The issue of employment and disability continues to be a hot topic. Few can deny the negative impact of government policy in this area over recent years. Yet a new initiative launched by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) seems to be trying to encourage a more positive view of disabled people among employers. Does this initiative finally signal a new departure in the government’s approach to encouraging disabled people into the job market, or is the ‘Disability Confident’ campaign too little too late, or worse a cynical attempt to win back the support of an alienated section of the community?
It is fair to say that the government’s track record in relation to disability and employment leaves much to be desired. The disabled community has suffered a great deal as a result of controversial legislation supposedly designed to encourage disabled people into employment. It is not difficult to argue that the policies adopted by the coalition have done little more than ostracise an already vulnerable minority group.
The shameful horror stories which resulted from the so called ‘fitness-to-work’ tests administered by Atos make harrowing reading. Moreover, Parliament has certainly played its part in, albeit unwittingly, creating a hostile attitude towards disabled people. Many members of the disabled community feel they have been made scapegoats, whilst certain corners of the media have painted those with disabilities as nothing more than lazy, work-shy benefit scroungers.
Thankfully, the legislature appears to be adopting a more positive attitude towards those in desperate need of support. Last week, Atos was finally axed, the government announcing that it is now looking for a new (and hopefully less draconian) contractor to preside over the ‘fitness-to-work’ assessments.
Furthermore, increasing focus seems to be being placed on the ‘Disability Confident’ initiative that was originally launched in July 2013 to encourage employers to recognise the value of taking on more disabled people.
Why Employers should be ‘Disability Confident’…
There appear to be plenty of sound economic and socio-economic reasons why companies should hire disabled people. For instance the Disability Confident portal of The Essex Coalition of Disabled People reveals that the disabled people contribute over £80 billion to the UK economy, whilst 20% of an average company’s customer base, it says, will have a disability of some kind.
However disability employment remains embarrassingly low at around 50%. Disability discrimination legislation has offered protection to disabled people in the work place since 1995. Yet, it appears that attitudes towards disabled people held by prospective employers still need to change. This is where the ‘Disability Confident’ campaign comes in, attempting to encourage employers to take on disabled staff and break down negative stereotypes which might otherwise hinder a capable disabled person from finding work.
Indeed the campaign was welcomed by many when it was first launched and received a great deal of high profile celebrity support, not to mention a snappy Twitter hash tag, #DisabilityConfident
Positive step or “promotional gloss”?
Though this policy must be seen as a positive move for disabled people, it was met with deep scepticism from certain areas of the disabled community. Linda Burnip co-founder of ‘Disabled People Against Cuts’ (DPAC) hit out at the DWP after interrupting an event at Canary Wharf saying, “If any of the firms there had been serious about employing disabled people, they would have done it in the last 30 years…”
Given the events over the past few years, such comments are more than understandable. But the DPAC has not only criticised the DWP’s initiative (dubbing it ‘Disability CON-fident’), it regards the initiative as “a cynical attempt by government to deflect from the fact that its own policies are undermining the ability of deaf and disabled people to find and retain employment”.
I personally believe that campaigning to change the attitudes of employers to disabled people is a far better way of encouraging them into the job market than by whipping them into work by means of cruel and humiliating ‘fitness-to-work’ tests. Nevertheless, the wounds inflicted by years of cuts, negative press and the damaging legacy of Atos, will take far more to close than a DWP campaign and some well-meaning social media.
Perhaps the government should be focusing less on the attitudes of business towards disabled people and more on rebuilding the confidence that the disabled community has lost in its MPs.
What do you think? Please feel free to comment…