Analysis: Bridging the disability employment gap

Gemma Hope: Access to specialist disability employment support will need to significantly increase
Gemma Hope: Access to specialist disability employment support will need to significantly increase

By Gemma Hope

The number of people with disabilities, health problems and impairments in work is unacceptably low. Just 46% of working age people with disabilities in the UK are in employment, compared to 76% of non-disabled adults. This gap equates to two million disabled people, currently excluded from employment. Why does this gap exist, and how can it be closed?

Firstly, people with disabilities face wide-ranging, multiple and simultaneously acting barriers to employment. For example, people with disabilities, health problems and impairments are three times more likely to have no qualifications than their non-disabled counterparts, whilst a fifth of disabled people report difficulties in accessing public transport due to the nature of their health condition.

In Shaw Trust's experience as the largest national provider of Work Choice (the government's specialist disability employment programme) these barriers are further compounded by the chronic lack of confidence many disabled people experience in their capacity to manage both their health conditions and a job. Without the self-belief and qualifications needed to secure many jobs, made worse by a lack of accessible transport to reach any job secured, many employment opportunities are closed off from millions of disabled people.


This is why specialist disability employment programmes like Work Choice play an important role in helping to increase the number of disabled people who can access, enter and sustain employment. Our specialist advisers work with each participant to deliver a personally tailored service to tackle each individual's barriers to work.

For example, one participant had been offered employment with a local company. He was visually impaired and needed to rely on public transport to take him to his new job. However, he had never used public transport independently, and was concerned that without support he would not be able to accept the role.

To build his confidence to use the public transport system, the adviser contacted the local council to obtain a braille bus map, introduced the participant to the bus drivers on his route to work, and travelled with him on practice trips to work. By building the participant's confidence and capability to use public transport, Work Choice opened up access to employment for this individual.

However, it is not just the diverse barriers that each individual faces that contribute to the gap in employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people: employers can need support too.

Most employers Shaw Trust works with are positive and willing to employ people with disabilities, health problems and impairments. They are often experienced in making physical adaptations to their workplaces to ensure they are accessible, and in flexibly adapting shift patterns, working hours and job roles to meet the needs of their disabled employees. Those that lack this experience are generally willing to work with us to implement the necessary changes to make their workplaces accessible for disabled people.

Nonetheless, research we carried out through our 'Making Work a Real Choice' project highlights that some employers' recruitment processes unintentionally exclude disabled people from employment opportunities.

One of Shaw Trust's Work Choice participants with a learning disability reported the difficulties they had faced in applying for a job online with a national employer. Each screen of the online application form timed out after ten minutes. The participant was not able to complete one of the screens within the allotted time due to the nature of their disability. They then received an email stating that they would be unable to apply for another job with the organisation for another two years. By not being aware of how people with a range of disabilities accessed and used their website, the employer unintentionally prevented many disabled people from applying for and accessing employment from their organisation.

So if specialist back to work programmes like Work Choice exist, why is there still a 30% gap in employment rate between people with and without disabilities?

Quite simply it is due to numbers. Since Work Choice commenced in 2010, only 60,000 people with disabilities have been able to access the specialist employment support offered by the programme. With two million people with disabilities out of work, many of whom want to enter work, access to specialist disability employment support will need to significantly increase if the gap in employment rate is to be bridged.

Similarly, there are an estimated 4.9 million employers across the UK, a significant proportion of which will have had no access to tailored support to enhance their ability to employ people with disabilities. The government's national Disability Confident campaign is a welcome step in the right direction for raising employers' awareness of the support available to employ people with disabilities. However, unless more people with disabilities and employers can access specialist disability employment support, this unacceptable gap in employment rate will continue. 

Gemma Hope is Head of Policy and Research at Shaw Trust, a national back-to-work charity.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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