Ford reaps the benefits of IT-led initiative to cater for disabilities

Disability initiatives by Ford's UK IT department have been adopted by the company across Europe, bring increased sales, better...

Disability initiatives by Ford's UK IT department have been adopted by the company across Europe, bring increased sales, better car design and improved staff recruitment and retention, according to the company's IT director.

The initiatives began four years ago when Ford's UK IT director Richard Thwaite met BCS Disability Specialist Group chairman Geoff Busby, himself a wheelchair user.

Ford became a sponsor of the group's magazine, Ability, which was relaunched this month at an event attended by senior figures from employers and charities.

"Disability is an important issue, not least because there is an enormous market," Thwaite told the Ability relaunch event. "Our disability initiatives help us to understand our customers.

"In addition, we have 30,000 staff in the UK alone, and a lot of them have special needs. It is also a corporate citizenship issue: we take this very seriously."

After the meeting with Busby, Thwaite's department launched an initiative which led to the formation of the Disability Action Group across Ford in Europe.

"The meeting opened our eyes to the role IT could play in catering for disability," Thwaite said.

"We looked at our processes to make sure they were accessible. We set up an accessibility service for staff: a phone line and a website to help staff on anything from different types of mouse to speech-recognition software. We have set up equipment in a special room so staff can try different facilities and get the right kit for their needs.

"When staff become disabled we help them to stay employed. One of our IT staff had a year off, unable to work. We worked very hard to get him back and he is now doing a great job.

"We are positive about recruiting people with disabilities. We look more at the Open University, which many disabled people use. We work with charities that help with work placements for people with disabilities. We have found some excellent people this way.

"If you take on disabled people and help them, they feel great loyalty - which is an issue in the IT jobs market. So there is a business case for this approach."

Ford has 400 IT staff in the UK. Thwaite said eight were disabled to the extent that they use wheelchairs, had tunnel vision and so on, but he added, "These are the ones we know about; there are probably others who are being helped by our initiatives."

The Ford UK IT department programmes have also led to the development of a "motability" initiative, which encourages the design of cars to suit people of all types, ages and mobility ranges.

"We find that designing for older people helps everyone," Thwaite said. "We get younger customers saying that our cars are easier to get in and out of."

Ford is continuing its backing for the bi-monthly Ability magazine, which is circulated to 7,000 employers and disabled people and also has a website.

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