People with disabilities face a number of barriers to employment that may be difficult for some to comprehend, not least in view of the news recently.
I work with many people who struggle with long-term disability and its impact upon their employment. Whilst they have some of the toughest obstacles to overcome because so much is beyond their control, they are often the most inspiring examples of determination.
However, I believe helping people to overcome their disabilities does more than create constructive opportunities for individuals. It can in fact contribute to society as a whole by establishing a more diverse workforce, addressing societal prejudices, and enabling positive change.
People with disabilities often cannot find work as easily as those of us who are able bodied. There are a plethora of undeserved misconceptions surrounding them. An example of which is the incorrect belief that because someone is disabled or long-term unemployed they are unlikely to stay in work. Yet the data show the opposite - every year we see very high sustainability rates for those coming off health-related benefits, because they have resilience, commitment and latent untapped skills.
Yet, the number of unemployed people with disabilities has remained stubbornly high since the late 80s, despite governments pledging to help reduce this number.
As recently as 2013, people with disabilities accounted for half of all those unemployed in England and Wales. And whilst that number is dropping, the current government having promised to support at least 1.1 million people with disabilities into work, there remains much more to be done. Both to get individuals back to work and to reduce the stigma surrounding disability and long-term unemployment.
Work is important to individuals. It means they can earn a living, support themselves and their families. It also provides a sense of pride and achievement when they accomplish things at work.
Moreover, it importantly defines a certain part of their identity. In society we define people by their jobs: she is a doctor, he is a manager, she is a sound technician, he is barrister. For people who are disabled this is even more crucial. Not only is their self-esteem and confidence often lacking, but having an identity beyond their disability - something which all too often prevails thanks to entrenched social stigmas - can give them a sense of purpose. In this way, employment is something they can be successful at that will do wonders for their self-esteem.
One man I particular admire for his perseverance is Clive Dixon.
Cancer took part of his mouth, which negatively impacted his mental health and self-esteem. He admitted: "I'd worked all my life so finding myself out of work felt rotten. I was just stuck in a very bad rut".
Clive showed enormous commitment to getting out of that rut. He retrained, overcame his physical obstacles and became a full time driver with Regents Coaches. But the initial step, addressing his serious health problems, his disability, was paramount.
However, his story does show there is progress to be made and things that can be done.
Returning to work is also often a first step to gaining more independence. For Robert, who has severe learning disabilities, getting a job seemed an impossibility; his only paid work experience had been a paper round. Robert's dedication to finding work was crucial, so with help and a holistic hand addressing his lack of skills, education and confidence, Robert secured a work placement which later resulted in full time employment. Once in paid employment he has been able to gain some independence with his newly rebuilt confidence, self-esteem and self-belief.
Of course, some will not have the same grit as Clive and Robert, or feel like they do not. This is due in large part to extreme loss of self-confidence, especially as a result of long-term unemployment.
This is emphasised by the fact that the risk of depression significantly increases among the unemployed and the disabled.
Depression itself can have a multitude of associated health problems for people including reduced quality of life. This improves dramatically when we give people the tools they need and confidence.
Moving them out of long-term unemployment can be the first step to doing so. This is particularly because if someone has claimed benefit for less than 2 years, there is a more than 50% chance that they can be helped them back to work. But if the period is for 5 years or more, the chance goes down to lower than 20% and the risks of depression and anxiety dramatically increases.
Artur suffered from depression and anxiety due to the long-term impact his Tourrettes and heart condition had on his mental health. Now in sustainable employment, he feels better than ever having gained a sense of accomplishment, of self-confidence that can help him combat his disabilities.
Whilst all the hard work and the results belong to Artur, integral to his success was the Circle of Support established for him through Leah Forsyth, his employment support worker.
Like Leah, dedicated programmes like SES also finally offer disabled people some of the intensive support they need. Working with the employability providers, health agencies, friends, family and employers, the aim is to provide a circle of support and to encourage further conversation around those most in need of support.
In order to do this, there are new government initiatives working with institutions like the YMCA, with its great history of improving the lives of young people, to help the long-term unemployed and disabled, back into work.
The real answer that the government seems to have recognised, and which I have long believed to be central to overcoming a person's individual barriers, including disabilities, is to take a holistic approach to them, to attempt to address all the barriers facing an individual, simultaneously.
People are not just statistics. Behind every unemployment figure is a person with a different set of issues that deserve and require attention.
Right now there is a lack of knowledge surrounding disabilities and employment that has to be fixed.
This is a social imperative.
We still live in a world where the stigmas against the disabled and unemployed are many and manifold, despite the best efforts of charities and pundits. Trying to change this prejudice is something families, friends, even just allies in the street, can contribute to by supporting and enabling those they see persecuted by others.
People with disabilities are often overlooked and at worst misunderstood but they can be hugely valuable in the work place. They have so much to offer society. They have often had to overcome many difficulties already, making them apt problem solvers and insightful in a way that many able-bodied people cannot be because they take certain things for granted.
Giving the disabled the confidence and skills to become a stronger part of the work force is crucial to helping them build a better life, but it is also crucial to us if we want to benefit from their ability to build a better world.