Whilst on the one hand the current government is promoting a much-needed initiative called “Disability Confident”, which is aimed at encouraging employers to employ disabled people, it is also giving mixed messages. When justifying the vast array of benefit cuts which all impact on disabled people, the rhetoric changes to implying all disabled people are workshy, lazy benefit scroungers. It’s difficult to understand why they imagine any employer would want to employ people described thus.
The media seem to want to push disabled people into one of three categories. We are either heroes (paralympians, for example, or Simon Weston), or workshy benefit scroungers (see above), or objects of pity. Well, from an employer’s perspective, why would you want to employ someone whose only skill is to swim fast, or someone who doesn’t want to work, or an object of pity?
My view, based in the experience of both being disabled and also working with thousands of disabled people through my work, is that I struggle with these stereotypes. Of course there are some pretty heroic disabled people, just like there are some pretty heroic non-disabled people. And there will be a few disabled benefits scroungers (0.7% according to DWP figures), just like there will be a number of non-disabled benefit scroungers. But the vast majority of us – let’s estimate 98%? – are neither heroes nor scroungers. We’re just people getting on with our lives as best we can. Pretty much like the rest of the population.
In terms of work, there are three situations disabled people can find themselves in:
1. They could have impairments which make doing paid work impossible, for a variety of reasons. These members of our society are just as valuable as any others, and as a civilised society we should ensure that they have the means to live safe, comfortable, healthy lives, with as much independence, dignity and choice as they want. Some of the most amazing people I know fit into this category, and we are all much better off for having them around.
2. The second group is those disabled people who are currently working. This could range from highly-paid professionals to people who are under-employed, not having the opportunities for promotion that others have access to. And everything in between.
3. The third group are those disabled people who can work, and are desperate to do so, for all the reasons anyone wants to work – income, pride, self-confidence, self-esteem, having a purpose and a role and everything else that goes with being in work. This group is twice as likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people in the UK, mostly because of the myths already discussed. Why would employers want to pay lazy, workshy scroungers? I didn’t include them in my list because although I know that they exist (all 0.7% of them) I have yet to personally meet one.
So, what are the solutions? Well, as expected, they are many and varied, and involve us all. Here are some suggested action points for various groups of people:
• Accept that some people really are too disabled to work, and ensure they are fully supported to lead safe, independent lives where they choose and have access to all the care and other support they might need.
• Stop implying that all disabled people are workshy scroungers (because it isn’t true).
• Raise the walking distance for PIP back up to 50m as it was under DLA, so that 500,000 people are still able to get themselves to and from work.
• Abolish the bedroom tax. Two thirds of the people affected by this are disabled people. It’s hard to look for work when you are homeless, hungry and ill.
• Mike Penning (new Minister for Disabled People) said he didn’t understand the social model of disability – someone teach it to him quick. Or give the job to someone who does know.
• Bring back the Independent Living Fund for current claimants and new claimants who qualify. That will enable many of them to return or continue to work.
• Ban workfare – whilst people are doing jobs for nothing, those employers won’t be paying anyone to do them.
• Create more jobs so there are more jobs for everyone.
• Continue to improve Access to Work, maybe bringing it into the 21st century and allowing us to access it online, and make it more accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments.
• Ban the Work Capability Assessments. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they are clearly not fit for purpose at all, quite apart from being barbaric and often life-threatening.
• Report what is really happening, not just the bits fed to you by DWP
• Portray disabled people in a much wider and more realistic way (we really aren’t either saints or sinners – most of us are just boring ordinary people)
• Don’t believe everything you hear politicians say or you read in the media. Find out yourselves, do the research, talk to the people who are actually affected by what is happening.
• Reduce the level of disability hate crime (being disabled isn’t a heap of fun – please don’t add to it by spitting as us, stealing our money, robbing us of vital equipment, terrifying us with shouting and taunts, punching us, etc etc)
• Find out the facts about employing disabled people. Research (as opposed to government rhetoric) shows that on average disabled employees are just as productive as non-disabled people, and have less time off sick, and have fewer workplace accidents, and stay in our jobs longer, and bring additional skills we’ve had to learn such as innovation, persistence, creativity, problem-solving and determination. Oh, and bring market intelligence around the 11 million people in the UK who spend up to £80 billion a year.
• Ensure all your processes (from advertising vacancies, short listing, interviewing, training, promoting etc) are as inclusive and accessible as possible.
• Employ disabled people because they will benefit your business, not because you feel sorry for us.
• If you can and want to work, make sure that existing or potential employers understand all the skills and talents you bring with you.
• Ask for any reasonable adjustments you may need (and remind them that Access to Work will probably pay for it).
• Help people understand what they can do which is helpful (and unhelpful).
I have many other suggestions (you won’t be surprised to hear) but these are just a few to get us started.
Jane Hatton is the Founder/Director of Evenbreak, the only not-for-profit specialist online job board run by disabled people for disabled people, helping enlightened employers attract more talented disabled applicants. http://www.evenbreak.co.uk