30 August 2018

Closing the disability employment gap is an economic necessity

By Sinead Butler

With disabled people more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, the disability employment ought to be high on the agenda for both the Government and the private sector.

According to a new government report, the economic inactivity rate (those not in work or looking for work) is at 44 per cent among disabled people. And though there are an estimated 3.8 million people with disabilities in work, the employment rate in April-June of this year was 30.4 percent lower than in the rest of the workforce.

There is also a significant pay gap for those who are working. Last year, the average hourly pay for disabled workers  was £9.90, compared to £11.40 for non-disabled workers – equivalent to a hefty £2,730 a year. This is largely due to circumstances such as an increased likelihood of being in low-paid employment and a lack of flexibility for those who can only do part-time work due to their disability.

It is an issue that has come to politicians’ attention . In their 2017 manifesto the Tories pledged to get “one million more people with disabilities into employment over the next ten years”.

If successful that would mean an increase of some 18 per cent on the current figure. To make this a reality, the Government need to seriously consider how employers are engaging with this problem, as a better-informed recruitment policy could be the key to closing the gap.

This is not just a matter of opposing discrimination — important though that is — but of economic good sense. After all, it’s been calculated that a 10 per cent rise in the employment rate amongst disabled adults would contribute and extra £12 billion to the Exchequer by 2030. With this in mind, it needs to be constantly pointed out that employers who have not tailored their recruitment process to encourage disabled applicants are doing themselves a disservice.

Statements such as Phillip Hammond blaming low productivity rates on an increase of disabled workers do not help matters. Rhetoric like this only adds to an already negative recruitment culture. And let’s be clear, it is prejudice that is the problem, not a lack of skills or talent. Actively challenging misconceptions is therefore at the heart of closing the employment gap.

The best thing ministers can do is therefore to encourage employers to improve workplace culture for the disabled and to offer more personalised support for those seeking employment. In fairness, these are the kind of policies in the Government’s “Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability” White Paper.

It’s worth remembering that disability comes in all different forms from learning disability, to motor disability, mental health, and sensory impairment. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and this is something that both government and private companies need to understand too.

Thankfully, some big employers are beginning to listen. Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s are spearheading a new government campaign – launched in last November – to encourage business to employ more disabled people. Firms are provided with the skills they need to recruit, train and develop disabled employees. With the right guidance, it shows employers are more than capable of taking a step in the right direction.

Disability activists have also taken a prominent role in changing employment culture.

A great example is ex-Paralympian Liz Johnson, who has set up The Ability People, the UK’s first disability-led employment agency. Her reasoning behind the company was that she realised that disabled people share the skillset that good recruiters need to have.

“I thought they would make perfect recruitment consultants, because it is about balancing long hours and a life with an impairment, which can be difficult,” she says.  Johnson makes a crucial point here; many do not consider the unique skillset disabled people have compared to non-disabled people, since they are used to completing the job in hand while also coping with a disability. The kind of resilience that instils should not be understated.

The Ability People may be the first disability-led agency of its kind, but it certainly does not look like it’s going to be the last. Businesses are beginning to tap into the potential of underemployed disabled people, which can only have a positive effect on the economy.

But, of course, the arguments are far from purely economic. For those who do not need to rely on their wages to live, the search for work is about having a sense of purpose and autonomy over their own lives. Encouraging more people into voluntary work is just as important due to the relationship between unemployment and negative mental health. It is about much more than just the money, it creates a sense of purpose for people and makes them feel included as they are contributing to the community.

From a personal perspective I can understand this, my brother has autism and ADHD and he does not understand the concept of money. If you were to give him the option of a £10 note and a chocolate bar for instance, he would choose the chocolate bar. He does not realise he could buy ten times as many chocolate bars if he chose the money.

As Rosa Monckton, the founder of the disability pathway Team Domenica (named after her Down’s Syndrome daughter) says: “We make a mistake there – of applying our own principles to people who have a different view of the world to us. It’s an easy thing to do.”

The Government latest report is showing positive signs for disability employment. Between April-June 2013 and April-June 2018, the number of people with disabilities in employment increased by around 900,000. But in order to reach its target by 2027, it needs to double down on efforts to improve recruitment processes across the board.

With the rates of disability increasing due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions, this is an issue that is only going to become more salient. But we cannot expect the Government to do everything. Ultimately it’s down to private companies to do themselves a favour and encourage talented disabled people to join their ranks.

Sinead Butler is interning at CapX.