Mind the gap: disability employment and how government can achieve its ambition

Yesterday was the UN’s international day of disabilities. The UK has a good record on leading the way in policy and legislation for disabled peoples, but there still remain significant obstacles for disabled people, particularly getting a job.

In their general election manifesto the Conservatives boldly announced their ambition to halve the disability employment gap (the difference between the percentage of people with disabilities who are in work and that of the working age population as a whole). A laudable goal with very real economic impact – an estimated extra £13 billion to the economy according to research by the Social Market Foundation – and also a positive social one: empowering tens of thousands who feel alienated from work. Tellingly 10% of unemployed disabled people have been out of work for five years or more, compared with just 3% of non-disabled people.

This is a massive waste of potential. Being in work is a key part of financial resilience, delivering a decent standard of living and access to a degree of independent living and the self-esteem that goes with it. The disability employment gap also means employers miss out on the opportunity to diversify their teams and offer their employees the chance to work alongside the broadest range of colleagues possible.

Ambitions, however, cannot be achieved with good intentions alone with the four actions below providing an outline of areas which would help.

  1. Personalising support

Current mechanisms providing assistance are inadequate; they fail to recognise the needs of individual claimants. Disabled job seekers have a varying range of needs and need tailored support which isn’t currently delivered by traditional means.

Employment support staff require improved training so they recognise the right pathways for disabled job seekers and are able to draw upon support where necessary. It means that they don’t just find any job, but rather the right job. Universal Job Match is simply unsuitable to meet this need and disabled job seekers require an alternative model.

  1. Engaging employers

Employers often assume that employing a disabled person will pose challenges in the workplace. Mencap’s research shows that almost a quarter (23%) of employers feel their staff would be unhappy working with someone with a learning disability. Meanwhile, 45% are concerned that their customers would find it difficult to deal with someone with a learning disability.

These statistics reveal a knowledge gap among employers and suggest that active steps are needed to address lingering concerns. In particular, emphasis should be placed on what disabled employees can achieve and the wealth of information that highlights the benefits of a diverse workforce.

Employers also need to be incentivised to take on disabled jobseekers. For example: continuing support for disabled jobseekers into their employment by providing in-work training and mentorship. Further ideas include part payment of wages, offering National Insurance relief to employers or other financial incentives particularly to smaller companies where tight margins may prevent a ‘risky’ hire.

  1. A local, but national approach

Shaw Trust research has found that regional variation dogged efforts to close the disability employment gap and “support more people with disabilities, health problems and impairments into work.” For example, in the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) 52% of disabled people were found to be in work, compared to just 27% in the Cumbria LEP. By closing these “local disability gaps…more than two million people currently excluded from employment (would) have the chance to gain independence and reach their potential through work, generating huge social and economic returns.”

If the disability employment gap is to be halved local schemes, whether conducted by LEPs, councils or other bodies, need to be supported by central government. A national board to drive the disability employment agenda would be a useful measure, as too would a fund to support innovative projects across the country. While some of these would undoubtedly fail, the opportunity to take risks is vital if performance is to be improved.

  1. Differential pricing

The current welfare-to-work model rewards agencies as and when they help job seekers into employment. This model is straightforward, but lacks nuance. A disabled job seeker may, for example, require extra training and take longer to find a suitable position. The result is silo-ing with employment agencies focusing on the needs of those customers deemed ‘easier’ to help.

In recognition of the challenges faced by the disabled when finding employment we would do well to learn lessons from Australia where the Job Seekers Classification Instrument (JSCI) is used to identify “the relative disadvantages of jobseekers so that they can receive the appropriate service level.”

When coupled with a payments system that recognises intermediate landmarks along the journey, the adoption of an instrument similar to JSCI could have profound effects. Agencies could, for example, be rewarded when the hardest-to-help complete an essential skills course or build their experience through voluntary employment. This intermittent payment model would encourage agencies to focus on the process of helping the disabled into work and incentivise them to improve their service offer.