% of companies have targeted recruitment aimed at people with disabilities.  51% said no. 12% said not sure.

Ireland’s employment equality legislation recognises the additional barriers people with disabilities face, alongside people over the age of 50 and members of the Travelling community, and therefore permits employers to take positive action measures to integrate into employment

This is how The WAM Programme operates with employers, by employers providing ring-fenced opportunities exclusively for graduates with disabilities. For over 15 years now, The WAM Programme has found that the most effective method of breaking down barriers for the hire of a graduate with a disability is by ‘just doing it’! Engaging in the process of recruitment and having a graduate with a disability in your workplace challenges any practices, processes, policies and attitudinal barriers that may exist and subsequently improves and changes these and provides opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate in the workplace

Leveraging Employee Resource Groups

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are employee-led groups, usually voluntary, that bring together employees who share similar values, interests and cultural backgrounds. In recent years, companies are now promoting and using ERGs as a way to endorse and celebrate diversity and inclusion within their company.

Other benefits of an ERG are that it leads to increased employee engagement, in turn leading to greater retention rates; fosters diversity, and provides an opportunity to share learning and raise awareness on specific issues by running events for all staff within the company. 

In our survey, 71% of large employers, with a company size of 250 employees or more, indicated they had several different ERGs; however, only 32% had a specific ERG for disability

Considering 13.5% of the Irish population has a disability, according to the Census 2016, AHEAD would like to see more disability ERGs established within companies. It is only important to remember that disability ERGs are not only for employees with a disability - members can also include those who may have relatives or friends with disabilities, be caring for someone with a disability or perhaps have an interest in the promotion of disability issues.

Benefits of having a disability ERG can be summarised as:

  • Raising profile and awareness of disability in the workplace. 
  • Encouraging disclosure and allowing employees to bring their whole self to work.
  • Acting as an additional support for new employees with disabilities.
  • Assisting HR in raising awareness of barriers to recruitment and career advancement.
  • Identifying and advocating for change on workplace issues that people with disabilities can often face, for example, accessibility of the work environment.
  • Being a think-tank, engaging with different points of view and perspectives that translate into solutions to meet corporate growth objectives and initiatives.
  • Contributing to the diversity values of a company and acting as a catalyst for genuine change.

To conclude - a diverse workplace improves inclusivity for all employees, not just those with a disability.

This article contains extracts from the AHEAD  Employer Attitudes Survey released in June 2021 and from an AHEAD publication released in 2016, Including Graduates with Disabilities in the Workplace – Where To Start.

To read more about The WAM Programme visit

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