Government has published its long awaited Green Paper on work, health and disability with figures that highlight the stark inequalities for disabled people getting into employment. The UK's disability employment gap is around 32% with less than half of disabled people in work - 48% - compared to 80% of their non-disabled peers. The inequalities magnify further for people who have sensory impairments or complex needs.
The gap between the employment rate for people with disabilities and those without has changed little over recent years, highlighting the lack of progress by governments of different political hues. Now, the recent publication of the long-awaited consultation paper on work, health and disability will, it is hoped, spark an opportunity for a fresh and genuine conversation between policy makers, disabled people, businesses and charities.
Why we need action
There are clear and longstanding ethical and practical reasons to support someone into meaningful employment that they want and are suited to - as opposed to pushing people into unsuitable work to reduce the welfare bill. Work meets an important social need, boosts wellbeing and mental health, provides an income and improves people's participation in society. Whilst many disabled people are able to work, not all are. For those that cannot work society should be seeking to value their strengths and contributions in other ways.
There is an urgent need for focused thinking and action on the disability employment gap. As outlined in the green paper, government is introducing a new single Work and Health Programme to replace the employment schemes Work Programme and Work Choice, both of which have been criticised for failing those with more complex needs. While the new programme aims to combine support for long-term unemployed claimants and those with health conditions or disabilities, there are concerns that the number of unemployed disabled people given specialist help to find work will be halved.
In fact, there is research that argues the economic case for employing more disabled people, showing that encouraging a million more disabled people into work over the next 15 years would boost the economy by £45 billion. While people with mental health needs - working in a wide range of industries - made an estimated £226-billion gross contribution to UK GDP in 2015 according to the Mental Health Foundation.
Tipping the balance
Yet while the benefits of supporting more disabled people into work are clear, austerity measures and changes to specialist employment policy undermine this aim.
For example, the impact of reductions to Access to Work grants (funding that helps someone do their job if they have a disability or health issue) and a cap on the value of these grants will affect disabled people. There are risks in reducing such funding especially for people with particular support needs, such as hearing loss.
Also of concern is the cut to Employment and Support Allowance in the Work Related Activity Group, with disabled people fearing this will hinder progress on the disability employment gap and push people further towards or into poverty.
Then there are cuts to specialist disability employment advisers; their existence is crucial, as job centre advisors do not fully understand disabled people's abilities. A short job interview process does little to enable people to fully demonstrate their capability for a job. The powerful campaign film, Could you stand the rejection, from the National Autistic Society vividly demonstrates what job interviews can be like for an autistic person and the barriers they face. But contrast this with the social business Auticon which employs austic adults as IT consultants. Auticon's recruitment process has been developed with austic self-advocates and is based on promoting skills, workshops and preparing for future projects.
Meanwhile local authorities, themselves faced with reduced central government funding, are cutting supported employment schemes around the country. At a recent Parliamentary roundtable on this topic hosted by Kevin Hollingrake MP, we heard that local authorities are probably no better or worse than organisations generally in directly employing disabled people. But there was a clear view that the role of councils as commissioners and procurers of local services could play a strong part in securing a supply chain of organisations actively committed to employing more disabled people. The same could also be said of other public services, including the NHS where a start has already been made in employing a team of learning disability advisors. The challenge, surely, is that if the NHS can do it, why can't everyone else?
At the Ministerial launch of the green paper, hosted by charity SCOPE, there was a recognition that attitudes towards disability were beginning to change. Society might just be beginning to reach a tipping point with increased awareness of disability issues amongst the general public. But there has long been a gap between awareness, attitudes and behaviour and mainstream employment opportunities for disabled people requires significant and concerted change by employers.
Within the realms of business, a risk is that corporate social responsibility will be determined by overall performance and can easily be turned on and off. There can be perceived risk in employing disabled people. Research by the social business Purple surveyed over 1000 business owners and hiring managers. The biggest barriers to employing disabled people were identified as concerns with ability, costs of adaptations and integration with the team.
Long-term solutions will be found in inclusive workplace cultures that offer practical support such as flexible working, improved used of technology, remote working, buddying opportunities and peer to peer support. All likely features of future workplaces in any case. So when organisations become inclusive workplaces it benefits everyone.
The emphasis must be on recognising the strengths and capabilities of disabled people, with a focus on maximising individuals strengths. We need to reach a tipping point so the reasons for employing disabled people far outweigh the reasons not to.