Free pen collecting is more of a sport than a hobby, and Disability Confident 2015 was as good an opportunity as any, so I thought I'd stock up on writing supplies and see what all the fuss was about.
Disability Confident is aimed at encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities. Justin Tomlinson, Minister for Disabled People, opened the event quoting the usual target of halving the employment gap. There's a ton of statistics I could bore you with about the employment gap, but what it refers to is essentially a discrepancy in the success rate of job applications, and that not all businesses and organisations are as inclusive as they should be. Welfare questions aside for a moment, getting a job when you have a disability can be a challenge. I still remember my first job interview; one member of the panel looked at my qualifications, experience and personality, the other two looked at me as though I had just landed from another planet.
Friday's event put businesses and various support organisations in one slightly undersized room, with the idea that employers could learn more about how people with disabilities are currently supported into employment. Support organisations I spoke to could be divided into two groups; when I asked them to tell me more, some used the word "customer" while others favoured "person". It wasn't difficult to work out which organisations were not for profit, and which were focussed on fulfilling a contract.
Approaches to getting people "work ready" also varied across the support organisations. Some talked of interview skills and CV writing, some of education and apprenticeships, and some of confidence building and breaking out of a comfort zone. Which is the most appropriate will depend on the person in question, and I think it's important that anyone joining one of these programmes is given the choice of which would be most helpful, though I doubt this is the present case.
There were government officials and journalists aplenty, but there was one group that seemed a little under-represented in the main hall: people with disabilities themselves. It would have been good to hear what does and doesn't work from someone who's been through a successful recruitment process via one of these organisations. It would have been good for employers to see, rather than just hear about, the talent they could be missing out on. It would also have been reassuring to see that people with disabilities were being consulted when looking at how recruitment could be improved. Wiltshire Police were the surprise exception to this; the two uniformed officers aided by their assistance dogs ought to have left a good impression on employers.
With every stand telling me how wonderful they were, it wasn't long before I got a little bored and started asking what goes wrong. Angry customers was an answer from one, highlighting the tension which surrounds the welfare system as is. Clueless employers was the top answer, as many have never heard of the Access to Work scheme, and some hesitate to employ people with disabilities as they fear potential legal action in the future. Disclosure was also a buzz word, as some employers worry about asking, and some people with disabilities worry about telling. There needs to be more information available to both potential employees and employers about what is available and appropriate, and more conversations between all involved about where things could be improved. One day's leaflet waving can only do so much.
How successful this event was is difficult to gauge. The usual suspects reported that it was much better than last year, though that's no measure of overall success. The Disability Confident team looked pleased with their buckets of employer pledges, though it would be interesting to know what type of pledges were the most and least popular. For all the chocolate cake and tea and soundbites and smiling handshakes, I think it's going to be a long time before businesses make real world changes.