Tag Archives: disability discrimination

Disability Confident

#disabilityconfident gave me pause. It made me reflect on where I am now. I spent a decade from the age of 17 fighting my own suspicion that what was wrong with me was mostly that I was just weak. I was making a fuss about nothing. I had a gp during my first few working years who would just ask me how stressed I was at work every time I saw him. Underneath my efforts to get a diagnosis and treatment there was always the sense that maybe I was just weak and lazy. I didn’t, not for one second, see myself as disabled or becoming disabled during that period.

Things changed in 2004. They got dramatically worse in fact. I couldn’t work any more. Suddenly being disabled became something I had to admit to in the course of battling for the insurance monies which would save my home and my job (the DWP didn’t give me any trouble at all over Incapacity Benefit). I wasn’t at all confident about having a disability. I was called faking, lazy and self indulgent over the next nine years, even after returning to work after a three year absence having taken the risk of racking up thousands in debt to skip the long waiting list and have surgery privately. Fortunately, there were also healthcare professionals telling me the opposite. I had serious problems. I was working as hard as anyone could to deal with them. And, ultimately I had to accept it too, this was a permanent state of affairs. When my employers were the ones challenging my work ethic, I also had the praise of clients, who had no idea what was going on in the background and thanked me for the quality of my work, my diligence and my care for them. They never knew most of my self esteem was bound up in them at that point.

It was to be three years before I learned that the worst series of meetings, at the height of the financial crisis when fee income had dropped across the whole firm, mirrored meetings with other people in my department. My disability was a stick they used to “motivate” me, while other solicitors were also being threatened in other less personal ways. I found out because they stuck to this “management technique” and I ended up talking about it with a colleague. It was only when he filled me in on what had happened to the others that I found the courage to say that I was out performing full time employees and they’d better be ready to let those people go if they came after me. They’d been right, you see. I’d felt guilty and inadequate that I couldn’t put more hours in. Their focus on my disability isolated me.

Almost a year to the day ago I found out I was being laid off in the course of a merger (ironically the redundancy process was the first time I ever heard my employers openly acknowledge that I had a disability at all!). I’d just written a long, statistic heavy blog post on the challenges facing disabled jobseekers. All of us, regardless of qualifications, are at a massive disadvantage in the jobs market. By that time I’d spent years pushing myself to the point of collapse, just to keep my job. I’d tried and failed to find a new one after being directly threatened with dismissal for my “lifestyle choice” of needing to work part time. My routine a year ago was completely geared to surviving until I could change that one thing: my job. I had nothing left over. Quality of life is such a relative concept. For some people even breathing unaided is impossible. For me, the single biggest impact of my disability was that a “work/life balance” became impossible.

Last Spring I wrote a post about the advantages of being temporarily unemployed with chronic back pain. It was stressful, don’t get me wrong, but my body was absolutely desperate for the three month break I got and although I only had statutory redundancy, it was enough to see me through that period. I did find a new job and it’s one where I’m working hours I can cope with. Nobody in my new job’s suggesting I’m overstating the problem. Nobody’s asking for more than I can give. Nobody’s criticising me for having a life outside the office. There’s no guilt or shame attached. Physically it didn’t all fall into place immediately – when I started the new job I had a long commute for the first few months, along with very little secretarial cover – but the three month rest beforehand helped.

Then one day I realised my life had changed immeasurably. I have energy for more than just work. It’s a confusing luxury to actually get to make lifestyle choices. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this new power over my own life yet but at least I can see now that I have some. I’ve realised how much my life has changed for the better, if I let it. And emotionally? I’m finally in a place where it’s fine to just be me. I don’t have to talk about it or justify it. Having a disability isn’t part of a battle anymore. It’s just something that is. It’s taken for granted by the people around me and that is what makes it possible to be confident about it.

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Benefits Britain

I got quite upset watching Benefits Britain last night and reading the comments about it on Twitter. So many people on Twitter were calling Karen a lazy scrounger. Nobody could stand her. Nor could I but that doesn’t mean I think she’s faking. There was a lot of sympathy for Melvyn and Craig but I saw none for Karen outside the WOW circle. I have chronic pain and even I had precious little sympathy for her because she was so whiny and I just didn’t like her (I appreciate she has several conditions but I’m going to focus on chronic pain here for obvious reasons). I felt let down by Channel 4’s choice of person to represent invisible disabilities. It seems people saw Karen as ignoble and obnoxious. She wasn’t bearing the conditions she has with “quiet dignity”. There’s no law saying people with disabilities have to be likeable though. It’s not a condition of entitlement to benefits either. It’s like the convention that people diagnosed with cancer suddenly become angels on the day they’re diagnosed. Two words: Lance Armstrong. It often seems like the public wants disabled people it can admire and pity in equal measure. People want heroes overcoming all odds, like Paralympians. They want Tiny Tim. But, when all’s said and done, disabled people are just people: good, bad, indifferent, imperfect people.

Karen was criticised for her answers during the work assessment, particularly for saying it hurt to lift a potato. Only Karen knows the truth of what hurts and how much. Not Twitter, not me. Watching Karen, I understood where her responses could be coming from. It’s hard to answer questions in an assessment when you have chronic pain. Many people with chronic pain can perform a lot of different actions once, on the day, but if they do it without giving feedback that it hurts or that they couldn’t do it repeatedly they run the risk the assessor will note that they’re always capable of doing it when the reality is that they might have a flare up tomorrow from doing it once and might cause a long term deterioration in their condition if they tried to do it regularly.

I believe Karen’s report that the pain increased when she picked up the potato – she pointed to the outside of her arm when she said it and I get increased pain from even lightweight lifting there too, although it’s a small and fleeting increase. If I thought her response was excessive at all, it was because the rules of the game say it’s unwise to remark on an increase in pain for such a minor action, assuming her increase in pain was relatively small. Doing so runs the risk that the assessor (whether a pure medical assessment or DWP one) will say you’re exaggerating and/or affected by psychosocial issues. Exaggeration is what viewers tweeting negatively apparently thought. Karen didn’t say it hurt a lot, just that it hurt, but that was enough to generate a lot of negative tweets.

I don’t know what happened to Karen before she was diagnosed with the conditions she has. Maybe it was a smooth ride from initial appointment to diagnosis. Maybe it was a pitched battle. I suspect that at some point it was a pitched battle because I’ve seen the frustration she exhibited over not being believed before. People suffering from chronic pain have to walk a path through the healthcare system but it sometimes seems like an invisible path. Say too little and you don’t really need help. Say too much and a diagnosis of depression is as likely as tests to find a physical cause for the pain. I’ve never had that happen to me but I spent over three years under one particular GP who seemed to think that I was too fragile a flower for the legal profession, that the pain was all in my head and induced by stress, while throughout that time a disc causing debilitating pain was growing ever more (as the surgeon later put it) rotten and my muscles were being put under strain, forced to compensate, in ways I haven’t recovered from yet and may not ever. I can see judgements being made by doctors on an person who comes off as abrasively as Karen and I can see her becoming more and more abrasive as a result.

If she’s defensive, even allowing for the possibility she might always have been unlikeable, it may be because she’s been made to feel like a liar so many times that she can’t help it. I don’t have to like her to understand it because I’ve been through the “I can’t fucking win” feeling. In one mind boggling case, an insurer’s assessment concluded that the surgeon who diagnosed a degenerative disc was just a trigger happy scalpel jockey who enjoyed cutting people up way too much for his diagnosis to be trusted. I paraphrase, but only barely. The surgeon was absolutely livid.

If Karen has been on benefits for some time, this could also be relevant to how she answers. When I made my first Incapacity Benefit claim I rang for guidance on completing the form because some of my symptoms fluctuate. The questions were similar to what Karen was asked, with multiple choice answers. I was quite clearly told, “tell us how it is on your worst days, not how it is today.” I don’t know what the DWP currently says but that’s the rule a long term recipient of Incapacity Benefit would be used to.

Among the tweets were some saying Karen was physically capable of doing a desk job involving typing if it wasn’t for her fake nails. I’m not going to get into how she spends her money but being in pain all the time can drag you down and it’s not controversial to say,  “find pleasure in the small things.” It’s a topic you might find on chronic pain forums and my pain clinic says to find things which make you happy. The small things can take many forms. Mine include star gazing, watching the wildlife and my cats but there’s another one that makes me think maybe this is why Karen has such cheerful nails. I mentioned in my last post I usually pick clothes to wear which reflect or enhance my own happiness. I started doing that after surgery, with a dazzling and mood lightening array of different coloured vests and pj bottoms.  Rather than carping at Karen, could we consider the possibility that she deserves one thing in her daily life that takes her mind off the pain in the moment she looks at her brightly painted nails?

One of the factors taken into consideration when determining if a person’s pain is “all in their head” or exacerbated by psychosocial issues is their appearance. Someone who makes no effort could have it held against them by an assessor (even the underwear you wear gets judged. Plain cotton is the best way to go. That’s not just personal opinion: I’ve read academic papers on the subject…on psychosocial issues, not undies generally!). In a medical context, bright multi-coloured fingernails could suggest someone who is not just making an effort but who has a sunnier nature than the stress of a medical appointment might display. When it comes to work assessments, this is another no-win situation though. Make too little effort and the same negative conclusions could be drawn. Make too great an effort and, just like the viewers who tweeted on this, the assessor could take it as a sign you’re less impaired than you’ve said in your forms.

Speaking of appearance, the “potato incident” suggested something about her appearance to me. Styling my hair hurts a lot in that part of the arm and in my shoulder. I used to hate my curls and only learned to love them after I realised by blow drying I was putting myself through unnecessary strain. Now I only blow dry my fringe (which, again, I love now but only had put in last summer after my hair temporarily thinned after a large number of steroid injections were administered in one go). It hurts even to do that. Often even lifting my arms to put my hair in a ponytail hurts. I think about Karen’s cornrows and wonder if she’d always have chosen them, whether she’s happier with them than if she was still able to tame her own (probably much tighter) curls (if she did before), whether she’s come to terms with losing a measure of control over her own appearance.

Back to the question of her ability to do a sedentary typing job. A reminder in case anyone reading this is new. I do work. I work part time. It hurts like hell every single working day. It hurt like hell to write this on my mobile even though I wrote it in chunks. I didn’t catch which part(s) of Karen’s back are affected because I missed the start of the programme, although that one little mention of pain in her arm that provoked so much fury suggests to me that typing could be out of the question. The chronic nature of her pain is also relevant. Doctors now know that, regardless of what the underlying cause of chronic pain is, pain begets pain. I’ve been told several times that by living in a daily “pattern of pain” where I peak and trough throughout each day of my normal working life instead of having the more normal non-pattern of good days and bad days (flare ups), I’m risking making my body’s ability to process pain worse as well as risking joints and muscles. That’s what Twitter (and the Daily Mail, of course) could be demanding Karen should do. But then, I didn’t see Channel 4 explain to viewers what strain different types of work would put on someone like Karen by modern medical standards or how chronic pain itself affects her body. Did I miss it? Channel 4 got the “money shot” of her refusing to do the work experience they were offering. In the context of the show, I thought she made the wrong choice. It’s one day. She’d probably have a flare up afterwards but it’d settle down again. That’s not to say she’s fit to work in the real world, just that I wish she’d stopped to think about the image she was putting out there.

Channel 4, you let us down. You hurt me. It’s your fault if people with invisible disabilities felt like Twitter was rounding on us during and after your programme. It’s your fault for not acknowledging prejudices and ensuring you had three people with similar personalities. It’s your fault for casting a wicked witch for dramatic effect. You know what, Channel 4? I hate you a little for that. I really do. There is one thing Channel 4 could do now to help the people it hurt by broadcasting this. Presumably it verified Karen’s medical conditions before making the show and verified their impact on her. It would be the sensible thing to have done. If it did, it should make a statement to that effect on the news and both before and after next week’s programme.

Notes:
For more on perceptions of people with invisible disabilities, I’d (not very humbly) recommend Looking Good: Invisible Disabilities where I picked out quotes from a study on the subject.

The programme mentioned rates of employment of disabled people in 1949 and today. The high rate of employment in 1949 wouldn’t have included Karen. For a detailed review of disability discrimination in the jobs market today I would (even less humbly) recommend How many elephants can you get in the DWP where I reported on the avalanche of evidence I found on the scale of disability discrimination and the fact that the Government isn’t doing enough to change things.

The Glass Ground Floor

I was asked about going into a law career with an invisible disability by someone currently studying for a law degree. He asked about my own condition – everything here is based on my experiences and is relevant to people with invisible disabilities. For a more general discussion of disability discrimination, including statistics, I’d recommend going back to look at How many elephants can you get in the DWP (most links in it are pdfs). I also spoke about my own experiences with recruitment in that post. Here, I’m concentrating on becoming a solicitor. I’ve got deterioration in several joints in my spine, among other things. I’m in pain 24/7 and sedentary working exacerbates things. I was talking to a friend recently in a more joking context about what it’d be like to be 18 again and this question reminds me of that. If I’d known then what I know now about how bad my health was going to get, I’d probably still have qualified as a solicitor. I love the law. It’s that simple for me. But I can’t in all conscience give other people suffering from a chronic condition the impression it’s going to be easy. I wish I could but the truth is that anyone whose condition affects their ability to do desk based work will struggle.

In terms of physical challenges, trainee solicitors are expected to do their own typing (as, increasingly, are qualified solicitors), although if your condition is a disability within the meaning of the Equalities Act you can ask for secretarial support as a reasonable adjustment to enable you to do the job. Some firms may argue that it isn’t a reasonable adjustment as it adds to the cost of training you, although it’s not as if you’d have a secretary all to yourself. If a firm has any outsourcing arrangements in place for typing, they may be more amenable to this adjustment. I’m not sure if the Access to Work Scheme (see below) covers this kind of cost but I need extra secretarial support (consistency of availability is the problem in my experience) as a result of my condition so I’ll report back on this point once my application’s determined. Speech recognition software is, theoretically, a cheaper alternative but I’ve found that proofreading work involves nearly as much strain on my mid back as just typing would (because of sitting with my hands in a “ready” position to type as I play back dictation).

Because training contracts aren’t permanent positions, firms may also feel that it’s not reasonable to expect them to buy ergonomic equipment you need – that would depend on things like the size of the firm, the cost of the equipment and its potential for being reused if you’re not kept on at the end of the contract. The Access to Work Scheme, under which the DWP pays for equipment, covers temporary as well as permanent jobs though – I’m only just using it for the first time myself and plan to blog on it once I’ve jumped through the hoops, which I hope won’t be flaming. This help with the cost of adjustments could make a difference to your chances (although if you’re in the unfortunate position of having all of the symptoms which make you disabled without a firm diagnosis, I’m not sure what the outcome of an Access to Work application would be). What you need to remember is that an adjustment legally being reasonable won’t necessarily be reflected in the attitudes of hiring firms. You could fight your corner. You’re entitled to but I’ve always been the wary of rocking the boat. Even if you have a potential claim for discrimination, would you do anything about it? I’d say it’s best to think about what you need (although I appreciate that’s not easy unless you’ve had a functional capacity assessment) and be prepared to discuss it in as positive a manner as possible. Other lawyers might disagree with me here but I think that if you go into an interview only prepared to list your needs, without anticipating their objections to them, you’ll be more likely to find they just dismiss them out of hand. Equally, they’ll be put off if you make demands without being willing and able to see their side (even if they’re in the wrong, they may deduct “character points” if they don’t like the way you argue your case).

A training contract also tends to involve at least 6 months in a Litigation seat, where you’ll be hauling a wheelie case of files around on a regular basis and travelling to court hearings (as county courts are being closed down, there’s probably more travel than there was when I was a trainee). Part of the reason I moved away from pursuing a career as a criminal solicitor was that I physically couldn’t cope with the pace of being on duty 10 nights a month, running around London police stations day and night. That was 14 years ago. If you’re doing a law degree, it’s a good idea to bear that kind of thing in mind when choosing your elective subjects. Litigation tends to be a really popular seat with other trainees so you could mention to a firm that you’d be willing to do three seats, or just do a short “crash course” seat in Litigation, and let other trainees extend their own Litigation seats. Whether that would work depends on how flexible the firm is. In my firm, we were literally given highlighters and graph paper and told to sort our seats out between ourselves so we all got more experience in the areas we were most interested in.

If you need to work part time, you should also bear in mind that your two year training contract will be extended until you’ve put in two years worth of training, based on the number of full time hours involved.

The competition for training contracts is brutal. There are far more law graduates than there are places and there’s no guarantee that a trainee will be kept on by their firm when they qualify. An able bodied graduate needs a minimum of a 2:1 to stand a chance. My experience as a qualified disabled solicitor is that even a first class degree hasn’t been enough to overcome the impact of my needing to work part time to manage my disability for most firms. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that a university could help you to make a case that you should get preferred treatment for extenuating circumstances, in terms of your academic grades but I have to admit I don’t know the extent to which you might be able to do that so I’d recommend talking to your university about it asap, even if you’re on course for a 2:1. If you’re a mature student and your condition has meant there are gaps in your employment history, they should also be able to help you to deal with this in your applications.

A fairly small number of firms have agreed to positively discriminate but I believe a certain amount of cherry picking goes on in the recruitment of disabled candidates (and wider studies outside the legal profession support this). Someone with a well known, “stable” condition (eg blindness) is perceived as a safer choice by recruiters than someone with a fluctuating long term, potentially degenerative, condition. Because of this, I’d think long and hard before declaring you have a disability on an application. I know someone who didn’t declare she had lupus until it started interfering with her job a few years later. I didn’t declare I was disabled when I was applying for a training contract because I didn’t appreciate I was – I’d been led to believe by doctors that everything I was experiencing was normal – so it never even occurred to me to ask for adjustments to reduce the impact of my problems. I just ploughed ahead as if my actions wouldn’t make my condition worse. Now things are different. If, like me, you feel you have to declare because you’ll need major adjustments like working part time, you need to be careful about how you do it. One problem with having an invisible condition involving chronic pain is that it often takes years to get a proper diagnosis and there’s a lot of stigma around it. Law firms are just as susceptible as anyone else to asking inappropriate questions about your condition. With or without diagnosis, you need to be prepared for uncomfortable, unenlightened questions and if you’ve been put through the mill by previous employers, the benefits system and/or doctors, it’s really important to have prepared a non-defensive, straight forward response to questions.

You might be told by a careers service that you can use your disability to demonstrate determination in the face of adversity. Except to the extent you might need to go down the extenuating circumstances road in relation to grades, I wouldn’t do this for something like chronic back problems or a condition involving chronic fatigue. People tend to make assumptions like their fortnight with a bad back tells them all they need to know about chronic back pain, for example, so few will really begin to understand or acknowledge your strength. Also, any law firm’s priority is chargeable hours, no matter how much their website tries to pretty things up. If you can’t put in as many hours as the next competent (and presumably motivated) candidate, I don’t think arguing you have greater strength of character is likely to help matters (unless you’re asked a direct question along those lines – I was once asked how I managed to get a first despite my problems. I was so unprepared for question that I drawled “yeah, I’m just that good”!). What does help is if you can point to specific examples of how you’ve been able to perform well despite your limitations. This is a gentle way of letting recruitment agents and hirers know they’re making wrong assumptions! For example, I’m able to say I have a high level of client satisfaction despite working part time and that I’ve successfully worked part time for several years, which challenges their assumption that a Commercial solicitor simply can’t work part time because the clients won’t stand for it.

In terms of practice areas, Conveyancing and Probate both involve a fair bit of procedural standardisation, using a lot of template letters, and that could work better for you physically speaking than Commercial or Litigation in terms of the typing (and web browsing – don’t forget most legal research is done online). You’re probably more likely to find a part time role doing Probate than any other area of work as well, due to solicitors’ perceptions of what their clients expect from them. A major problem with Litigation is that you don’t get to pick Court dates or filing deadlines. Even if you’re willing and able to be flexible to accommodate this, it’s not really fair on clients if they never know what days you’re working. It’s not necessarily impossible. I’d say it’s very dependent on the size of firm, the particular area you work in and how the firm uses Counsel. If you’re interested in Litigation, work experience where you could discuss this would probably be a good idea.

Looking at your options after qualifying, you’re right that is possible to work as a sole practitioner but I wouldn’t call it an easy option and you aren’t allowed to run your own firm until you’ve got a few years experience as an employed solicitor under your belt. Once you have, you’d have the normal challenges of a start up business eg. indemnity insurance, access to resources like precedents and, of course, build up a client following. As with working as an employed solicitor, if typing is an issue you’d also need to have good speech recognition software or a secretarial service (which can be outsourced). You’d also need to create your own suitable workspace. There are also some areas where I’d say that it’s no longer feasible to expect to work as a sole practitioner – Conveyancing would be a no go because the Banks wouldn’t be prepared to give you instructions. Legal Aid work would also be out (and, frankly would involve expending so much energy for the rate you’d be paid that I doubt you’d cope physically). There are alternatives to going it completely alone. On the Commercial side of things, you can work as a consultant through a scheme like Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers on Demand scheme but I’m not sure if they take very junior people (I’d be surprised if they do). There are also networks of sole practitioner Commercial solicitors you could join once you’ve got some experience.

If you’re interested in Commercial law, working as in house counsel is another option but they aren’t usually much more amenable to flexible working than law firms and may have less secretarial support. Recruitment agents’ views on this vary. One even emailed to say that in eight years placing in house candidates, she’d only been able to find work for two part timers. I’m sure that’s true for her but there is a slight shift occurring. Some smaller companies might welcome the right candidate on a part time basis to cut spending on external lawyers but you’d need to build up experience elsewhere to become attractive to them. You also need to watch out for travel requirements. If you’re going to have to regularly travel abroad or around the UK, that may be a poor fit for you.

Another way of working in house would be to use your degree as a jumping off point to gaining qualifications as a company secretary.

For a long time, the public sector was the best place for lawyers wanting to work part time and had the best record on hiring disabled people generally. There have been serious cuts in public sector lawyer numbers in recent years but there are still training contracts available. Unfortunately, the nature of the beast means that your options when it comes to local authority training contracts are limited unless you can relocate. If you need to work shorter hours, that may also be more difficult in the current climate, where the emphasis is on getting more bang for their buck – cutting staff numbers without cutting the workload. A law degree could also open the door to non-lawyer public sector jobs. It’s worth considering whether your interests could take you in a slightly different direction in the public sector.

Another alternative is to work as a locum. Other disabled lawyers have suggested that to me (and locum work does sometimes lead to a permanent position) but you’d still need to get qualified and get experience under your belt before being considered a “safe pair of hands”. Also, locums I know are willing to commute up to a couple of hours to get to work during an assignment. For me, the driving alone would be too much to cope with. Another potential issue is that some people have some funny ideas of how conditions which cause chronic pain work. They think working full time for six months has the same impact on your body as working half time for a year. Speaking for myself, that’s absolute nonsense and if you push yourself hard for the length of an assignment, you do run the risk of doing longer term harm, both in relation to any underlying condition and by making the pain itself more intractable.

Job sharing is a theoretical possibility but I’m seeing few signs of it being available in my practice area. What seems to happen with part time, flexitime and job sharing is that firms reluctantly make them available for existing employees (usually women with children or partners nearing retirement) and can’t wait for things to go back to normal. There are very few new openings with flexible options on the Commercial side. It’s a matter of perpetual disgust to me that each time I see a discussion on alternative hour arrangements in the Law Society Gazette, disabled people get no mention at all. The majority of the discussion is on women with children, then older fee earners and then people who want to work flexitime for religious reasons. It’s not just our disabilities that are invisible in the legal profession. It’s as if we don’t exist at all as far as this issue is concerned. Incidentally, if you’re looking at firms’ diversity tables, bear in mind that many people who develop disabilities do so late on in their career. The tables may show a fairly substantial number of disabled people but the underlying reality could be that most of them are conditions like arthritis in the older staff and that very few junior fee earners are disabled.

Given the likely difficulties getting a training contract, you could also consider working as a paralegal in the long term. When I graduated, working as a paralegal was a move people only made to tide them over until their training contract began (this does still happen and time spent as a paralegal can be put towards your training contract, although it’s not unusual for a promised training contract to not materialise) but times have changed and the profession with them (some law students aren’t going on to do the LPC now and are going straight to work as paralegals instead. You could always do the LPC part time later while working but I know able bodied people who’ve done that and it’s not an easy ask). There’s a move away from having highly experienced, high charging solicitors doing the work to getting paralegals with law degrees to do much of the less complex work. This is the case across most areas and there are jobs available in some of the new big name ventures for non-solicitors (eg. probate work for the Co-op). The advantage to that route is that there’s a better chance of getting a job but I couldn’t say whether it would be physically better for you. I doubt it, if I’m honest. If you’re a paralegal charging out at considerably less than the qualified solicitors do, the employer is even less likely to want to make allowances for adjustments like secretarial help or reduced productivity when you’re having a flare up.

I know this makes for tough reading. It was hard to write for that reason but I don’t believe we should be telling any law students that everything in the garden is blooming and that’s even more important for disabled students. Anyone hoping to become a solicitor these days needs to be determined and resilient. You’ll need those attributes more than most but it’s not impossible, particularly if you’re fairly flexible about what field you’re willing to work in. Forewarned is forearmed. Now’s the time for you to take steps to try to improve your position, while you have access to your university’s careers service. I’d strongly advise finding out if you can get onto a mentoring scheme, whether it’s targeted at disabled people or not. Even if it’s not, as long as it puts you in a position where you’re finding out more about the profession and getting to know someone who might be willing to give you a reference in due course (or even a job – you never know), it’s worth doing. In terms of support which is targeted at disabled people, there’s the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities, who run a mentoring programme. Another group which isn’t strictly for lawyers but does have lawyer members is the Association of Disabled Professionals. They can match you up with one of their members to give advice and support as well. It’s also worth checking out the Radiate scheme which puts junior disabled people in touch with senior, successful ones. I haven’t used it but it’s got to be worth a shot.

Spinning faster than Arthur with set of balls no. 2

“The law of unintended consequences is among the most potent laws in existence. Governments, for instance, often enact legislation meant to protect their most vulnerable charges but that instead end up hurting them. Consider the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was intended to safeguard disabled workers from discrimination. A noble intention, yes? Absolutely – but the data showed that the net result was fewer jobs for Americans with disabilities. Why? After the ADA became law, employers were so worried they wouldn’t be able to discipline or fire bad workers who had a disability that they avoided hiring such workers in the first place.”
Levitt & Dubner, Superfreakonomics.

They don’t cite their proof for this, which is a shame because I’d like to know the extent to which there is any. Maybe the ADA made more applicants disclose disabilities in the hopes of getting a fair shot. Maybe employers are more concerned with the (often perceived) risk of sickness absences, maybe they didn’t like the thought of paying for necessary adjustments. Maybe they just assume disability means the candidate won’t be as good at his job. UK research has demonstrated that all of these factors are relevant to disability discrimination here. It just seems to me that the idea that a significant enough number of employers cried the discrimination version of “‘elf and safety” and got the wrong end of the stick after coping for years with laws protecting against discrimination on grounds like gender and race seems more than a bit odd. It tells me less about disability discrimination than it does about putting your faith in material you read. When I find myself questioning a claim on a subject I know a bit about (and it’s fair to say I only know a bit about disability discrimination in the American context), it also makes me more skeptical of claims relating to issues I haven’t previously considered myself.

That, in turn leads me to think about lies, damned lies and statistics. The current British government and media are absolute masters in the art of twisting information and data to suit their own ends.

They use data over shorter or longer periods of time to suit their purposes (for example looking back at benefits increases over a period of 30 years because it conveniently shows that, at times, they have increased above the inflation rate).

They draw comparisons when it suits them and ignore relevant information which fails to help their case (for example saying the UK Legal Aid budget is higher than other countries while ignoring things like an increased number of criminal offences on the statute books and more complex trials for offences like terrorism in the UK or ignoring migration of British workers to other EU countries when talking about immigration or claiming work capability assessments are reducing benefits fraud because some people stop claiming ESA (which is actually used by many people who will get better and my experience was I’d have been off Incapacity Benefit faster if I hadn’t had to wait so long for medical treatment at every single step)).

They refer to increases in numbers in percentage terms over whichever period they care to pick without mentioning the underlying total number.

Equally, when it suits them, they do the opposite and talk about absolute numbers instead of percentages (for example by saying x number of people are in work and that is more than were in work at a point in time when there were less working age people in the UK).

They also avoid giving figures at all when that’s the most convenient option (for example, when talking about large families on benefits or multi-generational unemployment, it would be impossible to generate the kind of outrage against all benefits recipients and unemployed people if they told people exactly how many people fall into these two categories nationwide).

They only give part of the picture (for example, returning to employment, by not saying how many jobs are actually full time permanent jobs or by trying to avoid saying how many people became unemployed over a more relevant period of time).

They flip flop their arguments (but not necessarily their policies) when their own data turns against them like Frankenstein’s apocryphal monster (fortunately for George Osborne, he’s already got the mad scientist who’s been locked in the basement of his castle with his very own Scottish Igor, tinkering away with forces beyond his comprehension bit down pat).

They spin the ever loving crap out of the data they can’t avoid (hurrah: we’ve avoided the first ever British triple dip. Let’s conveniently ignore we’ve failed to meet our targets and that the technical economists’ definition of a recession has little relevance to people who are suffering as a result of our failures anyway).

They talk about “real terms cuts” when it suits them (for example in party political broadcasts in the run up to local elections) and absolute increases when the fact that there is actually a real terms cut would be unpalatable to the public (for example increases in the minimum wage, benefits and national average salaries).

They’re willing to discuss anecdotal evidence when it suits them (for example, to support the argument that migrant EU workers are “stealing” British resources) but refuse to take them seriously when they don’t (for example when confronted with real stories about real people harmed by social security reforms).

In short: their data stands up to so little scrutiny that it’s easier to take every new statistic as “shit we made up because you’re gullible enough to lap it up”. By using numbers to make their case, they take many people in. I don’t know if the problem has gotten worse under the current government or whether we just have more ways of catching them out. Thank God for the Freedom of Information Act and the rise in fact check blogs. Believe it or not, I wrote everything up to this point last weekend. It was with a sense of deep satisfaction that I saw that a complaint against Iain Duncan Smith was upheld by the UK Statistics Authority. Every time they spin statistics, politicians are doing it for one reason: to make it easier to do what they want to do. Those of us who oppose those plans would say that they’re deliberately trying to hide the truth in order to ensure that the silent majority stay silent. “Go about your business [if it hasn’t been closed down as a consequence of our awful economic policies]. Nothing to see here. This doesn’t concern you. All will be well for you.” The problem is that complaints like mine often sound like the paranoid ranty left, which is why it’s enormously important that when it’s possible to catch them lying, going beyond their usual obfuscation, that’s done and widely reported.

Update 29 May 2013
A cross party committee has urged Government to present statistics in a more honest way.

Update 2 June 2013
This article from the Guardian addresses the bare faced lies and proposes it’s time to get tougher on politicians who lie about statistics.

Inspiring lip service?

I read an article just after the Paralympics which said the media weren’t supposed to call Paralympic athletes inspiring. The recent treatment of Tanni Gray Thompson in relation to the Sport England post reminded me of it. The directive to the media to censor themselves seemed odd when the slogan of both Games was inspire a generation. I should add that when the head of the IPC, the magnificently down to earth Philip Craven, heard about this directive he was unimpressed. Olympic athletes don’t inspire me because they’re too far removed from my life experience. Paralympic athletes, on the other hand, include people with degenerative and spinal conditions and I’m conscious that they compete on the basis that they only compete against people whose disability has a similar overall impact on doing their sport. I can relate to that, even if my experience and reading tells me it’s the exception, rather than the norm, for disabled people to be given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field outside sport.

I’m not without sympathy for the position that able bodied people calling Paralympic athletes inspiring is a bad thing. There is legitimate cause for concern that society tends to demonise many disabled people whilst treating a few like heroes. There is a real risk that people, most of whose medical understanding of disability probably ranks at about year 7 level (I’m applying a similar test to that of a person’s French comprehension years after taking their GCSEs when making that estimate), are unable to begin to understand how and why some disabled people can compete. Channel 4 did a great job of explaining classifications but what the public as a whole need is to understand why a person may be able to do one thing and not another as a result of their disability, even if the thing they can do seems more challenging than the thing they can’t to the able bodied observer. As my own osteopath said, I could potentially compete (I’m a very fast swimmer) because my short muscles are stronger than normal – they have to be to compensate for the weak long muscles which don’t do their job of keeping me upright. Yet, sit me in a chair for 10 mins… We concluded that participating in the Paralympics might well be less painful than being a spectator was! How many people know enough about the structure of the back to understand that?

It’s also true that there can be something rather patronising and hypocritical in all the talk of inspiration, and not just from politicians. I saw hypocrisy from able bodied people, even during the Games. The misuse of the term “inspirational” does offend me. It offends me when it’s used in a context which somehow ends up being derogatory – think “plucky” – and when it’s used by people who thoughtlessly throw it out there because it’s the done thing but don’t reflect the fact that they’ve been “inspired” by their actions. That said, I think it’s also patronising to dictate politically correct rules about what positive wording can be used to a media which often uses extremely negative language in relation to disabled people – compared to that why would we censor the rare occasions when they’re saying something positive?. Did anyone suggest terms people can’t use about Olympians? The problem really lies in the fact that, whatever words you use, attitudes to disability need to change in order for the words, whatever they may be, to be anything other than hollow.

The Games made a difference me and it’s not just because of the Paralympians. The crowds of disabled people who made the trip to London did too. Most of the time strangers can’t tell I have a disability but when my walking and balance go, you can’t miss it. In crowds, when I do need the walking stick, I tend to gaze into the distance so I don’t see people’s reactions. Going to the Paralympics was the first time I didn’t feel uncomfortable with needing a walking stick and being so slow. Ultimately, the shift in my perception of myself and my disability was the key factor behind my getting more active in the disability debate on twitter and writing a blog which, while not exclusively devoted to disability rights, does give them a fair bit of space.

My experience (and others might disagree with me based on their own experience) is that disabled people don’t tend to gather together very much outside of hospitals and clinics, unless it’s to protest about things like benefits reform. There are lots of potential reasons I suppose. The main one is probably just that we’re just muddling on with life – I wouldn’t have the energy for something like that anyway. Within the medical context, I’ve found attending a clinic with other people whose conditions also result in chronic pain helpful. It’s been more helpful to me to get to know other people like me than to hear what the clinical staff have to say (which isn’t to say I get nothing from the clinical side but quite a few of us are old hands when it comes to the technical stuff). Another factor, though, which contributes to the fact that we don’t see disabled people gathering in large groups may be that it’s harder for many disabled people to stand tall (except for people with rods in their back!) because of the way we’re treated. I’m thinking in terms of something like a disabled equivalent to gay pride. To use another example to make the point (because people are dimwitted enough to say it about sexuality), when it comes to something like race, nobody is dimwitted enough to suggest that it’s within the power of the individual to change it or that they should try to do so. The same thing can’t be said of disability. There are plenty of people calling disabled people lazy, workshy etc. I’ve been subjected to that kind of thing in the workplace, including the accusation that I’m making a lifestyle choice. It can be hard when the reality is that you simply aren’t as productive in terms of hours worked than the next person not to feel criticism is deserved. Even after counselling, after the accusations being made against me got too much, I still felt ashamed of what I couldn’t do. My clinic visits helped. It’s awful to say it but knowing other people are treated just as badly helps when you’re being bullied into feelings of inadequacy. The Paralympics were genuinely a turning point for me though. The Paralympics weren’t political but they did say, of athletes and supporters, we’re people too. We have hopes and ambitions, we work at least as hard as anyone else and we deserve to be proud. Some people seemed at the time to have heard the message but it seems as if they forgot it pretty quickly and haven’t been ‘inspired’ to do more than pay lip service to it.

The fact that the PIP reforms rolled onwards with very little opposition from the able bodied majority in the UK speaks volumes. Athletes aren’t normally considered political but the very same Paralympians who had, supposedly, so inspired able bodied people last year were about to be hit by the reforms too when Channel 4’s Dispatches about how PIP will affect Paralympians aired. I thought was a good idea but in the end I wasn’t convinced by it. More than once it was said that disabled people accept there have to be cuts. I can understand that the show’s makers may have wanted to emphasise that disabled people aren’t asking for much but that goes against the rest of the show’s (entirely correct) premise. The Government states it’s primary aim is to improve disabled people’s independence and enable them to work. As the show itself made clear, PIP won’t achieve that. The Government is not simply making a small cut to payments (which I honestly don’t think claimants should find acceptable). It’s taking them off the benefit entirely or moving them to a lower band. This was said in Dispatches but if I didn’t already know this, the references to accepting cuts could muddy the water. Ultimately I doubt this was what failed to change public opinion though, and the fact that Paralympians became involved in the debate and tried to explain the purpose of DLA doesn’t seem to have changed public attitudes at all. So much for inspiration.

I might have been inspired by the Paralympics but there is very little in public life today to suggest able bodied people have been in any meaningful way.

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.