How many elephants can you get in the DWP?

For the first time, last week, I heard that an MP had stood up in the House of Commons and asked, in relation to Work Capability Assessments and Employment Support Allowance, “what about the elephant in the room.” It’s about time someone said it. There is an elephant in the room when it comes to the government’s reforms of disability benefits. Quite rightly, much attention is paid to the strategy of declaring people medically fit to work and the role of Atos in doing so. I sympathise. I’ve been through assessments like that. The levels of benefits paid are also focused on. Again, quite rightly. Remploy…ah now we’re getting there.

Many disabled people are fit to work to some degree. Not everyone by any means (and nobody should be forced to work beyond their capacity to do so) but there are a lot of us. Making this possible was a key purpose of the Disability Discrimination Act. Like the Paralympians, disabled people need a level playing field to achieve our potential on. Outside the world of elite sports, this means we need reasonable adjustments. For me, for example, this takes the form of special office equipment, greater secretarial help and reduced hours. The reality is that these can be hard to get. I’ve fought for my adjustments and I’m still not managing my condition effectively as a result of the battles I just couldn’t face, one of which resulted from my second run-in with a private industry “Atos”. Rather than fight that battle, I started looking for a new job. That was three years ago. I’m still looking. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have the door slam whenever the words “part time” enter the conversation. An agent told me a while back he could’ve placed me at least a dozen times over the past three years, if only I was able to work full time. Unfortunately, working part time doesn’t seem to be considered a reasonable adjustment within my profession. To my dismay a feature on part time and flexible working in the Law Society Gazette not so long ago even talked about women and people wanting to work part time or flexibly for religious reasons or due to age without once mentioning disability. In that case, discrimination wasn’t the elephant in the room. Disabled people were. With my history, you wont be surprised that I’m calling “cooee. Can anyone else see that bloody great big elephant?” I decided to go looking to see if I could find out the extent to which discrimination is being dealt with in the context of the Government’s reforms of disability benefits and schemes like Remploy.

In 2006, the Leonard Cheshire Society Scotland published a report, Discrimination Doesn’t Work (which is also mentioned in other sources cited in this post). The Report addressed the then Labour Government’s proposals to move away from Incapacity Benefit to ESA and get 1 million disabled people back to work. The Background to the Report stated:

“Disabled people are more than twice as likely to have no educational qualifications as non-disabled people. They are over three times as likely to be economically inactive – and when they are in work, they earn less on average than their peers. By age 30, around a third of young disabled people expect to be earning less than non disabled people of their own age.”

“Leonard Cheshire fears that [the Government] has not taken sufficient account of the availability of suitable work, local unemployment levels or employer’s attitudes towards disabled people. Without a willingness by employers to take on disabled people and to see their skills rather than their impairment, the Government’s ambitions will not be met.”

They set about finding out how real these perceived barriers to working are for disabled people. They sent CV’s in response to 120 vacancies advertised in the national and local newspapers, online recruitment sites and online adverts. Each time they sent with 2 CV’s of equal experience, education and skill sets that met the advertised job specification. They received 98 responses from employers, and concluded that:

“Employers were twice as likely to discriminate in favour of a non-disabled applicant as to treat both candidates equally.

Less than one in three employers responded to both applicants equally.

7% of employers positively discriminated in favour of the disabled applicant.

Employers invited non-disabled applicants to twice the number of interviews than disabled applicants.

Disabled applicants were 36% more likely to be rejected for an advertised post than non-disabled applicants were.”

When I first read the Leonard Cheshire Report a few years ago, none of this surprised me. Nor did the fact that:

“From the responses we did receive we found that there was no pattern to the types of organisations likely to discriminate against disabled applicants. Large and small companies, from household names to small community businesses, demonstrated apparently discriminatory behaviour towards potential employees because of their disability.”

Oh, and the punchline? All of the jobs applied for were graduate jobs. The Report suggested that those without a higher education and work experience were likely to face even greater difficulties. They went on to survey disabled people for more information and the feedback reflected the results of their own study. The Report was addressed both to the Scottish Executive and to Westminster. It’s there. On record. In view of what’s been going on over the past couple of years, I wondered whether it really is being ignored.

In 2009 the Leonard Cheshire Society produced another report, Disability and the Downturn, which considered the impact of the recession on disabled people. The Report dealt with Finance and Income, Public Services and Benefits, as well as Employment and is well worth reading for its broader context. For now, I’ll stick to the section on Employment. Their annual review survey on discrimination found:

“Over half (52%) of respondents had experienced discrimination in the workplace in the past year, an increase of 11% since 2007.

43% of respondents also reported they have been turned down for a job or jobs because of their impairment, an increase of 7% since 2008.

Topline employment rates for disabled people have remained relatively stable to date, but, given disabled people’s profound pre-existing employment disadvantage, this must not obscure major continuing inequality. Nor should it obscure the fact that thousands of disabled people have lost, and will continue to lose, their jobs during the downturn.”

The Report noted that disabled people are often employed in the public sector (37% of disabled people). Since it was written, of course, public sector cuts have increased and are continuing. The Report also noted that the Government does not have a standard measure for monitoring discrimination in the workplace. As far as I can see, that situation is unchanged. Finally, the Report concluded:

“Narrowing the employment gap, safeguarding those disabled people in work and tackling discrimination in the workplace should be a priority for policy-makers. Employment is not the only answer, however, and urgent action is also required to ensure that existing inequalities are not exacerbated in areas such as social care provision, benefit eligibility and quality of life.”

The TUC also reported in 2011 ( Disability and Work) that no further progress had been made in improving the number of disabled people in work since 2008 and that:

“People with mental illness issues have an employment rate of little more than 10 per cent and people identified as having severe or specific learning difficulties only 15 per cent. Disabled people are disproportionately likely to have fewer qualifications, as a result of discrimination faced during childhood, and only 18 per cent of disabled people without qualifications have jobs.”

A Qualitative Study Exploring Employers’ Recruitment Behaviour and Decisions: Small and Medium Enterprises, was published in 2011 by the DWP and considers the employment of disabled people in the context of employer attitudes. In addition to mentioning the Leonard Cheshire Society Scotland’s findings in the 2006 study mentioned above, it also says, setting the scene:

“Employers are part of the wider population of the UK and hence subject to the same dominant discourses and prejudices around disability, which research has found can arise from misconceptions, ignorance and poor understanding about health conditions and impairments (see for example, Grey et al., 2009; Grewal et al., 2002).”

“Previous research on employers’ attitudes to disabled people highlights that employers can perceive disabled people to be more of a health and safety risk than non-disabled people and to be less productive. Employers may also be reluctant to confront the wider discriminatory attitudes of staff (Duckett, 2000). In the UK, Kelly et al. (2005) found that small employers thought that provided a disabled person ‘could do the job’ they might be recruited. The authors also found however that employers held the perception (rather than having gained experience) that people with what they termed ‘severe’ sensory, physical or psychological impairments would be the most difficult to employ because of worries about reduced efficiency and potential disruption to the workplace. Employers in some small companies have been found to have very narrow perceptions of disabled workers as wheelchair users and people with physical impairments (DRC, 2004)”.

“Research further suggests that employers perceive a range of barriers to making workplace adjustments, including the financial implications of doing so, the nature of the work premises and possible resentment from other staff members (Kelly et al., 2005).”

“Other research highlights that perceptions of whether disabled people would be able to fulfil a role depends on what exactly is involved in that role. For example, physical impairments were considered more of a barrier by employers in transport companies than they were by employers in IT based businesses (Stevens, 2002).”

This Report considered SME attitudes in some detail but only used a very small sample of 30 SMEs and chose them from among businesses advertising through Jobcentre Plus and local newspapers. The Report formed the basis of recommendations made to the DWP. It found a failure among some to appreciate the meaning of disability in the context of the DDA and that employers were more worried about people with “health conditions” and mental illness because they considered them to be unreliable than they were about people with what they considered “disabilities” such as people in wheelchairs and/or with missing limbs. SMEs reported that they didn’t feel that they had enough information about “health conditions” to be able to assess their impact on the job. They also felt the need to get the best possible value from employees during a recession. They believed that they couldn’t get this from disabled employees and that hiring disabled employees could create resentment in existing staff, who were expected to feel that the disabled employee wasn’t pulling their weight. It’s not surprising then that one of the recommendations in the summary to the Report is:

“concerns about productivity could, it might be suggested, be tackled by the policy suggestions made above. Educating the wider society about the capabilities of disabled people and about health conditions may help to tackle discriminatory attitudes based on ignorance.”

Where disabled people had been hired by SMEs interviewed in the study, they were candidates who:

“were thought to have stable and manageable conditions and to be able to ‘do the job’ without any adaptations being made”.

I was also interested to note that in this study, outside of the legal profession, SMEs reported that they were more likely to consider adjustments to hours worked than physical adjustments or adjustments to the job description for disabled candidates (my impression, from the examples running through the Report and the method of selection is that the SMEs selected for the survey weren’t “professions”).

The Report found a lack of awareness of existing schemes such as Disability Employment Advisers in Jobcentre Plus and the availability of financial help in order to assist the employer in making adjustments. The summary of the SMEs’ concerns and the recommendations for the DWP is contained on page 49.

The economic context at the time the study was carried out is, at best, unchanged now. I’d go as far as to say it is worse. The Report says:

“employers’ recruitment decisions are made with a consideration of the economic and labour market context which can be seen to act to constrain their choices in relation to the recruitment of disabled people. Employers focus on flexibility, maintaining productivity, lowering costs and maintaining and increasing profit margins and it is this labour market context that drives the employers’ quest for the best person for the job, or someone who can ‘do the job’. To this end they argued that they would consider a disabled applicant for an employment position on the same basis as anyone else. One interpretation of this finding might suggest that such a labour market context can be seen to demand more of disabled people in that they do not just have to be as good as their non-disabled counterparts, but in some cases, they need to outperform them. This poses questions as to the ability of DWP policy to influence this wider context: to make business less competitive, increase profit margins and mitigate the effects of the recession.”

One of the measures suggested to deal with SMEs’ expectation that disabled candidates need to have better skills than able bodied candidates to mitigate the effects of their disability is to “invest in the education and training of disabled people”. In particular, it says that:

“this might be especially so for people who may have been on Incapacity Benefit or ESA for some amount of time.”

I’ve checked Hansard (searching against disability discrimination) from the publication of this Report right up to date and, as far as I can see (I also searched through Google), the Government have provided no new answers on discrimination since the Report. The Government has made a great deal of its £320 million “investment” in disabled people but that money is directed at a scheme solely focussed on individual disabled people and doesn’t address the broad problem of discrimination. In fact, in the DWP’s response to the Consultation on the Sayce Review (The Government’s response to the specialist disability employment programme consultation), the issue of employers’ attitudes to disability was given one page:

“There were few suggestions for improving or changing specialist disability employment support that were not covered by any of the existing questions. One of the most common was the need to tackle society’s negative attitude towards disability, which was felt to act as a barrier to disabled people fully participating in the labour market. Some respondents cited the need for better engagement with employers and training, as well as incentivising organisations to employ a disabled person. Often this was felt an essential component to improve upon if the changes proposed in this consultation are to prove successful.”

That’s it. That’s all they said, despite their own previous report and the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission had also published a report in the interim acknowledging the need to deal with discrimination in order to ensure disabled people have access to work (to be honest with you, that report is a 108 page word document and I’ve only skimmed it thus far a lot of reading has gone into this post!).

The DWP Response to the Consultation on the Sayce Review was published on 7 March 2012. A week previously, the Human Rights Joint Committee had reported on the Implementation of the Right of Disabled People to Independent Living It’s likely I’ll come back to that report in another context in another post but, for now I’ll just draw your attention to the section in which it acknowledged:

“The most recent evidence, from the ODI’s Life Opportunities Survey, confirms that… 16% of adults with impairments experienced barriers to education and training, 57% experienced barriers to employment (compared with 26% of those without impairments), 75% experienced barriers to using transport (compared with 60%), 44% of households with at least one person with an impairment experienced barriers to economic life and living standards (compared with 29%) and 82% experienced barriers in leisure, social and cultural activities (compared with 78%).

We note the significant disadvantage to disabled people which persists in relation to choice and control and levels of participation in economic and social life and the impact this has on their economic and social well-being, and on what many of our witnesses considered to be their enjoyment of basic human rights. We therefore welcome the Government’s recognition that more progress is required to promote disabled people’s right to independent living.”

I believe ATOS is causing unnecessary harm by claiming that people are fit to work when they’re not but I also believe that, even if the DWP put their and ATOS’ house in order in relation to WCAs, we would still find that the majority of those assessed as capable of working would either not be able to find work at all or not work up to their skills capacity. They face discrimination and negative stereotyping at a time when able bodied people are losing their jobs and struggling to get back into work. My blood is absolutely boiling over this issue. I was exceptionally lucky that my job was left open for me to return to after my own period on Incapacity Benefit. That was five years ago. I can honestly say, I don’t think I’d have ever worked as a lawyer again if I hadn’t been able to go back into that job. As it is, it often feels like a trap because I “strive” and I “aspire” and it feels like I will forever be held back and pinned to this one position in this one job so how are people who have been unable to work for years going to find work? All disabled people struggle against able bodied people in the jobs market. My experience has been that, although more recruitment agents are willing to try to argue my case on my behalf now than five years ago, there has been no real improvement among employers. On the broader stage, there has reportedly been some improvement for graduates. More disabled graduates find work within six months of graduating than previously. However, every other statistic I’ve seen suggests this is an anomaly. I suspect that this improvement has much more to do with the support graduates now receive from the careers services within the universities themselves than an overall improvement in the attitudes of employers. I’d be interested to know the outcomes for people when they try to find a new job without the safety net of a dedicated careers service.

If the Government wants to be taken seriously when it claims that it only wants disabled people to have better lives and that that disabled people will feel better if they are working, it must stop the rhetoric which reinforces negative stereotyping. It must enforce disability discrimination laws. It must educate but it must also come down hard on anyone who fails to offer a disabled candidate a level playing field. I’m waiting but I’m not optimistic.

Proper consideration of disability discrimination should be one element of a full impact assessment over changes to disability benefits. If you want to support the campaign calling for a full impact assessment, visit Wow Petition.

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