The UK Government recently unveiled its new support plans aimed at helping disabled people find and remain in work. But is it enough and what else should the Government – and employers – be doing?
Recently, the UK Government has increased the number of specialist advisers it employs to help disabled jobseekers find a job and stay in work. This equates to an extra 315 Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) roles now active across job centres around the UK.
And while I welcome any measures designed to help disabled people get back to the workplace, I don’t think this goes far enough.
What is the current situation for disabled jobseekers in the UK?
New DEAs join the Disability Confident scheme in working towards a better work environment for disabled people in the UK. The scheme was established in 2016 by the Government for employers, to encourage them to take advantage of the vast potential that lies untapped from the disabled community.
There are more than 14 million disabled people in the UK right now, and only just over four million disabled people are employed. According to the Labour Force Survey (Oct to Dec 2020), disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed than those without disabilties.
While the scheme currently has its highest number of employers signed up – 20,000 – since it began, I still want to see much more from both the Government and employers. Businesses such as Network Rail, Sainsbury’s and Microsoft are part of the employer scheme.
Justin Tomlinson is the UK Government’s Minister for Disabled People. When the new positions were announced, he had this to say in the press release: “We are committed to seeing one million more disabled people in work by 2027. As we recover from the pandemic, we are redoubling our efforts to boost the support for disabled jobseekers.”
He goes on to reference the challenges everyone is facing as the pandemic wears on and says that he is pleased to see the number of employers who have signed up to the Disability Confident Government programme. The total number of DEAs now stands at 1,115 and these people have to cover every job centre in the UK.
Austerity measures have cut provision for supporting the jobless
While the Government’s press release praises these measures, it’s worth noting that the job centre network in the UK has shrunk over recent years due to cuts. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 100 job centres (about 15% of the total) were shut down as part of the Government’s austerity drive.
At the same time, many welfare reforms and cuts are being made. Constantly shrinking resources, along with the isolation and challenges of the pandemic, mean that support for disabled job seekers is effectively still much lower than it should be. In 2017, a new Work and Health Programme was launched, aiming to help people who are unemployed long term.
This includes unemployed disabled people, but when compared with the system it replaced, it meant that help is available to less than 25% of the number of people the old system helped. Access was extended when the pandemic hit in order to help more disabled people, and includes grants worth up to £62,900. The idea is that the grants cover the cost of suitable workplace adjustments that employers need to make to accommodate disabled people.
While I understand that times are tough and the Government is stretched in assisting furloughed employees due to COVID-19, I would like to see state support go much further for the disabled population of the UK.
What can employers do to support disabled jobseekers and employees?
Within workplaces, employers can make simple changes to ensure that they can take advantage of the millions of qualified, experienced and talented people looking for a job, who happen to be disabled.
This is where vocational rehabilitation comes in – it can help companies attract and retain disabled people who may be living with physical or mental conditions. I’m pleased to read that more employers are becoming aware of vocational rehabilitation and are seeking services.
The Equality Act means that it is, of course, illegal to discriminate against disabled people in the workplace. But the constantly increasing employment gap tells us that there is something wrong somewhere. Just 52% of disabled people are in employment, according to the House of Commons briefing from April 2021. Compare this with the 81.1% of non-disabled people in employment and we can see that clearly, the gap needs closing.
Services within vocational rehabilitation offer a different solution. By providing training, counselling and support to assist disabled people return to the workplace, these services are invaluable.
Strong leadership and management are a must within the workplace
According to occupational therapist experts, by 2030 a third of working age adults will have some kind of long-term health problem that they will have to manage while working. While long-term, chronic illnesses have forced many out of work, the focus of the future should be on helping people to stay in work and manage their condition or disability.
Employers also need to have the education and training available so that they understand the difference between an illness that can lead to a disability and that not every disability means there is a health condition in the form of a chronic illness. They will need to hire and train empathetic managers who are skilled in areas other than the traditional organisational and professional skills bases.
They need to be flexible, excellent communicators and equipped to manage diverse teams of employees, which may or may not include disabled people. Getting the right kind of managers in place can be the key to retaining and supporting disabled staff and ensuring that they feel supported and that they can do their job.
Managers provide the crucial support and large companies that churn out rafts of policies but don’t have the quality of leaders on board tend to be poor at supporting disabled employees.
Employers must actively build a positive working environment for disabled people
Steps to inclusivity in the workplace include purposefully creating a positive culture surrounding disability. People who are disabled should feel comfortable with their position in the company and that they are able to develop their role without fear of discrimination.
I believe that there is still an immense amount of systemic stigma against disabled people. It’s hard to believe that this is still the case in the second decade of the 21st century, but there are levels of fear within the workplace for the disabled employee and for colleagues.
The Government’s Guaranteed Interview scheme, available through Jobcentre Plus guarantees that anyone with a disability who meets the criteria for the post are guaranteed an interview. This is a positive step towards removing barriers and ensuring that disabled job seekers have the opportunity to compete for the role fairly.
Within the business itself, all employees should have awareness training and encouraged to take the time to understand the subject. Good employers will instigate mentorship schemes and open up the opportunity for disabled workers to share their experiences. And, of course, employers must make reasonable adjustments to the needs of the disabled worker, whether that lies in flexible working hours or adaptable tools.
It’s a fallacy that a business can be inclusive if the need of disability continues to be ignored at the highest levels. There are many reasons why our society has built its collective view of disabled people, and these go far beyond the workplace. But we are still working against these outdated, outmoded and inaccurate beliefs. The idea that a disabled person has something missing and therefore can’t do a job in the same way as a non-disabled person is just not true, and yet for some it prevails. By reframing the issue and concentrating on the abilities of the disabled employer, it’s clear that there is much to be gained from opening the door to a diverse perspective and different life experience.