Closing the disability employment gap

The government has a bold target – to halve the 33 per cent employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers by 2020. Government estimates suggest this would mean that over one million more disabled people would have to enter the workforce, out of around seven million disabled people of working age, with over three million already in work.

The Learning and Work Institute, a think-tank, has estimated that at the current rate it would take 200 years, rather than a little over three, to completely close the gap. Melanie Jones, a professor at Cardiff Business School, who has studied disability and the workplace, is cautious too. “If you look at historical trends, the disability gap has not been narrowing to the extent that it will halve without large-scale intervention,” she says.

The challenges

Three organisations offer some answers about what barriers impede progress. The Business Disability Forum (BDF) works closely with larger employers, as well as in partnership with PurpleSpace, which supports disability employee networks. Purple, a new organisation bringing disabled people and business together, aims to offer bespoke advice to employers and disabled employees.

Purple’s recent research found that some 45 per cent of UK businesses are nervous about hiring a disabled person, citing concerns about the interview process, not knowing whether to help with tasks such as opening doors or pulling out chairs, and falling foul of discrimination law. Despite the latter fact, most in the sector say legal sanctions are largely ineffective in boosting employment.

There is some good practice, of course, with many larger companies and public-sector employers accounting for around 20 per cent of the entire UK workforce, working in partnership with the BDF to boost employment opportunities. However, some 60 per cent of the labour force in the private sector, according to the government, is employed in smaller and medium-sized enterprises, and although many acknowledge the importance of closing the gap, some lack the structures and know-how to do so.

The government acknowledges more needs to be done, and is carrying out a consultation that will lead to a green paper on improving disability employment and health

A disproportionate number of disabled people are also self-employed, according to the Office for National Statistics, but some disabled entrepreneurs say barriers around funding for reasonable adjustments and benefit payment strictures during their startup period hinder their earning power and career progression.

The solution

Job retention is seen as key to closing the gap. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, only a minority of people (17 per cent) are born with impairment; most acquire impairment during their working life. Employers need to have the know-how to keep them in work.

Think-tank the Resolution Foundation has found that disabled people who have been out of work for over a year see their odds of returning to employment reduced at twice the rate of non-disabled people. Professor Jones says: “Early intervention before they leave the labour market would offer possible gains, before people become detached from work.”

The government acknowledges more needs to be done, and is carrying out a consultation that will lead to a green paper on improving disability employment and health. The Work and Pensions Select Committee has also taken evidence this year for its inquiry into the disability employment gap.

There has been increased scrutiny of the government’s strategy, in particular of the Access to Work programme, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, which supports disabled workers with funding for adjustments that employers could not be reasonably expected to meet. In addition, the Disability Confident initiative was launched in 2013 to encourage companies to employ more disabled people.

Is it enough?

Both could do more, and many disability experts add that the welfare reform agenda, with its stricter eligibility criteria and testing regime, as well as some actual cuts, for disability benefits, has hindered rather than helped disabled people to get work.

Purple, headed by Mike Adams, builds on its legacy as a former user-led organisation. It is promoting both pre-work and job progression measures, including a “boot camp” for disabled people, getting them work-ready. Mr Adams says he wants to change attitudes of some disabled people seeing themselves as “vulnerable adults whose only purpose is to maintain welfare benefits”. He says: “I stand full square behind resisting any attempts to radically change the benefits system, but the narrative Purple is trying to progress is that disabled people in their own right are consumers and a talent pool waiting to be exploited.”

Employer compliance

Mr Adams also chaired the government’s expert panel on Access to Work in 2013. He wants it to go further. “My view is that an explosion in its use would demonstrate that their target of halving the employment gap is serious,” he adds. The government, however, has only promised to expand the scheme to reach 60,000 people – a tiny proportion of the one million-plus workers needed to halve the disability gap.

George Selvanera, BDF strategy and external affairs director, wants the government to provide bespoke advice to employers hiring disabled people, which could be part and parcel of a reformed Access to Work package.

Disability Confident has also come in for criticism. Mr Selvanera says: “It needs scaling up. Our disability standard was developed in 2004 and represents best practice so companies know how to make changes across the whole organisation. Disability Confident has a much narrower focus on recruitment and retention. You can get level two in Disability Confident [accreditation] without having any disabled staff.”

He adds: “Government should show, not tell. It has 400,000 employees – can they demonstrate to UK plc that they have made the changes to be a Disability Confident employer and they are recruiting substantially higher proportions of disabled people?” The Leonard Cheshire Disability charity has established that only 8.9 per cent of civil servants have a disability.

Mr Adams, for his part, supports a more rigorous Disability Confident offer, with an external assessment process for the highest level of compliance. Purple will work with employers to get approval at all levels. “For all the criticism, it’s the best thing out there. I can see value in it and by Purple working with business, on its accreditation scheme, we can maximise that value,” he says.

It has partnered with the London Stock Exchange, which will support Disability Confident and go through its new accreditation process. Lynne Chambers, group head of talent at the London Stock Exchange Group, says: “We will challenge ourselves to go forward through the levels, with Purple’s support. We are conscious of our role, leading the way and taking these bold steps.”

PurpleSpace boosts peer support networks, which many experts see as key to retaining talented, disabled staff within the workplace. Kate Nash, its creator, says networks are the start of “a better conversation” in the workplace between employers and employees. “We are seeing some signs of change, because disabled people and companies are more prepared now to share their stories of success,” she says.

Alison Unsted, head of global diversity at law firm Hogan Lovells, also stresses the importance of employee networks, which can encourage job retention and progression, as well as provide role models. “Our networks celebrate, educate and raise awareness of difference,” she says. But Ms Unsted counsels that raising the proportion of self-declared disabled employees is tricky, partly because of the perceived stigma of disability.

Mr Selvanera concludes that the government should help transform such attitudes, supporting companies in the process. “The government would need to put some money into a big communications campaign,” he says. “Changing attitudes requires pump-priming and that is not part of the measures in place.”