Why We Need to Mind the Disability Gap

16/06/2016 12:48 | Updated 16 June 2016

Each week John* and his four colleagues meet with their manager to discuss workloads, responsibilities, and to decide exactly who does what task. This approach seeks to blend each individual's strengths and weaknesses across the whole team.

The approach is a 'win win' one that works well for both employer and employee. John's employer has flexibility to deploy the right skills at the right time as well as being able to adapt to changing circumstances and business needs. Team members find themselves supported in ways that harness their talents, expertise and experience.

For John, who is in his late 20s and lives in the north of England, and has a learning disability, the opportunity was life changing:

Working and having a meaningful job has given me a lot of confidence. I can travel down to London by myself and I can do things I always dreamed of doing...I also give training to the organisation about employing people with a learning disability.

John shared his experience at a recent roundtable event supported by the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group. The debate brought together disabled people, parliamentarians, charities and businesses to address the question of how to improve employment prospects for people with a disability.

We know that of the 5.7 million disabled people of working age, 4 million are working yet a further 1.3 million who have the potential to work are unemployed. In addition, 46% of disabled people have jobs compared to 79% of their able-bodied peers. The 33% gap is not only consistent with the previous year but also disguises important variations such as a smaller gap for young people aged between 16-24, and a much wider gap for those aged between 50-64.

When employment is a positive choice for disabled people - rather than something driven by benefit cuts - it can help to improve health outcomes, wellbeing, social inclusion and life chances. Along with the obvious economic benefits, the focus must be on jobs that are sustained over time. A job that quickly breaks down because the right support was not in place does not benefit either employees or employers.

However, while workplace discrimination is covered under the Equality Act 2010 (making it illegal to discriminate against employees on the grounds of disability), there is some way to go before attitudes catch up as a recent Lords Select Committee identified. Part of the problem lies with the perceptions of what disabled people can or cannot contribute. Last year, for example, a poll of 100 MPs by social care provider Dimensions asked if the politicians agreed that almost everyone with learning disabilities is capable of being supported into paid and productive employment - only 40% did.

Disabled people in our debate voiced concerns that job centre advisors do not fully understand their abilities or signpost them to suitable opportunities. In addition, they said that the short job interview process does little to enable people to fully demonstrate their capability for a job. Instead we need alternatives like skills-based recruitment and reverse job fairs that bring employers to disabled people, as well as work trials.

Our event underlined the need for truly worthwhile opportunities. As John said in response to a suggestion that people with learning disabilities could undertake administrative tasks in offices: "I want to do something meaningful, not just [paper] shredding".

As for what is being done to solve the disability employment gap, the Conservative Party came to government with a manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap. The spending review set out an ambition to "transform policy, practice and public attitudes" towards disabled people in work.

However, there are now concerns over the delayed timetable for government's green paper on disability and employment. The impact of reductions to Access to Work grants (funding that helps you do your job if you have a disability or health issue) and a cap on the value of these grants will affect disabled people in different ways. This cap, as Action on Hearing suggest, risks reducing access to support for people with high value support needs. The impact of the cap will need to be closely monitored.

Progress includes the NHS pledge to become a progressive employer by taking on more people with learning disabilities. NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said last year:

This isn't just the right thing to do for people with learning disabilities; it's the right thing to do for the NHS as a group of organisations, helping us to deliver better care for everyone.

In social care, like the NHS, employing disabled people brings clear benefits. Disabled people bring their own experiences and insights to the job that can help to improve service delivery, as well as shifting negative public perceptions about care services. However, despite these obvious benefits, the overall numbers of disabled people employed within social care is low - on average two per cent of the social care workforce is known to have a disability.

Similarly, the government's Disability Confident scheme, whilst a welcome initiative, requires further traction with only 600 employers signed up. This focus is not about setting quotas but we do need many more organisations prepared to lead the way, to model good practice and to share learning.

So how do we reach a tipping point when, through a critical mass of employers, good practice becomes the norm?

Alongside the challenge to employers, it is clear that government should play a stronger role. The Resolution Foundation argues that disability and employment is an area of social policy which is struggling to progress because of the narrow focus on benefits (to reduce public spend). With attention largely on moving people off benefits, insufficient attention is paid to sustaining employment. The Resolution Foundation also describes the current system as being unresponsive to changing need and circumstances.

As disability charity the Papworth Trust has described, employment and support allowance requires disabled people to take a leap into the unknown. If a job does not work out then individuals risk losing Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for up to a year. The Papworth Trust is campaigning for a time limited automatic entry route back onto ESA for claimants to remove this disincentive.

The long-awaited green paper on disability and employment will, when announced, offer the opportunity for a genuine conversation between policy makers, disabled people, businesses and charities. At our recent debate, John concluded: "When it comes to it, it's all about reasonable adjustments". With the right support in place, and an inclusive organisational culture, there is no reason why disabled people should not be represented at all levels of every organisation.

* The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule. Names have been changed.