One of the biggest fears that parents of deaf children have, when they find out their child has been identified as deaf, is that they will never be able to have a job.
That misconception can be quickly dispelled by looking at the range of careers that deaf adults have successfully forged including GPs, lawyers, teachers, chefs, and so on. Deafness in itself is not a learning disability and, at the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS), we firmly believe that, providing deaf young people get the right support, there should be no limit to their ambitions and aspirations.
For many deaf young people that support is provided through 'Access to Work'. Often described as the government's 'best kept secret', this is a scheme that offers funding to disabled employees to cover the costs of any support they might need as a result of their disability. Deaf people may use this support to fund sign language interpreters or 'speech to text' notetakers, who capture word for word dialogue in meetings.
The government has set itself a target to halve the disability employment gap over the course of the next parliament. Access to Work support will be central to meeting this target. However, there are plenty of indicators that the Department for Work and Pensions, which runs this scheme, may well fail in this endeavour unless they rethink their approach on how this scheme operates.
Firstly, it is not yet clear if the government will increase funding to the scheme. In 2013/14, the budget stood at £108m, slightly up from £105.5m when the coalition government came into power in 2010. Unless the government provides additional funding, it seems clear that the only way they can provide support to more disabled people is by squeezing the support provided to existing users.
This seems to be the approach the government has been taking over the past year. In March, the government announced it would 'cap' the total amount of support that any individual can receive. An 'equality analysis' by the government has revealed that over 200 people will be affected by the cap, of whom 90% will be deaf. Whilst to some people a cap may seem a good idea, we believe it's a bad decision, badly made. This is because:
1. Civil servants have failed to do any cost benefit analysis of Access to Work. There is a real risk that deaf people might lose their jobs as a direct result of the cap. It is not unreasonable to assume that the government saves more from having disabled people in work, paying taxes and not living on benefits, than it spends on Access to Work. Yet this government has no idea whether or not this cap will actually save money.
2. The government has not considered the impact the cap will have. It has failed to do any kind of public consultation or even to engage with the people who will be affected or their employers. A general commitment to "monitor the impact" will be of little help to any disabled person who loses their job as a result of the changes.
3. The cap punishes deaf people for the cost of communication support, something they have little control over. The government could have chosen to invest in a training and recruitment programme for communication support professionals. To date, the government seems content to leave it to the 'market' to resolve the current shortage of communication support professionals.
4. The government says that a cap is needed to save money. But, as The Limping Chicken blog has recently revealed, there is actually an underspend of £3m on the overall Access to Work budget. So why is the axe falling on deaf people who may need more support?
Official policy and written ministerial statements tell only half the story, however. On the ground, NDCS regularly comes across stories of Access to Work advisers trying to reduce support packages. Some of these examples are documented in a blog by Charlie Swinbourne for The Limping Chicken website, which makes the case that some deaf people are being 'bullied' by Access to Work officials, rather than supported in their jobs.
A timely demonstration of how ill-informed and poorly trained Access to Work advisers can be is the new interpretation of a rule, known as the 'additionality' rule, brought in earlier this year. This arbitrary decision effectively saw advisers telling employers they would be better off recruiting a hearing person because interpreters were effectively doing the deaf person's job for them. The ill-judged interpretation was hastily withdrawn.
It is sometimes hard to know if advisers are just badly trained or if there is a policy to make it as difficult as possible to claim support. For example, many deaf young people have, in the past, been told they cannot make a claim for Access to Work unless they call a designated telephone number. Civil servants seem oblivious to the communication needs of the very people they are publicly committed to supporting.
The problems and issues have been noted by parliament. A parliamentary inquiry last year received 340 responses following a call for evidence, including from the National Deaf Children's Society and many deaf people themselves. The committee published its report in December last year. The report was scathing of the support provided, noting that some changes had "threatened the employability" of deaf people. However, despite three months to prepare a response before the election, the Minister, Mark Harper, broke a well-established convention by failing to issue a response to the report, citing lack of time. The same lack of time didn't, however, stop his department from introducing new cuts to Access to Work in March 2015.
In light of these failings, NDCS does not feel optimistic about the prospects of deaf young people entering the workforce.
The Department for Work and Pensions reassures us that steps are being taken to improve customer service. But it remains difficult to see how deaf young people are expected to navigate the Access to Work process.
Many of the deaf young people we work with are unaware of the scheme or the different types of support for which they are eligible. If Access to Work was working well, there would be an extensive outreach programme for deaf young people leaving school. An advisor would support them with their application, and perhaps allow them to 'test' different packages of support. Instead, they are likely to be issued with a blunt demand to prepare a 'support log' of the work they will be doing over the coming months - a tall order for anyone, especially one starting a new job. They are then forced to accept or negotiate an inflexible package that may or may not meet their needs.
Access to Work is also still unavailable for unpaid and informal work experience opportunities even though - rightly or wrongly - these are a vital step on the career ladder.
And what of those deaf young people who need ongoing regular support in order to thrive and prosper at work? The cap has sent them a very clear signal - to cap their aspirations and settle for something beneath their hopes and expectations.
This is not the message any government should be sending to deaf young people or their families.