Employers hinder measures to help disabled people into jobs

An exclusive survey conducted by Community Care suggests that three-quarters of adults’ services social workers consider employment support for disabled people as fairly poor or very poor.

Increasing the number of disabled people in employment has been a government aim for some time. In 2002, the then minister for disabled people, Maria Eagle, created the disability employment advisory committee to advise the Department for Work and Pensions and JobCentre Plus on disability employment issues.

A target within its three-year plan for 2003-6 was to “increase the employment rate of people with disabilities and significantly reduce the difference between their employment rate and the overall rate.”

It added that the State would “work to improve the rights of disabled people and to remove the barriers to their participation in society”.

Progress has been made – 50% of disabled people are in paid employment – but there is still a long way to go: the figure when Labour took office in 1997 was 44%.

Having a job gives disabled people the opportunity to contribute to society, it promotes their mental well-being and enables them to enjoy greater financial independence. This last point is particularly relevant as disabled adults of working age are twice as likely to live in poverty than their non-disabled counterparts.

In the past, one of the major barriers to taking up employment was simply not being able to get into a workplace. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 pledged to transform the lives of disabled people, especially on employment.

Under the act, disabled people have a right to expect employers to make reasonable adjustments to a location to ensure they are able to move around it and their workstation freely.

Peter Bailey, a consultant with Disability Matters, says the legislation has opened up the debate about why more disabled people are not employed. “By confronting the physical environment we have had to confront people’s fears and anxieties, for example that disabled staff would dribble. The DDA has made this easier.”

Agnes Fletcher, director of policy and communications at the Disability Rights Commission, says the DDA means disabled people feel more confident to say “this is what I need” in their workplace. She adds that the act also helps employers think about what they can do to help employees continue in their jobs if they become disabled.

This is why the Access to Work initiative was set up in 1994. Under the scheme a disabled person can apply for a grant to pay for an adaptation to the physical environment they work in such as a ramp or handrails.

The average cost of adapting a working environment to suit a disabled person is just £50, according to Chris Sherwood, access and diversity manager at Scope. He has found that not enough disabled people or employers are aware of the scheme.

A more troubling barrier to gaining work is a lack of confidence and self-belief among some physically disabled people that they can actually do a job, and do it well. Sherwood says the barriers can be so strong that “people focus on the impairment rather than the competency of their abilities”.

Bailey, himself a wheelchair user for 33 years, echoes this view. He says some physically disabled people believe they are unable to work because that’s what employers think. He warns against disabled people falling into this negative mindset and therefore not seeking work: “Disabled people have to ensure they don’t fall into the stereotype held by some employers. They need to challenge that by how they behave. I wear a nice suit and a tie when I work because it is professional and I know a lot of people in wheelchairs wear tracksuits.”

Employers’ attitudes towards hiring disabled staff can also be a problem. They may mistakenly believe that a disabled person is unable to perform particular tasks, will be less productive than their non-disabled colleagues and will take more time off sick.

This attitude is one that is familiar to Peter Purton, policy officer for disability at the Trades Union Congress. In May 2006 the TUC launched its three-point plan entitled Jobs for Disabled People to help disabled people into work with a focus on prevention, retention and intervention. A year on has the situation improved? Purton says far too little has changed. “Sometimes it is ignorance on the employers’ part. They think someone with a disability won’t be able to do a job.”

So what can social care professionals do to assist clients with physical disabilities who want to work or continue in their jobs after becoming disabled? For Fletcher, the answer lies in employers being convinced that hiring a physically disabled person “is a risk worth taking”, as well as ongoing support to both the employer and the employee.

The first requirement, according to Sherwood, is to encourage employers to have an open dialogue with the disabled employee and the colleagues they will be working with.

He believes the entire process will run far more smoothly if all parties are consulted and informed of any changes that may be needed in the working environment. “Other staff can be offended if they are not told why things are happening and everyone needs to feel comfortable enough to talk about any changes that need to happen.”

Purton believes that employers need to ensure they are complying with the law and have policies in place to address the needs of staff who are disabled or who may become disabled

Social workers, according to Bailey, are ideally placed to help disabled people uncover any hidden concerns and fears they may have about their own employability and to help them move out of their comfort zone.

He says: “Social workers should say to their clients, ‘what’s stopping you from working?’ and ‘what are you going to do about it?’. Their answers may reflect their internal barriers, which no legislation in the world can change.”

Case study
When James Robertson was a 16-year-old college student he wanted to be like his friends and earn some cash with a Saturday job. He sent off his CV for 19 jobs, mainly for retail and call centre work, and one by one received 19 rejection letters. The only explanation he can think of for not getting a job interview – while his friends did – is that he has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Now aged 22 he looks back on his struggle to get into the job market with irony. He is employed as an environmental support officer at global bank Lehman Brothers and co-ordinates 87 of its European environmental initiatives – not bad for a young man who couldn’t get a job selling underpants.

Robertson obtained his year-long contract at Lehman Brothers through the leadership recruitment initiative for graduates operated by Scope. The experience has been extremely positive and he feels he has fitted in well with his colleagues. His advice for other disabled people who want to work is “not to be embarrassed to ask for help” if they need it, something he does when he drops a pencil. “As disabled people we have a responsibility to inform society in a sensible way that we might need help with things like opening doors.”

Further information
Access to Work

Contact the author
 Anabel Unity Sale 

This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “Raised horizons”

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