The Big Story: A big splash in a different kind of pool

Paralympian Liz Johnson set up The Ability People to redress the employment gap for people with disabilities. Colin Cottell found out more

After years competing at the highest level as an international swimmer, with its early morning starts in the pool and a punishing schedule, old habits clearly die hard for Paralympian Liz Johnson.

After rising at 6am and working until 8.30am, she has just returned from a 25km cycle ride. “I got a bit lost and missed the turning, so I did about an extra 8km than I planned to,” she says over Zoom. “It depends on my schedule, but I try to get out on my bike almost every day to keep moving and for a bit of fresh air.”

Having been born with cerebral palsy, Johnson went on to enjoy a stellar sporting career, winning medals in the pool in three Paralympic Games and three international paralympic championships, both world and European. Although she retired from competitive swimming before the Rio Paralympics in 2016, it is clear that she is as determined as ever to live life on her own terms. “Yesterday I mowed the lawn, but it probably took me at least four times as long as it took my neighbours to do theirs, and we started at the same time. Everything just takes more time.”

Taking the recruitment plunge

While others in her position might have been content to remain on the motivational speaking circuit while doing some commentating and mentoring athletes, Johnson is using those same qualities of drive, determination and resilience that took her to the top in swimming and that she needs to call on every day to make a splash in a different pool.

In September 2018, with ex-Morgan McKinley director and industry veteran Steve Carter, Johnson plunged into the competitive world of recruitment when she co-founded The Ability People (TAP). Originally a recruitment agency, TAP changed tack early on to become a for-profit social enterprise consultancy that assists organisations to recruit people with disabilities, or who have a physical or mental impairment.

“I felt the need to do something about the fact that not everybody gets that opportunity to do something that they love, or even that they are capable of, because so often the world makes judgements about people,” says Johnson.

“Obviously we need to make a profit,” she continues, “but that aside, it is about changing the way that people think. It’s about helping them understand difference and normalise it, so that in 10 years’ time we’re not having this conversation where people are unjustifiably not getting the opportunities, or the level of pay that they require, or the type of role that they are qualified for and able, willing and wanting to do.”

However, Johnson says “the real spark” for action was discovering that the employment gap for people with disabilities was over 30%, a figure she describes as “horrific” and one that had remained high for several years. “I wouldn’t be living up to my responsibilities if I didn’t do it,” she adds.

Although TAP began life as a traditional recruitment agency placing candidates, Johnson says it soon became apparent that a change of strategy was necessary.

“We quickly realised that while we could find the talent with disabilities and diverse talent, if organisations didn’t have the culture and the environment and the processes set up for people with disabilities, even if all the stars aligned and they got through the process and got the job, once they joined the organisation, they wouldn't have that authentic inclusive experience anyway.”

And so it was decided that rather than placing candidates it would be better to work in partnership with recruitment teams and recruitment organisations. According to Johnson, very often it is the selection process that prevents people with disabilities getting the roles their talent deserves, citing the example of a big bank the company worked with, where candidates had to answer online questions in a certain way to progress to the next stage.

“The problem was that a lot of diverse candidates took the questions literally, and as a result they didn’t score high enough on the online tests to unlock the next level,” she explains.

To level the playing field, Johnson says, employers should offer candidates a range of options, allowing them to choose the one with which they feel most comfortable. For example, because some neuro-diverse candidates tend to answer questions literally, or may be particularly anxious, they can lose out when asked to send in their responses to questions on video, she suggests that organisations should offer a choice of traditional CV, video, speaking to someone, or even sending in a drawing. “You end up with the same information about the candidate, but assessing people’s skill sets and suitability in more than one way allows them the best opportunity to show you their capability.”

I felt the need to do something about the fact that not everybody gets that opportunity to do something that they love, or even that they are capable of, because so often the world makes judgements about people”

Educating hiring teams is an important aspect of TAP’s work – for example, helping them understand that some people find making eye contact very difficult. The members of TAP’s 14-strong team, all of whom have a disability themselves, and who work remotely, also advise on making buildings and facilities more accessible, and on modifications, such as noise levels for those with hearing impairments, as well as advising on flexible working. TAP recently launched Podium, a marketplace platform that connects employers with freelancers, who want to work from home.  

Johnson says organisations TAP has worked with have seen a range of benefits. Not only by employing more people, who otherwise wouldn’t have got through the process, but also indirect benefits. These include more staff within the client organisation disclosing a disability, changes in attitudes to disability, the use of language and “normalising difference”.

TAP also sources candidates, although only for clients that it has consulted with previously, or with whom it has a relationship, using job boards and making use of its consultant’s extensive networks. Alongside clients such as HSBC and Chelsea FC, TAP also works in partnership and advises RPO Guidant and its clients.

Having “always had an affinity with the business world”, Johnson could have gone into many different areas of business, but after being invited to speak at an event organised by Carter, Johnson says the chat they had afterwards was one those “where all the stars aligned at the same time”.

“He had similar frustrations, but he was coming at it from the view of where are these people, and why do they not come through recruitment companies, and why can’t we access this talent pool? Whereas with me it was, why do you think these people aren’t in work? We are like Yin and Yang; I am more dealing with the people side, the practicalities and the development of product, whereas Steve gets involved in the strategy side, and is brilliant with ideas. But ultimately we want to end up in the same place.” And so TAP was born, with Johnson and Carter both directors.

Despite having no experience in recruitment before, Johnson says the skills that enabled her to succeed in elite sport are the same that are needed to prosper in recruitment consultancy. “The skill sets don’t change when you move into a different area. It is having those things like adaptability and resilience, motivation and perspective, which has allowed the practical aspects of the job to organically evolve.

You end up with the same information about the candidate, but assessing people’s skill sets and suitability in more than one way allows them the best opportunity to show you their capability”

Although Johnson says she has never personally experienced direct discrimination of the type, ‘You can’t come through this door because you have a disability’, “the reality is you experience it every single day. It becomes the norm so until you stop and compare yourself to your friend or a peer, you don’t even know you are being discriminated against. It is very subtle, and people don’t even realise they are doing it”.

Johnson says having cerebral palsy gives her invaluable insight into the challenges that people with disabilities face. “I could go full pelt at something for a while, but then eventually I will have days when I don’t even leave the house or get out of my pyjamas – that is the trade-off,” she says.

Similarly, Johnson says the fact that colleagues have a disability or impairment themselves, including brain and spinal cord injuries, and neuro diverse conditions is a competitive advantage. “Anybody with any kind of difference, or anybody that doesn’t fit society’s norms has to be constantly problem solving, adaptable and resilient, because they see things from a different angle, and ultimately that helps us end up with a better product or service.”

Long way to go still

Despite being generally optimistic that employers are starting to understand the value of an inclusive workforce, and a small but welcome fall in the disability employment gap to 28.6%, Johnson says much remains to be done.  

“The thing that frustrates me more than anything is people see it as a choice. And it’s not a choice. Accessibility should be there for all because of age, gender, sexual orientation ability, whatever – that’s the thing that shocks me and frustrates me more than anything.”

At the same time, she is keen not to condemn employers. “A lot of the time people's reluctance to get involved or make that move is not because they don’t believe it’s not the right thing to do, or even that they don’t even think that it’s not beneficial, they are just fearful that they might get it wrong, or, or they might offend or they might upset, so it's kind of bridging that gap, really, to give people the opportunity to embrace what we all know is right.”

Johnson says she is not naïve enough to think that her public profile as a Paralympian hasn’t helped the business. “I am fortunate that I have a platform, and a voice and an experience that can come together to lead the charge.” However, “you can have all those things and if the product doesn’t work they don’t matter”, she adds.

Although in recent months Covid-19 has hit the company, with business “a bit stagnant”, Johnson says it is fortunate in having “quite low overheads”, and she remains confident it will emerge out the other side.

Looking beyond the pandemic, in an ideal world, Johnson says: “There would be no need for anybody to work in diversity and inclusion, except maybe for people who can facilitate conversations and support those who have never been exposed to difference or a particular situation before, and don’t know how to react.

“We always say, ‘You can’t be blamed for not knowing something that you haven’t needed to know before’, but in terms of leading the charge so that everybody gets a fair crack, hopefully that shouldn’t be needed in the future,” she says. “But,” she adds, with a laugh, “I think that is a long way off, sadly.”

Liz Johnson

  • Sept 2018 to present The Ability People co-founderand managing director
  • Sept 2016 to present Channel 4 & BBC TV reporterand commentator
  • Sept 2015 to presentDame Kelly Holmes Trust,Youth Sport Trust Athlete mentor
  • Jul 2015 to presentFederation of Disability Sport Wales Board member
  • 2008 to present, MTC UK Corporate speaker
  • 2004-12 Paralympic swimmer
  • 2004-07 BSc Business Management,Swansea University
Picture Credit | iStock

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