Is Access to Work failing the Creative Industries?

iList judge Michael Alhadeff looks at whether the government's Access to Work scheme is fit for purpose in the creative industries.

Access to Work is a Government backed scheme intended to make the workplace more accessible for people with disabilities. iList judge Michael Alhadeff looks at whether the scheme is fit for purpose in the creative industries.

Firstly, some caveats. This isn’t intended as a rant or a finger pointing exercise. That helps no one. This also isn’t meant to be a reflection on any of my past or current employers. It’s hopefully intended to provide some useful observations about how we can create better workplaces in the creative industries for people with disabilities.

Everyone agrees that we need to create more diverse workplaces and that advertising isn’t immune from some of the current challenges’ employers face, particularly when it comes to hiring disabled talent. Put simply, a more diverse workplace, including people with disabilities, is more representative of society at large and a breeding ground for better ideas.

But the question is how you do it? Clearly, strides have already been made with disabled people already working in the creative industry, and through the Government’s Access to Work scheme, there is ample provision for more to do so.

For those that don’t know, Access to Work is a Government backed scheme intended to make the workplace more accessible for people with disabilities. It offers financial support to cover a wide range of things, from providing cabs for people who struggle to get to/from work, adapted keyboards for people with poor motor function and specialist software for people who have dyslexia. It is intended to help level the playing field.

The scheme is not limited to any particular employment sector and anyone with a disability can apply for funding. It has also recently received additional Government funding meaning it should be able to help more people. But is it fit for purpose when it comes to the creative industries?

There are a general issues around Access to Work. It is poorly advertised, both amongst job seekers and employers, which simply means people don’t know what support is available. From the perspective of a job seeker it also marks a sea-change in the way they receive additional support. Most will be coming from a school or university background where support often tends to be in-built. Access to Work puts a lot more emphasis on the applicant which can be empowering, but equalling daunting, particularly when finding a job is stressful enough.

More specifically to the creative industries is the blanket approach Access to Work takes which ignores some of the vagaries of specific industries. For example, you can only apply to Access to Work once you have a job. This works well if you decide you want to work in law or accountancy which tend to have large graduate intakes at set times (so you know your start date in advance.)

But this is simply less common within the creative industries. A few (big) places are lucky enough to offer grad schemes, including the likes of AMV, but nor is it fair or necessarily desirable to limit yourself to a few big agencies (speaking as someone who has spent his entire career to date in big agencies!)

The creative industries are much more likely to hire on an ad-hoc basis through a series of internships (a route taken by this writer), but as Access to Work doesn’t cover internships, this stops disabled talent from entering in one fell stroke. This is particularly problematic when it comes to creative departments, where a series of creative placements is a rite of passage for any creative team (of course as a mere strategist I would know nothing about this!) Equally problematic is the partnered nature of creative teams, where a potential imbalance could be created if one of the team is waiting on Access to Work.

There are other more specific challenges. Like any government initiative, it is maze of bureaucracy in which it can take an age to get anything done (it can take months to get hold of the equipment you need.) Not ideal when you work in a fast-paced industry such as advertising. Another challenge specifically centres around graduates who may be entering the workplace for the first time and therefore simply don’t know the requirements they need to ask for (anyone who based their experience of advertising on Madmen would be in for a shock!)

There are solutions, of course. Agencies may be in a position to cover the short-term funding gap, but again realistically it is the bigger agencies who may be in a position to do so. If the net were to be cast wider, agencies could club together, perhaps with the help of the IPA, to create a central fund which disabled employees could access to cover some of their needs. Similarly, disabled employees could take steps themselves. Many will have already been given equipment at some stage of their academic careers which they could potentially hang on to on short-term basis, particularly if they are thinking about internships.

The above should not deter either employers or disabled employees from thinking that the creative industries shouldn’t be accessible. Progress has and will continue to be made. But ultimately it comes down to getting the right talent and recognising, that however great it may be, advertising isn’t for everyone and it comes down to individuals to understand what works best.

Michael Alhadeff is a Senior Strategist at AMV BBDO and one of the judges for the iList - a free initiative to showcase and celebrate role models who are driving inclusivity in adland.

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