Do we need disability employment quotas?

The UK's disability employment gap is stagnating, but the European model could provide an answer.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2018

Diversity and inclusion have recieved a lot of attention over the past few years. While there is still work to be done, progress has been made - especially when it comes to the number of women in boardrooms and companies now being forced to reveal their gender pay gap.

However when it comes to disability, the UK is very much behind the curve.

The disability employment gap - which refers to the difference in employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people - has stagnated at around 32% for the last decade and is much higher compared to the majority of European countries.

According to data gathered by the Resolution Foundation’s Retention Deficit report - based on the 2011 Labour Force Survey, which uses a slightly different measurement to assess the disability employment gap then the ONS - the UK lags almost 8% behind the EU average and sits in 22nd position in overall employment gap size.

The UK is relatively unique in that unlike the majority of EU countries, it doesn't have sanction backed quotas to encourage employers to hire disabled people. On the surface the evidence suggests that these systems work, so should the UK adopt one?

How do quotas work?

Under the French system for example a company with more than 20 employees must ensure that 6% of its workforce are officially classed as disabled under the L’Obligation d’Emploi.

The company can meet this obligation in two ways, either by directly employing disabled people or indirectly by purchasing goods or services from a supplier that provides sheltered employment for disabled people.

Any company that fails to meet this quota must pay a fine to Agefiph - the association for the management of funds to integrate disabled people - of around 400 times the minimum wage of each person missing from the quota. 

So should the UK get one?

Initially it sounds like a good option. Disabled people recieve a job, money and stability previously denied to them and companies pay into a scheme that helps improve the employment prospects of out of work disabled people if the quota isn't met. That can surely only be a good thing, right?

The general consensus is no. In fact the UK did actually have its own quota system until this was abolished in the mid-90s after concerns from disabled charities that it was ineffective at truly addressing the problem.

Yasmin Sheikh, founder of Diverse Matters, a diversity and disability training consultancy, says that  quotas provide a benefit in addressing the short-term problem of getting people into work, but don't help disabled people genuinely progress into fulfilled employment - or more importantly change the cultural stigma associated with disabled people in the workplace.

'Change may be slower in the long-term, but real change only comes about when people understand what the benefits are and what the value is of employing disabled people,' says Sheikh.

She highlights how in some situations it could also be easier for a company to simply pay the fine rather than go through the 'hassle' of making reasonable adjustments to its organisation - something which often happens in countries with quota systems.

'We always think "can the person fit into the organisation" but we never adapt the way we assess people to see the best talent and to recruit from the widest talent pool possible,' says Sheikh. 'Society still sees disability as a weakness, vulnerability, there being "something wrong with you" and you not fitting in.

'People want to be judged on what they are able to do, not what people feel they are unable to do.'

Graeme Whippy, a disability consultant and Channel 4’s disability specialist, agrees and believes that quotas simply incentivise companies to create ‘token’ positions for disabled people so that the quota is met, rather than employing disabled people in real, worthwhile careers.

He says quotas also present challenges for disabled people on an intrusive individual level.

'Quota systems are predicated on the fact that a disabled person is registered as disabled or has to be declared as disabled,’ says Whippy, referring to the fact that in Germany a person has to be deemed to have 50% less capability than a non-disabled person to be viewed as disabled in terms of work.

Likewise the French system is dependant on a system involving the person’s doctor where they have to be registered as disabled. 'Why on earth would a person want to go through that process?’ Asks Whippy.

The UK has a much broader definition of disability compared to other countries -  the 2010 Equalities Act outlines that a person is classed as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.

Therefore the quota system might work at getting the most severely disabled people into employment, but it does little to change the generally negative perceptions of disabled people in the workplace or to encourage employers to create a truly inclusive workplace.

Change can only come through culture

In an attempt to reduce the disability employment gap the government revamped its Disability Confident scheme in 2016 - this aims to help businesses recruit and retain disabled people, by providing advice and guidance on how businesses can become 'disability confident' employers.

But arguably it has failed to have an impact. Just over 5,000 companies have enrolled on the scheme in one year and up to 3,000 of these are disabled charities, government departments and social organisations. Critics also highlight that it is possible to qualify as a disability confident leader without actually employing a single disabled person. 

Likewise, the Government’s Access to Work scheme - a grant that helps disabled people offset the costs that might arise when they're being employed - has traditionally been ‘under marketed’ and suffers from ‘bureaucracy problems’ according to Philip Connolly, policy and development manager of Disability Rights UK, a disabled rights charity - which means it is often underused.

Schemes like this help to lay the framework for change but real progress can only come through a cultural shift, when employers learn to create businesses that fit disability, not find disabilities to fit the business.

Genuine cultural change come only come from the top and more companies need to show a desire to address the unconcious bias that is holding disabled people back from real employment.

'We have to change society, rather than the law,' says Whippy. 'When it comes to employment, the solution is to work hard on demonstrating the value that disabled people can bring to employers.'

Image credit: Bill45/Shutterstock

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