22 November 2017

Work, dignity and independence: everyone’s right?


Work. Don’t you love it?

The 9-5. Or if you work in the NHS or emergency services, it can be 5 to 9...It’s the way we pay our bills. It’s not always easy. We moan about the commute. We often feel our employers don’t see our value and skills. Some of us dream of being able to give up and be ‘free’.

But what if you couldn’t get work? Would you feel differently about it? And how would you feel if, suddenly, your basic living costs soared by 25%? Scary, right?

This is the reality for many people with disabilities.

Disabled people are nearly 4 times as likely to be unemployed or involuntarily out of work and non-disabled people. The UK has, rather shamefully, one of the highest rate of disabled unemployment in Europe.

But a figure often forgotten, and linked to understanding this is that disabled people’s day-to-day costs for basic needs are on average 25% higher than those of non-disabled people. (information from the Papworth Trust’s Facts and Figures about disability).

And on average, disabled people earn 10% less than non-disabled people.

Putting these figures together creates an alarming picture. A work, and more importantly a career- a chance to do something which lets us earn enough to live independent lives, develop our skills and contribute meaningfully – is fundamental to our well-being.

The UK is fortunate in having a central support system for disabled people in paid work. This is called Access to Work and is administered by the Department of Work and Pensions. It helps provide the additional needs linked to a person’s disability. Sometimes this is a one-off purchase such as a piece of special equipment, or a furniture; for others more complex support is needed, including the use of a personal assistant or a trained support worker. The level of support is linked to the size of the employer. Smaller and medium-sized organisations will usually be reimbursed fully for the support given.

The scheme is enlightened as it helps to prevent employers regarding a skilled disabled candidate for a job in terms of the additional expense that they bring. As ever with such a scheme covering a very broad range of needs, there is a very small number of people who, due to their particular disability or disabilities, required higher-level support which may also be higher cost. Deaf people in professional roles constitute 90% of this small group because their specialist support (British Sign 1 Information from the Papworth Trust’s Facts and Figures about disability. Language interpreters, lipspeakers making English lipreadable or Speech-to-text notetakers) is needed for interaction with the hearing world.

The government has stated that it wants to halve the disability employment gap. The most recent report on this said that at current rates, this would not be achieved for 62 years.

So it is puzzling that around the same time that this admirable goal was set, the government decided to introduce a cap on Access to Work support. This cap will, unsurprisingly, fall most heavily on deaf professionals. It means, in essence, that the people concerned will not be able to get the support they have been using before and are going to struggle, as a result, to perform their jobs to the best of their ability.

In my case, it gives a strange sense of déjà vu. In 2009 my then employer, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was in something of a panic when it had to implement devolved budgets to support disabled staff. As the only deaf officer at my level, working abroad with intensive support, I was an easy target. Out of the window went any considerations of the value I might bring and down came the axe. The situation was unusually clear for me as I had just obtained a new posting, by competing (boy do you compete at the FCO!) for it. So it was a case of ‘Here’s a job,' then a few weeks later ‘Oh, sorry not you can’t go and do that actually.

’It is hard to describe the mind-bending isolation this caused – or the fury. But with large amounts of determination, or what I call ‘positive defiance’, I challenged the decision in court. And while I did not win (I will not speculate on the ‘back room’discussions which may have led to this!) I did retain my integrity, raise the issues publicly and not appear to be a hypocrite. (On my Polish posting 2006-10 I had done a lot of work encouraging the Polish government to use UK models of disability rights legislation – with some success). I then, gradually, and often painfully, worked on restoring my own mental and physical well-being and over several years have used this experience to help to develop Result CIC into the thriving social enterprise it now is. I have turned my harsh experiences into something positive for others who feel excluded.

And now? I face, in spring 2018, an arbitrary cap on the essential support I receive to do my job – develop my business and achieve social benefit for hundreds of marginalised people.

I am concerned about the impact. If we continue to generate more business what do I say to customers if I cannot arrange communication support? Should I not run the training and coaching? But having deaf and disabled coaches is part of our ‘USP’. So how does it look if we have to say ‘Sorry the government is no longer supporting our deaf coach?’. And if our small social enterprise has to use vital funds to pay for this, rather than e.g. investing in business growth, how will this be fitting the government’s professed aim of supporting responsible businesses to grow? And at a personal level, I feel extremely uncomfortable about the idea of being a financial burden to my company simply because I am deaf.

At Result CIC we celebrate and embrace difference. We know that people withdiverse experience have more to contribute. And we want to do all we can to enable them to do this.

So what is the Government up to?

The ostensible reason for the Access to Work cap is that it will spread available funds further and reach more people. The theory sounds great; the reality is that the planned growth in use of Access to Work has simply not happened. And is it surprising really when some of the key potential role models for other disabled and deaf people are being undermined?

I am writing this blog in late November. Shortly there will be a Parliamentary debate on the issue. ‘Stop Changes to Access to Work’– a small group led by hardworking and determined volunteers – has done great work to highlight the issue. I hope that by the time we go to press, there may be better news to celebrate. I remain an optimist.

The issue of support for D/deaf people goes much deeper than simply support at work. Rob Martin and I made a film about their experiences, partnering with Manchester Deaf Centre. The stories the participants tell really make you think. And if you do dread your commute and feel hard done to in your job, watching this film may make you feel a little differently.

Watch Out Of It?

Got any questions or comments about this blog or other Result CIC blogs? Contact us.

NDA 2015 Power 100 iLM

We are Result CIC, a community interest company. We work with people who feel marginalised or excluded to become more confident about their abilities and to fulfill their potential. We also work with Directors, Managers and CEOs who need support to bring about positive change in terms of diversity and inclusion in their organisations. We each have personal experience of the issues affecting the people we work to support, including disability, immigration, mental health and sexuality. We have also worked in senior positions in industry and government.

Our vision is a society where every individual can achieve their potential, feel fulfilled and make a valuable contribution. 

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