How many disabled workers are there in your office? The answer is probably more than you think - not all disabilities are visible and not everyone declares their disability. But even then disabled people are severely under-represented in the workplace. Barely 47% are in full time employment, compared to 80% of non-disabled people.
The government’s committed to halving that gap by 2020. But, according to the TUC, we’re way off target. Its analysis finds that the disabled employment rate will rise to only 52% over the next four years, and is on track to reach the target of 63.5% by as late as 2030. The disability pay gap, meanwhile, remains at 13% for full time workers.
What, or who, is to blame? The TUC (shock, horror) points the finger squarely at the government, in particular its cuts to the Employment Support Allowance and the Access to Work scheme. ‘Cutting vital benefits and employment programmes will succeed only in locking disabled people out of the workplace,’ said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
The controversy about the effects of welfare cuts on disabled people is perhaps for other pages. But setting the target in the first place was a positive step – you need to know there’s a problem before you can fix it.
Ultimately, it’s employers who need to up their game. It’s all very well blaming the government for not making you less prejudiced, but employers are the ones hiring and firing. The disability employment gap will only close when managers and organisations become confident in recruiting and developing disabled talent – and that involves awareness, openness and a recognition that unconscious bias runs deep and dies hard (everyone has it, myself included).
Creating an environment where disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else isn’t an act of charity or a question only of fairness. Making the best use of disabled people’s contributions makes good business sense. Despite the fact that the UK is widely regarded as outperforming most of its international peers when it comes to disability in the workplace, however, there’s still a long way to go.
Perhaps the 2020 target was overly optimistic. Much as with the gender pay gap, there are significant legacy issues to be overcome. Is it really prejudiced to take account of substantial time away from work when making a hiring decision, for example? Decades of underemployment and underpromotion of disabled workers can’t just be wiped away in a few years, despite the best intentions of government or employers. Real progress may take a while, then - but we have to start somewhere.