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Guest Blog

Posted: 31/03/14

We are pleased to introduce a guest blog by Liz Sayce: "Creating a step change in disabled people’s employment"

Guest Blog

Liz Sayce is Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK, the UK’s leading pan-disability organisation. She is a Commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and has recently led an Independent Review into disability employment programmes.

Creating a step change in disabled people’s employment

Successive governments have talked the talk of employment opportunities for disabled people, written yards of strategy and policy, consulted again and again and set up programmes from Pathways to Work to Work Choice.

Yet for all this effort, in 2014 less than half of disabled people are in paid employment and the figures are far worse for people with multiple impairments, mental health conditions or learning disabilities and in some minority ethnic groups and some localities. Disabled people are 23% less likely to be in work than non-disabled people with the same qualifications (the co-called ‘disability employment penalty’). Those who are in work are over-represented in occupations that are shrinking (e.g. junior administrative, manual), under-represented in occupations set to expand (e.g. professional and managerial) and earn less than their non-disabled peers.

What is to be done?

Some countries facing similar challenges are considering radical action. In the US, regulations coming into force in March 2014 require about 40,000 companies contracted by the federal government to ask employees whether they have a disability: those that do not employ at least 7% disabled workers, or cannot prove they are taking steps to achieve that goal, could face penalties potentially including loss of contracts (click here to read The Wall Street Journal article). Last year the Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes issued a challenge to major store Myers (a household name akin to Marks and Spencer), after they made a discriminatory comment on disability: he asked them to commit to achieving a 10% target of disabled employees by 2015 (click here to read more).

In Britain we are rightly wary of quotas – they didn’t work after the Second World War (they were simply ignored), in countries like Germany that issued fines for non-compliance some companies just paid the fines rather than give more disabled people jobs, and anyway disabled people want jobs on merit.

But there are ways of incentivising employers to improve opportunities for disabled people, using both carrot and stick – without rigid quotas.

We already have ‘employer ownership of skills’ which puts employers in the lead in skilling people up to meet the requirements of the future labour market, receiving some public money which they match. Why not extend that principle to employment and development of disabled employees specifically? If employers had ownership of the problem and the means to create solutions, we could see a step change. And, as in America, both government and businesses could use their supply chains to drive up the rate of employment of disabled people. During the Olympics and Paralympics, LOCOG required their contractors to employ disabled people and they themselves successfully took action to ensure that large numbers of disabled people became volunteer ‘games makers’. The argument that ‘they didn’t apply’ does not hold up: we know that proactive approaches bring results. Central and local government and large companies could take a lead together in driving change through the economic power of procurement.

The centre of this strategy is transparency – letting us all know what the disability employment rate is in different organisations, at different levels and business areas. Companies could promote their practices on anything from mental health at work to adjustments for people on the autistic spectrum. This would help attract the best talent: disabled people want to know where is best to work, and young people generally increasingly ask at interview about corporate responsibility.

There are routine objections to all this of course, notably that people will not want to say whether or not they are disabled for fear of being passed over for promotion or otherwise discriminated against. Rather than accept this, companies can be clear on why they are asking, vigorous in feeding back how the information is used to improve opportunities, and committed through all their leaders and managers to cultures in which the full range of human experience is valued. For the individual, shedding a big ‘secret’ in a safe environment improves well-being and productivity, so it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Culture and practices will change through serious levers and incentives - not just worthy disability confidence communications campaigns.

And then we need to reform the support available to individuals. With Neil Crowther in 2013 I set out a vision to enable the individual to take control of their own employment support, working with the employer to create bespoke solutions (click here to read more). Our survey of over 500 disabled people found three quarters wanted to know what resources were available and to be able to decide how best to use them. People reported huge frustration at mandatory 'one size fits all' approaches like CV writing courses when their particular challenge was a fluctuating condition for which they needed tailored support.

Let’s face it – the large programmes contracted by DWP under different Governments have not worked for disabled people. The National Audit Office concluded that Pathways to Work had not been a good use of public money. And as the Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion put it in March 2014, there are no significant signs of increasing performance by the Work Programme; it could (they say) have been expected that with the increase in economic growth that performance would pick up, but it has not; and jobs for ESA claimants remain significantly below expectations – ‘the single largest problem for the Work Programme’.

The way forward is personalised employment support so people can find the support that works for them; with providers offering evidence based approaches that support people to pursue their aspirations for decent careers through rapid job search, ‘earning and learning’ i.e. skills development in line with the local labour market, and flexible and where necessary ongoing support for both job seeker/employee and employer. A menu of support including a reformed and expanded Access to Work programme, and more intensive specialist support, would be a good start. 

At present, much employment support for disabled people – both nationally and locally commissioned – is not evidence based.

A step change is possible, which would see disabled people securing apprenticeships, traineeships, jobs and promotions. It requires radicalism. Tweaking what we have won’t do it – that has been tried and failed. Decision makers should be bold, create new incentives for employers and use public money on personalised, evidence based support for individuals.

We don’t want in 2024 to be looking back on another wasted opportunity.

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