Posted in anticipation of Disability History Month, and written, I think, in 2008, this is another piece in which a lot holds true, but which also shows how quickly things have changed. And how much has changed – or not!
Lorraine Gradwell, Chief Executive of Breakthrough UK Ltd, looks behind the policies to
examine the harsh realities that still face disabled people who want to work.
In the 21st century, unemployment is still a major issue for disabled people, and therefore for the government; the cost of the Incapacity Benefit payments has more than trebled since 1997 and the government are promoting employment as the route out of poverty for disabled people. Although the employment rate of disabled people has risen from 44.1% in 2002 to 47.2% in 2007, despite a raft of government programmes and initiatives there is still a huge gap between the employment rate for disabled people and that for non-disabled people, which remains relatively constant at about 79%. And among people with learning disabilities, those with mental health issues, and deaf people, paid employment remains a remote pipe dream for the majority.
But why should this be? Since the New Labour government swept into power in 1997, promising ‘work for those who can, support for those who cannot’ the number of disabled people in employment has risen by an average of just 3%. What is it about these feckless disabled people that they can’t get or hold down a job? Perhaps we should look closely, not just at the shifting sands of employment policy and programmes, but also at the wider world of disability policy.
The last ten years have seen tremendous changes in the world of disability; the Disability Rights Commission has been and gone, and we now have the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which may yet be too new to judge; the excellent ‘Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People’ report from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit has led to many initiatives, including the establishment of the Office for Disability Issues (ODI). It also led to the setting up of ‘Equality 2025’ which is intended to be a channel for the views of disabled people to government – not exactly the national organisation for organisations of disabled people that the report originally recommended. The British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) set up by disabled people in 1981 to be the accountable and representative voice of organisations of disabled people is no more, although it is transformed into the United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), and is working in partnership with SCOPE – a move which has surprised many long term disability activists. Many Centres for Independent Living (CILs) have disappeared through either a lack of funding or unfair competition from the big charities, but a Department of Health project which aims to establish a ‘User-Led Organisation’ in every local authority area by 2010 is well underway and the concept of the ‘service user’ is now well understood by local authorities.
In terms of employment, the government’s big idea is ‘Pathways to Work’, refined from the New Deal programmes and developed with a ‘Condition Management’ element, a very medically-focussed approach designed to help people ‘manage’ their illness or impairment. This brings a major focus on rehabilitation and occupational health, with the developing interests of the large insurance companies who have clearly foreseen the potential for a wider market for their services.
Meanwhile, Remploy has been instructed by the government to ‘modernise’. The political turmoil caused by the proposal to close the majority of the Remploy factories, and the opposition from people and organisations who should know better, has revealed the depth of protective and dependency-creating attitudes that still exist towards disabled people.
Imminent changes to the benefits system are coming with the Employment Support Allowance, which includes two levels of benefit depending on your capacity for work (the return of the ‘deserving poor’ concept?) and which also includes a quicker and more stringent ‘Personal Capability Assessment’, on the basis that the sooner the assessment happens the more chance there is of getting someone back to work.
There has also been a lot of activity on the anti-discrimination / diversity / human rights front. As mentioned above, the DRC no longer exists but has been in part replaced by the new single Commission; many people in the field are concerned that the vast majority of knowledge and experience on disability that was built up has not transferred to the new Commission, and will be lost. Some have expressed concern that this new lack at the national level creates a ‘gap in the market’ for the large charities to exploit and put themselves forward as the experienced and authoritative voice on disability. Indeed, Leonard Cheshire is already writing to the Chief Executives of local authorities, offering to work with them on a range of issues.
The Discrimination Law Review was aimed at simplifying current legislation, making it easier to understand and more effective at tackling disadvantage. Again, many were concerned at some of the government’s proposals in the consultation paper ‘A Framework for Fairness’ last summer, feeling that clarity and strength around disability matters was in danger of being lost.
On the Independent Living front, the ODI has undertaken a cross-government review on Independent Living. It has found evidence that traditional approaches to support for disabled people have failed to reduce the significant inequalities experienced by them and their families. The development of user-led organisations is being supported by the DoH, and Ministers have expressed clear support for the expansion of Individual Budgets. The funding of ’social care’ is poised at a crisis point, with many local authorities funding support only to those people deemed to have substantial or critical needs, with some moving to critical only. Meanwhile, the government has signed up to the first international human rights treaty of the 21st century – the United Nations (UN) Convention on Disability Rights, which covers areas such as the right to life, to personal mobility, to health, to education, and to work and employment. Which brings us back to the matter at hand – the seemingly intractable unemployment rates of disabled people.
The disabled people’s movement originated the Seven Needs for Independent Living; significantly they did not include employment, the logic being that if the needs for independence were met then disabled people could compete for jobs on a level playing field with non-disabled people. We don’t yet know if this is true, because it has never really been tested. Government employment programmes have paid scant attention to the analyses of the disabled people’s movement, which have focussed on the societal barriers to inclusion and independence. Rather they have focussed almost entirely on the individual, on making them more ‘employable’. Only recently is the DWP looking more seriously at the impact that the actions of employers have on the unemployment of disabled people.
Of course, the DDA 1995, and subsequent extensions, has in principle addressed the issue of discrimination at work, and – along with the Special Educational Needs and Education Act (SENDA) – in education. But the extent to which DWP and the DRC worked closely on developing programmes which not only developed the career prospects of disabled people, but also took account of the persistent and often open discrimination that disabled people face, is not at all clear.
However, if access to the built environment, to the transport infrastructure, to accessible and appropriate information, to suitable housing and technical aids, to personal assistance and to peer support were available, why then it seems reasonable to suspect that disabled people would operate on more of a level playing field from which to judge the true nature of their ‘unemployability’.
As it stands, disabled people’s access to education and training remains poor; opportunities to move house with your career can be prohibitively expensive; transporting your ‘care package’ to a new local authority area is usually an administrative nightmare and a real threat to the assessed levels of support provided; negotiating an Access to Work package of support can take months, and can last longer than your probationary period.
For example; in 2003/04 only 37% of disabled 16 year olds achieved 5 A*-C grade GCSE’s, compared to 53% of non-disabled 16 year olds whilst 28% of disabled 19 year olds had experience of higher education compared to 41% of non-disabled 19 year olds. Similarly, data from 2005/06 states that 22% of individuals ‘in households affected by disability’ are at risk of living in income poverty compared to 16% of households where no one is disabled.
DWP are currently consulting on a Review of Disability Employment Services (RODES) and have a clear and present opportunity to base their services on the actual – rather than the assumed – reality of life for disabled people. There is a chance here for the government to demonstrate exemplary partnership work by ‘joining the dots’ of disability policy, rather than having different departments taking forward their own policy areas in parallel to others. A key player in this is the ODI, whose brief includes working across government and encouraging the various parts of government to work together. It is crucial also that the ‘social care’ agenda takes employment needs fully into account, and fits creatively with Disability Employment Services. Another key player could be Equality 2025, with a real opportunity to flex their muscles and take disabled people’s own analyses direct into the government. And what of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Surely there is a key role here for them to ensure that the DWP Disability Employment Services are available to the whole community of disabled people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith or age.
Might these things happen? I do hope so, but I suspect not, the agenda being so wide and creative, and the government – some are beginning to say – possibly not so keen on promoting independent living as they have said.
So finally, I offer a model of good practice in employing disabled people: Breakthrough UK Ltd is a voluntary sector organisation with an annual income of just over £1 million that has operated successfully for ten years, providing employment support to disabled people. It has developed organisational policies, management systems, and staff management practices that have resulted in the employment of 38 staff, 65% of whom are disabled people who were recruited openly. No government subsidies (except Access to Work), no specialist employment programmes, no quotas, just good management, good practice, and the will to do it. It’s not rocket science, honestly.
NB – all statistics from the ODI 2007 Annual Report, and appendices.