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Employees with disabilities suffer abuse and ill-treatment

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Although our societal attitudes towards people with disabilities have significantly altered, research revealed that, despite best efforts to eliminate prejudice, employees with disabilities are twice as likely to become the target of abuse in the workplace.

Researchers from Cardiff and Plymouth universities questioned around 4,000 people, 284 of which had disabilities or long-term illnesses. The study found that one in ten employees with a disability or a long-term illness suffered physical violence, insults, ridicule, or intimidation at work, compared with 4.5 per cent other professionals.

Lead researcher, professor Ralph Fevre of Cardiff School of Social Sciences, said that “up to now, researchers have generally assumed that ill-treatment in the workplace was causing disabilities and health problems. Our work suggests that ill-treatment happens to employees who already have disabilities or health problems.”

In their paper, the authors offer various possible reasons for this higher level of ill-treatment, including conflict with managers over sickness absence and the interpretation of anti-discrimination legislation. Another possibility was simply “stigma and discrimination” against people with disabilities, the researchers say.

The research, which uses data from the British Workplace Behaviour Survey, found that those with disabilities or long-term illness said managers were responsible for 45 per cent of the more serious ill-treatment they had suffered and that customers or clients were responsible for 28 per cent. Colleagues were responsible for 18 per cent of the abuse.

In the paper ‘The Ill-treatment of Disabled Employees in British Workplaces,’ researchers note that people with a disability or long-term illness reported higher levels in all the categories of ill-treatment they looked at. These included impossible deadlines, being ignored, being gossiped about, and teasing.

The paper outlines that “any one of these forms of ill-treatment could have an adverse effect on their productivity and, in turn, shore up assumptions about the lack of productive worth of people with disabilities.”

Workers with a psychological or learning disability usually fared worse than those with a physical disabilities or long-term physical health problems. Among those with a psychological or learning disability, 21.2 per cent said they were victims of physical violence, under half had been insulted, and 56.9 per cent said they had been shouted at.

“The efforts employees with disabilities make to escape ill-treatment may also exacerbate their marginalisation in less productive – and less well paid –  jobs, or even lead to their withdrawal from the labour force altogether.”

Professor Duncan Lewis said: “These findings have major implications for how employees with disabilities and long-term health conditions are managed at work. With more emphasis from government to tackle its benefit expenditure, managers and HR officers are likely to encounter many more employees with these personal circumstances entering the employment landscape in the years ahead.”

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