How do we address the “large and enduring” disability employment gap?

The disability employment gap (DEG) is large and enduring. Depending on how you measure it, it ranges between 30 and 40 per cent (around 48% of disabled people are in employment compared to 80% of the non-disabled population). The recent green paper, Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper, is the latest attempt to address this issue. In it, the government reiterates its commitment (first outlined in the Conservative Party Manifesto 2015) to halving this gap, i.e. increasing the percentage of disabled people in work to 64%. This issue has gained increased recognition, as indicated by the 2016 House of Lords Select Committee report on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, which claimed government inaction is failing disabled people, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability report, “Ahead of the Arc”, published last December. It is against this backdrop that Cardiff University hosted the Closing Disability Gaps at Work Conference in London on December 13, 2016. The main issues raised are covered, in detail, in the official conference report – what follows is a short summary of the event with particular attention paid to the key themes of the conference.

Dame Carol Black opened proceedings, pointing out that this issue isn’t ‘new’ – it has persisted since 2005. She also highlighted recently published NICE guidelines suggesting one needn’t be 100% fit in order to work, which could pave the way for disabled people to access, or remain in, work. Regarding why the DEG has been such a persistent problem, Dame Carol pointed to the lack of a ‘joined-up’ governmental approach which, rather than looking solely at benefits and getting people off them, prioritised early, ‘upstream’, interventions that incentivised people to be in work, rather than penalise them for being out of it. The newly-formed Work and Health Unit (WHU), comprising the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, promises to fill this void. It was therefore fitting that Nicola Gilpin, Deputy Director of the WHU, was up next. She identified ‘systemic issues’, e.g. unsupportive employers and people being ‘parked’ on benefits. Closing the DEG required a ‘shift’ in attitudes amongst employers and society in general (this was a consistent theme of the conference). To do this, the WHU would consider the barriers preventing employers from recruiting, and retaining, disabled people and how best to support employers in doing so. On this point, the Work Foundation is hosting a roundtable discussion, in January, comprising large and small employers to elicit their views on this subject and inform the debate.

Prof Victoria Wass (Cardiff University) followed, raising question marks over the government’s pledge to halve the DEG – she isn’t the only person to do so – claiming it would require an “unrealistic amount of absorption”. Not only would it be difficult from a practical point of view, problems regarding the measurement of disability, owing to the lack of a consensual definition, would hamper attempts to monitor the gap. She also stressed the importance of: (i) the need for employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’, i.e. accommodate disabled people by making changes to their work environment; and (ii) the issue of disclosure – in order to make adjustments for, and monitor the number of, disabled people in the workplace it is essential they disclose their disability to their employer – though it is not solely incumbent on them to do so; employers must create work conditions where employees feel able to disclose, i.e. ‘good’ work conditions comprising a supportive, caring and sympathetic culture where employees can speak candidly about their needs without reprisal.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that disabled people are exposed poor quality work conditions, as demonstrated by presentations from Profs Melanie Jones and Ralph Fevre (both Cardiff University). The latest Workplace Employment Relations Survey 2011, which collects data on work quality, i.e. whether employees have control, reasonable demands, adequate support, etc., reveals that disabled people tend to fare worse on these measures. They are also more likely to work part-time, which may serve as a ‘stepping stone’ to full-time employment, and be self-employed, which may be a response to discrimination in the labour market, or a positive choice motivated by a desire for flexible work – nevertheless it is an area of concern given that self-employment is often characterised by precarious work.

Dr Debbie Foster (Cardiff University) concluded these presentations, focusing on disabled peoples’ lack of representation in policy circles and the need for disabled peoples’ ‘voice’ to inform debate. To design and implement successful interventions, it is essential disabled people are involved in their inception, rather than being passive recipients of them.

Following these presentations, four ‘workshops’ took place, one of which, described below, focused on ‘Working in partnership to change employer behaviour towards disabled people’. Discussions revolved around recurring themes of the conference, namely the need to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ and ‘shift’ attitudes around disability and work. In addition, Genevieve Smythe, an occupational therapist, highlighted Public Health England’s initiative, Health and Work Champions, which aims to increase recognition of the link between work and health, encouraging clinicians to ask about patients’ work status and see work as a health outcome – something which the Work Foundation has called for in the past.

The closing plenary focused on the need for a ‘joined-up’ approach to deal with the DEG, which, hopefully, will be addressed by the newly-formed WHU. Though the challenge is considerable, it is apparent that the issue of disability, health and work is rising up the agenda, which may well be due, at least in part, to the ageing population and need for a healthy, productive workforce . Alongside this, there is a clear willingness from government, shown by the recent green paper, to give disabled people and their organisations a ‘voice’ and consult with them, and a range of stakeholders, on the changes needed to address the DEG. Potential solutions must address systemic barriers and facilitate ‘joined-up’ working.