Andrew Blair is the Human Resources Manager with Bank of Ireland & a Director of AHEAD. He’s been working in recruitment for 25years. This is his speech from the WAM Leaders Event which took place in Dail Eireann on Wednesday 22nd February 2012.

Introduction to working with disability

I worked in Bank of Ireland Securities Services (BoISS) a satellite company of BoI which employed 450 people at one point (it has since been sold to Northern Trust).

A customer of BoISS approached me to ask for placements for students from Mary Hare School for Deaf. It was only at that point that I realised I had no real knowledge/education on the topic of disability. I also realised that in fact we had no-one with a disability in the organisation. Not only that, no-one ever remembered anyone with a disability applying.

At that time I also met WAM and attended a workshop. I realised that we were potentially missing out on up to 10% of society by (unconsciously) not including people with disabilities. This was at that time (very different to today) when we had high growth; high staff turnover; recruitment plans took us abroad; and cost us a great deal of money and yet we were potentially ignoring potential recruits.

So like all the employers here today we agreed to take people in on placements and our learning really started.

So what did we learn?

  1. There are very real barriers to entry for people with disabilities both conscious & unconscious:
  • Fear/anxieties about legal problems
  • Some recruiters had real issues/unconfident/inexperienced
  • Prejudice may well have existed – easy to find reasons not to support
  • Recruiters; managers; HR staff are powerful gatekeepers and can determine the nature of your organisation through their own assumptions
  1. We realised that for a placement to be successful we (our approach/attitude/knowledge base) had to change and we had to prepare the way:
  • Held education sessions – needed to open minds get issues on the table/Discussed diversity not disability/discussed how will we handle employees (one of us) acquiring a disability?
  • I asked the question “how would you like to be treated if you were disabled in some way”; followed up by “what type of organisation do we want to create and belong to”?  This was the creation of empathy (not sympathy) and was key to persuading manager’s as to the need to get diversity on the agenda and keep it there as a “normal” business practice
  • All students were placed with “positive gatekeepers” who helped prepare their team – mentor was assigned to a key influencer
  • Talked openly about accommodations with the students (and most importantly what not to do!), quite often no accommodations were required.

Benefits to the organisation:

  • Overall attitude shift with regard to diversity in general – eg more part time workers accepted; openness in understanding issues
  • Our core business work had no impossible barrier that could not be reasonably overcome – we were computerised; non manual
  • Education gap on legal issues was addressed with particular regard to holding interviews/creating accessibility
  • Most important though (almost out of nowhere) we starting receiving applications from other people with disabilities!

WAM future

Each of the employers here today is being recognised for being a positive gatekeeper and I applaud each of you for your initiative and professionalism.

Business is about making things happen and that is what WAM does.

For all people trying to get a job in today’s environment no one needs me to state how competitive and tricky it has become.  For those with a disability the barrier to entry is even higher

Therefore it is even more important that all gatekeepers keep diversity on the agenda; and keep providing those opportunities for those that need this valuable start in organisational life

As a Director of AHEAD I wish to thank each of you and as a fellow employer I urge you to keep the faith and continue the good work

Thank you for listening

AB Feb 2012


AHEAD invited students with disabilities from all over Ireland to the Kilmainham Hilton Hotel where we asked them ‘what would make your education amazing?’ We did this with Chris Chapman (Change Exploratory) as a facilitator who used the World Cafe technique ( The evening before the World Cafe we invited successful professionals to have dinner with students so that they could find out more about different professions in an informal setting and make connections for the future. Guests included Caroline Carswell, Lucy Fallon Byrne, Brian Mooney, Tony Ward, Dermot O Sullivan, Sinead Kane, Aoibheann Gleeson & Viv Rath.
The event was a huge success thanks to all the students who took part and shared their experience and stories so openly with us. We look forward to bringing those stories to policy and decision makers in 2011. This video is the start of that – it is a brief look at what happened on the day with contributions from students. It was first shown at the AHEAD AGM on the 14th December 2010.

I finally managed to rewatch The Week in Politics so that I could hear for myself something that had been said by Enda Kenny TD which had kindly been pointed out to me.

You can watch the entire show here. But the bit I was interested in starts from 08:10 onwards (grammar is my own interpretation of pauses etc)

“Within that social welfare budget I’d like to say this…. See, there are those who cannot work, the disabled, the carers, pensioners and the children. They can’t work”

As part of a discussion on social welfare, Mr Kenny said this and I doubt many people heard. I’m almost reluctant to comment on, for fear I will be misunderstood and because I’m quite possibly bringing more attention to soemthing I wish hadn’t been said.  And given that the context is quite clear (relating to social welfare), please make no mistake – I laud his determination to ensure that those who cannot work have their payments protected. What bothers me, is that if he presumes that if all disabled people cannot work, then that perception remains and there is a risk that it becomes self fulfilling. As long as being disabled is equated with not being able to work, then every disabled person first has to convince an employer they are able to work, before even trying to convince them they can do the job

This isn’t a post about Enda Kenny, but rather meant to be one which challenges that kind of casual, well intentioned prejudice. Such blanket statements do no one any favours as they do not accurately reflect the situation and experiences of disabled people, and reinforce the very attitudes and beliefs I try to challenge.  Statements like that permeate our thinking, and our perceptions, and how we act and percieve others. For disabled people who are working and can work, this is the kind of small but crucial attitudinal issue they have to challenge every day.

Following on from my last post, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the other barriers to employment for graduates with disabilities. While access (and by this I mean physical infrastructure) is probably the biggest barrier, its also the hardest to tackle. It’s not complication that makes it hard to tackle, but simply the scale of the task. It is pervasive. And talking about access will probably make up several posts all on its own – in a constructive manner I hope (no pun intended!)

But what of the other barriers? Another project of AHEAD (the WAM Project) has done a lot of work with employers and graduates trying to identify where some of the barriers lie. And unfortunately, it’s not one giant wall in the way, but rather an obstacle course or minefield of smaller issues. The report from the last round of that project can be found here. Barriers identified included perceptions, recruitment & selection processes, support mechanisms (or lack of), welfare rights, disclosure, accomodations, and grants. I plan to look at each of these over the forthcoming months, but in the meantime I’d like to know if anyone thinks I’ve missed any in my list?