Double Trouble

Rosemary Tozer is research fellow at the Centre for
Research in Primary Care, University of Leeds. She began her career
in social work and has worked on a number of qualitative research
projects in the past 10 years. She has a long-standing interest in
disability issues.

Two groups in society face disproportionate disadvantage in the
labour market – people from ethnic minorities and disabled people.
Disabled people are only half as likely to be in paid work as the
general population, and unemployment is significantly higher among
ethnic minority groups than in the white population.

Further evidence suggests that people with a sensory impairment are
even less likely to have jobs. According to the RNIB, three out of
four blind or partially sighted people of working age are not in
paid work, while Sense, which campaigns for deafblind people,
reports that only one in 20 of those with a dual impairment have a
job. But there is little information about people in the labour
market who are from ethnic minorities and have sensory impairments.
The recent Cabinet Office strategy document for ethnic minorities
in the labour market has little to say on this.(1)

Research financed by the Community Fund and managed by a consortium
of two universities, the RNIB and other voluntary organisations
concerned with sensory impairment is gaining a picture of the
barriers faced in finding and keeping work and will identify good

Before carrying out interviews and focus groups with people from
black and south Asian communities, key informants were interviewed
in London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire. The informants
were working to increase the access of people with sensory
impairments to job opportunities. Most were based in voluntary
sector organisations in development work, with a particular role
with local ethnic minorities. Questions about their knowledge of
the problems faced by their clients and the kinds of support that
worked best produced some clear messages.

Employers’ limited knowledge of sensory impairment, or disability
generally, was seen as a major obstacle. This is a critical issue
as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is implemented further.
Little awareness of support available in employing a disabled
person was reported, such as the Access to Work scheme, which can
provide essential equipment for visually impaired or deaf people,
meet transport costs to their jobs and provide interpreters in the
workplace. Informants joined employers in trying to raise awareness
of the benefits and support available. They reported that an
employer who had taken on someone with a sensory impairment was
more likely to do so again. This could be helpful to deaf employees
who might find it difficult to communicate with their hearing

Personal contacts with employers and timing made a successful
placement more possible. Someone from an ethnic minority was likely
to find his or her first job at the local corner shop or another
small business. Delays in bringing together a potential employer
and employee could result in a loss of motivation. The availability
of multi-lingual signers, or transport to attend an interview could
make all the difference.

People with sensory impairments from ethnic minorities were
reported as having fewer qualifications on leaving school. This put
them at an immediate disadvantage in the job market, exacerbated if
they had an additional learning difficulty. It was felt that the
building blocks for employability had to be in place throughout
schooling, with adequate support and specialist equipment. With
high expectations and long-term preparation, some considered that
even those with the most severe impairments could work.

But statutory transitional arrangements were often inadequate to
provide the help to young people and their families making
decisions about training or employment. There was concern that they
could give up because of the difficulties they encountered. Ethnic
minorities located in deprived areas had a double

Cultural factors were also reported as potential barriers in the
job market to disabled people from ethnic minority groups.(2) All
communities were ill informed about sensory impairment but families
for whom English was a second language, or who had recently arrived
in the UK, had little knowledge of support with daily living, let
alone work issues. Multilingual or large print information and
signers are needed to help people with sensory impairments and
their carers access support agencies and find work.(3) A shortage
of interpreters was reported in all sites.

Traditional values and attitudes in some communities, particularly
among older people, could involve low family aspirations for young
people with sensory impairments. In these circumstances, there
might be no expectation that they would work, with a corresponding
reliance on benefits and a protective attitude, especially towards
women. For instance, mobility training might not be regarded as
essential or even acceptable if provided by a male worker. Agencies
worked with these cultural factors, trying to bring the family on
board and employing staff from ethnic minorities, some of whom were
formerly clients.

Informants emphasised that long-term support was essential even
when people were working. Several agencies provided training
programmes that might last six months, some tailored to particular
communities. Staff emphasised that people who had suddenly lost
their sight or hearing needed considerable confidence building,
often basic literacy and numeracy, and practical everyday skills.
Sometimes there was mutual support in a group or job club.

In addition to their own activity, agencies felt that adequate
resourcing of other services, such as rehabilitation training and
specialist social work, would improve self-esteem and basic skills
transferable to a job. Increased mainstream facilities, such as
transport and specialised software at public libraries or in their
own homes, would allow more people to access the help they needed
in finding and keeping work.

Approaches that can help people with sensory impairments
from ethnic minorities in the job market include:

  • Culturally specific projects.
  • Good links with local employers.
  • Training tailored to the needs of the local community.
  • Individual and long-term support.
  • Good liaison with education and job centres.
  • Understanding and working with families and communities.
  • Adequate provision of other services such as rehabilitation and
    social work.
  • Accessible transport and mobility training.
  • Access to specialised IT training.
  • Good availability of interpreters and signers.

This article reports some preliminary findings from a
study examining the barriers faced by people with sensory
impairments from ethnic minorities in the labour market. Key
informants working mostly in the voluntary sector reported that
lack of awareness among employers, limited long-term preparation
and support, and cultural attitudes to disability could all create
extra disadvantage finding and remaining in employment.

(1) Strategy Unit, Ethnic Minorities in the Labour Market,
Cabinet Office, 2003
(2) G Craig, “Race, poverty and social security”, J Ditch (ed)
Poverty and Social Security, Routledge, 1999
(3) Y Hussain et al, South Asian Young Disabled People and their
Families, Policy Press, 2002


  • For further details of the study e-mail the co-directors Gary
    Craig at or Karl Atkin at,
    or the main researcher Nasreen Ali at
  • E Grundy et al, Disability in Great Britain, Department of
    Social Security, 1999
  • L Jones et al, “Supporting Asian deaf young people and their
    families”, Disability and Society, 16(1): 51:70, 2001
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation, A Policy Framework for Supported
    Employment, JRF, 2000
  • A Vernon, User-defined Outcomes of Community Care for Asian
    Disabled People, Policy Press, 2002

Rosemary Tozer can be contacted on 0113 343 4854

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