Why inclusive communication should be everyone’s business

By Diane Lightfoot, CEO of the Business Disability Forum


Business Disability Forum is a not for profit membership organisation that supports businesses – of all shapes, sizes and sectors – to get better at recruiting and retaining disabled employees and at serving disabled customers. Ultimately, we exist to transform the life chances of disabled people* as employees and consumers; something which is all too needed when you consider that (pre-COVID) the disability employment gap stood at around 30%, with just 51% of disabled people in employment, compared to 80.2% of the population as a whole – and it’s much lower for specific groups.

*(Throughout this article I use the term ‘disabled people’ as this is the preferred terminology in the UK. The term “disabled people” reflects the social model of disability which says that people are not inherently disabled as an innate characteristic of who they are but rather are disabled by a society that doesn’t meet their needs. Other countries prefer other terms, including people with disabilities as “people first” language.)


Our 300+ members and partners employ an estimated 20% of the UK workforce and over eight million people worldwide. We provide our members with pragmatic support and advice, rooted in best practice, through our confidential advice service, learning and development, consultancy, events, and a range of networks and taskforces that enable them to learn from their peers and share what works – and what doesn’t!


So, alongside numerous roundtables and networks, we currently run taskforces themed on technology, global – which reflects the fact that approximately half our members operate beyond the UK, whether they are a truly global brand like HSBC, Shell or Unilever, or operate in a few overseas markets – employment, neurodiversity and more.


Of course, disabled people are consumers, too, with significant spending power. The “Purple Pound” – the spend of disabled people and their families – is estimated at £249bn per annum in the UK. Globally, it’s estimated that this is a market the size of China! So, we also run a customer taskforce to help businesses to support disabled customers, and to provide an excellent service to everyone. Indeed, we often say that when you get it right for disabled people, you get it right for everyone.



There are plenty of practical things that communicators can do to ensure that what they deliver is done with disabilities in mind – and they don’t have to be difficult or expensive.


Use plain English. It always strikes me how much of our time in education is spent trying to obscure our meaning and write long sentences. Writing from an accessibility and inclusivity perspective can mean unlearning that!


Make sure that videos are subtitled so that they are accessible to people who are Deaf or have hearing loss. Also, make sure they are audio described for people with a visual impairment (audio description is a voiceover explaining what is happening on screen.


For events or meetings, ask if people have accessibility requirements. It’s best practice, at least for larger events or meetings, to provide captioning (live speech to text) and a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter as standard.

Don’t forget to make use of built-in accessibility checks – Microsoft Office, for example, has a built-in ‘check accessibility’ function. Use ‘alt text’ to label images so that a screen reader can interpret them.


Check your contrast. Make sure that colour palettes (digital and online) are accessible and that you have sufficient contrast between text and background. Online, you can offer the ability for users to change colours and backgrounds, but better still is designing out barriers to make the core site as accessible as possible. Incorporate contrast guidance (e.g. which colours can and cannot be used together) into your brand guidelines.


Above all, test your communications with a wide cross section of disabled people – and by that, I mean people with a range of different conditions – to ensure that they work for as many people as possible. Though remember that you may still need to provide alternative formats (such as Easy Read or Braille) for some individuals – and make it clear that you can provide this on request. Easy Read is also helpful for people who do not have English as their first language, or who are simply time poor! It’s a great way of getting to the central points of a communication without the fluff!


Also think about how you represent disabled people in your imagery. Research suggests that seven out of ten people feel more positive towards a brand if its advertising includes disabled people.


I also think that we have, thankfully, moved on in our thinking from a time not so long ago when there was a tendency to think of design in particular as being either good design or accessible design. It’s a false opposition; design is a tool to convey a meaning. If that meaning isn’t understood – because it’s not accessible or not inclusive – then it isn’t a good design!



COVID-19 has presented plenty of communication challenges for disabled people, as well as opportunities.


Challenges include the lack of different/accessible formats for vital information at the start of the pandemic, and the fact that the then daily and now ad hoc briefings from 10 Downing Street do not include a sign language interpreter.


Online meetings can be very difficult for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing – they may rely on lipreading, which can be difficult if the camera and lighting is poor, or if people talk across each other, so good meeting etiquette is vital. Similarly, providing high-quality captioning makes the difference between a Deaf colleague being included and able to engage, or not. It also sends an important message about what you value.


Other communication challenges include the wearing of face masks – again a huge barrier for people who rely on lipreading. Another challenge has been the lack of a proper public information campaign to raise awareness of people who are exempt from wearing a face mask, or who cannot socially distance, perhaps because they have difficulty judging distances or because they just can’t see to do so.


But there are opportunities, too. There are different ways to take part in meetings – being able to participate using a chat function online, or simply to “like” something that someone has said means that people who are shy at speaking up in a group can still participate.


And of course, communications technology has opened up huge opportunities for many people in how we live and work. Prior to COVID-19, homeworking was the most frequently requested workplace adjustment for employees with disabilities, and now it’s commonplace. At our annual conference in October, one of our speakers from Microsoft described this is as a “digital pandemic”, and it’s difficult to imagine how we would have coped without technology to communicate.


Technology is not a panacea though. Many people – disabled or not – struggle with loneliness and isolation. And even with video we miss visual cues that may tell us if someone isn’t coping well. So really listening and looking out for other signs is vital.



Our ethos is that getting it right for disabled people and becoming “Disability Smart” is not just the domain of HR or Diversity and Inclusion teams, but needs a cross-business, whole organisational approach.


One of the key areas around getting it right is communication. Communication is ultimately part of everyone’s job, but there is a key role for communications professionals in ensuring that visual, written, digital and multimedia content is as inclusive and accessible as possible.


About a year ago we were approached by one of our members, Skipton Building Society, for advice on inclusive communications. While there was a lot of information out there about making websites accessible, very little existed for other forms of communication. So, we created an Inclusive Communications Toolkit to bridge the gap. We worked with Skipton, who kindly sponsored the toolkit for us, to create a comprehensive guide for communications professionals. We also involved a cross sector steering group in developing the toolkit to make sure that it was as practical as possible for all sectors.


The toolkit is aimed at introducing people to the topic of inclusive communications.  It’s primarily aimed at a UK audience and there are, of course, important language and cultural differences that communications professionals need to consider when creating content for different countries. Nevertheless, the principles remain the same and I really hope that this toolkit is a useful resource for communicators, wherever you are in the world.


The full toolkit is available to all our members and partners on our Knowledge Hub and you can find our “Top tips” resource on our website here: https://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/knowledge-hub/resources/making-information-inclusive-and-accessible/ You can also find a blog on creating accessible emails, created by Skipton Building Society here: Inclusive communication: Skipton Building Society and creating accessible emails – Business Disability Forum



We were so bowled over by the interest in – and hunger for – our inclusive communications toolkit that we thought that there might be an appetite for a new network in this space.


We consistently hear from our members and partners that they really value the “safe space” that our taskforces provide. (They are only open to members and partners and are run under Chatham House rules.) So, we set up the first meeting of the Inclusive Communications Network at the beginning of November. We were overwhelmed by the response and are going to run the network on a regular basis – visit www.businessdisabilityforum.org.uk for details.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports businesses to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers. Business Disability Forum’s 300+ members now employ around 20% of the UK workforce and 8 million people worldwide. They range from FTSE 100 companies and central Government departments to technology, transport and construction companies, retailers, higher education providers and public services bodies.

Diane sits on a number of boards including the Government’s Disability Expert Advisory Panel, Work Autism and the Institute of Coding’s Diversity & Inclusion Board. She is Chair of the Disabled Students’ Stakeholder Group, a Commissioner for the newly formed Disability Commission, chaired by Lord Shinkwin and hosted by the Centre for Social Justice, co-Chair of the Disability Charities Consortium and Chair of the Challenging Behaviour Foundation.




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