Figures are stacked against disabled people in austerity Britain

Despite greater understanding of their needs, disabled people continue to face barriers to employment as well as wage discrimination, writes Clare Bettelley

The London 2012 Paralympic Games portrayed people with disabilities in a positive light and for many it was the first time disabled people were viewed as part of British society.

Rob Trotter, a public policy adviser at disability charity Scope, says: “What we had was this amazing glimpse of what Britain could be like if disabled people were part of society – that was a breakthrough moment.”

A poll conducted by Scope in December 2012 found that 72 per cent of disabled people think the Paralympic Games had a positive impact on attitudes towards them, with 20 per cent claiming it changed the way people talk to them and the same number saying the event made people more aware of their needs.

However, there are fears that this positivity could be just a short-term spike. In response to a separate poll, conducted among those with disabilities by Scope in July 2012, 54 per cent of respondents said they experienced discrimination on a regular basis, with 84 per cent believing that people patronise them and 63.5 per cent revealing they have experienced people refusing to make adjustments or do things differently to support their disabilities. Worse still, 73 per cent of respondents said they had experienced the assumption that they don’t work, with many having been questioned about their right to benefits support.

What we had was this amazing glimpse of what Britain could be like if disabled people were part of society – that was a breakthrough moment

According to a Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) report, Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: 2011-12 Estimates, published in December 2012, the government’s disability living allowance (DLA) expenditure totalled £12.6 billion of which 0.5 per cent (£60 million) was fraudulent.

As part of its welfare reforms and pledge to overhaul the UK benefits system to help weed out fraudulent claimants, the government introduced in April the personal independence payment (PIP) to replace the DLA. PIP claimants can expect a face-to-face assessment of their disabilities and regular reviews, designed to ensure they are entitled to the benefit for which they are claiming.

But Scope argues disabled “scroungers” are tiny in number compared to genuine benefit claimants and the introduction of the PIP is little more than a cost-saving measure that will result in 607,000 fewer people getting PIP than would have received DLA by 2018.

One of the biggest myths about benefits claimants is that they don’t want to work and this is equally applicable to disabled people. In fact, the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) second quarter Labour Force Survey, published in October 2012, shows that 37 per cent of non-working people aged 16 to 64 in Britain would like to work, compared with 45 per cent of non-disabled people.

According to the survey, more than half of working-age disabled people (51 per cent) are not in work, with a 29 per cent gap remaining between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in work in 2012. This is only marginally lower than the 36 per cent gap reported ten years earlier in 2002. Further, the proportion of disabled people in full-time work (31 per cent) in 2012 is just under half the proportion of non-disabled people (57 per cent).

Barriers to work for people with disabilities can help to explain this predicament. Attitudes about employing disabled people remain a huge barrier, particularly in terms of the assumed support required to help them perform their role. But Scope’s Mr Trotter says: “Adjustments are quite small and they can make all the difference for disabled people, such as a screen reader for someone with a visual impairment or an adjustment at a desk for someone in a wheelchair.” Flexible working can also help.

But even with the necessary support in place, disabled people continue to face wage discrimination. The ONS survey shows that the mean hourly wage rate for disabled people in 2012 was £12.15, which compares with £13.25 for non-disabled people.

Alongside the difficulties in finding work, this perhaps explains the results of research by the DWP, the Family Resources Survey 2010-11, published in June 2012, which shows that 22 per cent of children in families, where are least one member is disabled, live in low-income and material deprivation, compared with 12 per cent of children in families where no one is disabled. Furthermore, 20 per cent of households, where at least one member is disabled, have an income below 60 per cent of median household income, compared with 15 per cent of households where no one is disabled.

The consequences of disabled people being unemployed are huge, particularly for individuals who also find themselves unable to claim the PIP. At an individual level, disabled people potentially face poverty and homelessness as a result of a lack of income, due to their cost of living. Disabled people face additional costs in most areas of their everyday life, for items including equipment to help them live independent lives, as well as ongoing higher costs for food, clothing and recreation.

The consequences of disabled people being unemployed are huge, particularly for individuals who also find themselves unable to claim the personal independence payment

A Joseph Rowntree study, Disabled People’s Costs of Living, published in October 2004, found that the weekly budget required for people with disabilities ranged from £632 for a person with visual impairment to £1,513 for a person with high to medium mobility and personal support needs. Such costs will almost certainly have risen in the meantime.

These can apply to people living with a range of disabilities, such as learning disabilities, which are often hidden, and conditions, such as visual impairment, which often develop with age. There are also disabilities that are, as yet, undetected. According to the Papworth Trust, only 17 per cent of disabled people are born with impairments. On a societal level, a lack of disabled people in the workplace can result in social exclusion, which can lead to individuals becoming further marginalised in society.

The economic consequences are equally grave. Firstly, there is the issue of the loss of the spending power of a sizeable proportion of UK society. The Papworth Trust claims the annual spending power of disabled adults in Britain covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, now absorbed into the Equality Act, is around £80 billion a year.

Secondly, disabled people constitute a hugely valuable and untapped resource for employers. Disability consultant and campaigner Mary-Anne Rankin says: “It is often said that disabled people are brilliant problem-solvers. Well, they have to be because they’re problem-solving from the moment they wake up in the morning.”

Initiatives such as the government’s Access to Work scheme, which offers funding to people with a disability, health or mental health condition for practical support so that they can perform their job, can help some people find jobs and rewarding careers.

But Ms Rankin believes that a more constructive approach would be for government to support disabled people to set up in business. “The opportunity for disabled people to be helped with grants and mentoring services, so they can actually set up their own businesses, would be an incredibly positive way forward,” she concludes.