The disability employment gap - warm words and cold hearts

By Bernadette Meaden
December 1, 2017

These days, whenever the government talks about helping people who are ill or disabled, this quote from Tolstoy springs to mind: “I sit on a man's back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible...except by getting off his back.”

The government’s latest proposals for getting a million more disabled people into work may sound enlightened and ambitious, but I will find it impossible to take them seriously until the government stops actively harming the very people it says it wants to help.

We know that shockingly, almost half of people on ESA, the out of work disability benefit, have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. What they need is respect, time and space to get well, and appropriate support to help them get back to work – when they feel ready, and when a suitable job is available.

What actually happens, what is government policy, is that people who may be at the lowest point in their lives, perhaps having lost a job they loved because of their illness, are often singled out for the greatest pressure, through a cruel system of assessments and sanctions, which are counterproductive on their own terms.

At a recent session of the Work and Pensions Select Committee (video) a representative of the mental health charity Mind said, “The one thing I would say with the assessment process is that it feels from our clients’ point of view – they describe it as having a Sword of Damocles hanging over their head constantly, because if it’s not one assessment it’s another assessment. ESA and then PIP, and then back into ESA and then you’re back into PIP, and there’s never a prolonged period of time which allows our clients to be able to focus on their recovery, because all they are doing is being sent from one place of judgement to another place of judgement.” 

Social security no longer provides any security for the people who need it most. The pressure and anxiety is constant and can be unbearable. This makes people less likely to get well and back to work.

And then of course there are sanctions. People in the Work Related Activity Group of ESA are by definition quite ill or have considerable disabilities, and have been found, by the government, unfit to work. Yet they are now expected to survive on the same as a healthy, able-bodied jobseeker (£73.10 per week) and are subject to sanctions if they cannot cope with the demands placed on them by Jobcentre staff, who are not medically qualified to understand their condition.

The impact of a sanction on someone who is physically or mentally ill or disabled can’t be overstated. Numerous experts have told the government of the harm they do, and the fact that they actually make it less likely that someone will be able to get a job - and yet still they persist.

And no matter how determined a disabled jobseeker is, they generally find it far more difficult to get a job than an able-bodied person, for reasons entirely beyond their control.  Yet the government fails to do what it could to create opportunities for disabled people.  

As Disability Rights UK commented, the aspiration to get more people into work is all very well, but, “This week’s industrial strategy was a chance for the government to insist public sector contracts would only be awarded when bids included a mechanism which led to employment or training opportunities for disabled people. It ignored that possibility.” And this, as they said, "is against a backdrop of cuts in support to disabled people in and out of work."

Meanwhile, wheelchair user Mik Scarlet tweeted “How to make it easier for disabled people to find work? Make it really illegal for any business to not be accessible…A new office development on my street isn't accessible so another place I can't work.”

The Access to Work scheme was designed to fund support which makes it possible for deaf or disabled people to take up and sustain employment – providing a British Sign Language interpreter, for instance. In October, Inclusion London published a report on the scheme which said that due to bureaucratic incompetence and a cost-cutting drive to reduce people’s support packages, people faced losing their jobs.

Whilst the government’s determination to get people off disability benefits, come what may, is all too clearly genuine, its commitment to taking concrete measures to provide employment opportunities is far less convincing. It continues to concentrate almost all the pressure on ill or disabled individuals, as if they were the problem, when so much needs to be done in the labour market, transport and the built environment to level the playing field for disabled job applicants.

The government should do all in its power to provide suitable opportunities for disabled people to work. The disability employment gap will then be reduced naturally, in the way that unemployment always falls when jobs are created. The government should also accept that if a person is unable to take up paid employment, that does not, or should not, make them any less valued a citizen in a decent society.

* If these issues affect you and you are in distress, please call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. Calls are FREE and the helpline is open 24 hours a day.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.