Becoming confident in disability inclusion

Hugo Drummond, 07 November 2023

With almost a quarter of the UK population living with a disability or long-term health condition, organisations should have a good sense of where their own knowledge gaps are when it comes to their disabled residents and staff, and putting plans in place to resolve them.

Doing so will not only improve the services we provide our customers but, by embedding greater inclusivity in our environments, it will help us create a resilient and thriving workforce.

While housing associations have made significant efforts over the last few years, many are still seemingly struggling to create a workplace that truly reflects society around us, particularly when it comes to disability.

The findings from the NHF’s latest report on equality, diversity and inclusion in the housing association workforce show that only 9% of the sector’s workforce have a disability or long-term health condition, compared to 24% of the population and 29% of residents. Click here to read the full NHF report.

More simply needs to be done.

Driving Change…

When I joined Eastlight Community Homes in 2021, we already had agile working in place – many of us still benefit from hybrid-working arrangements which enable us to perform at our best, and it’s proven to increase flexibility and accessibility.

But we needed to enable our people to thrive, feel valued and drive positive change from the ground up – and that meant all of our people, including those with disabilities.

At the time, 8.2% of people in our workforce were living with a physical, mental or cognitive condition, compared to around 77% of our residents.

It was clear – we needed to make disability inclusion an urgent priority, not an afterthought.

That’s why, in 2020, we became Housing Sector Partner of disability organisation Purple to place these objectives at the core of our decision-making – and we’ve not looked back.

Over the past three years, we’ve collaborated with Purple to harness their experiences and expertise to help us become more attuned to what our people both want and need from us as their employer.

To put employees at the centre of our journey, we’ve since introduced sunflower lanyards for all colleagues so they can discreetly share their disabilities with others, improved disclosures across our HR systems, developed awareness, and provided training and support for managers. We also launched our ‘Just Being You’ reverse-mentoring programme, which invites employees to mentor and educate Eastlight’s Leadership Team, Board and Committees on protected characteristics, including disabilities.

But we’ve not done this in isolation. We’ve leveraged our relationships with residents on our Customer Influence Committee and with local partners, such as Essex Cares Limited. Our partnerships have allowed us to build our neurodiverse recruitment programme, which aims to increase the diversity of cognitive abilities at Eastlight and provide job security.

It’s even more important for us that we use our robust reputation to increase knowledge and capabilities within our sector and across the East of England. As part of the BuildEast consortium, we share our successes but also learn and discover new insights to set us on a clearer, more educated path towards equity, and remove the barriers that many of our disabled staff and residents face.

This work has laid the foundation for us to become a Founding Partner of Purple in 2023 and has since seen us achieve Level Three Disability Confident Leader status, the highest level in the government’s Disability Confident Employer scheme.

Avoiding complacency

While I’m pleased with the difference we’re making for our people, residents and communities, we remain grounded and avoid patting ourselves on the back too proudly.

There’s still a long way to go for Eastlight. What I’ve come to learn is that if we want to make lasting change in our sector and improve the disabled employee and customer experience, then the buck stops with us.

No one else is going to drive change in our organisations, if we don’t have the drive, the ambition or a people-centred approach to disability inclusion. That first step is crucial, and it must be embraced by the whole organisation, from our front-line teams to our Board.

We still have our own gaps, but we recognise them as opportunities to learn, grow and develop as an organisation, together.

We look forward to continuing our journey with Purple and other partners, and helping other housing associations like us become more diverse and inclusive.

I’m happy to collaborate and speak to anyone who may have any questions or want to partner up with us. Please email me at

Click here to find out more about disability organisation Purple.