Disabled people plunged into crisis by COVID employment landscape

The government needs to act now to avoid a jobs crisis for disabled people, leading UK disability charity Leonard Cheshire has warned.

  • 7 in 10 disabled people employed in March (71%) have been impacted by loss of income, furlough, unemployment or other damaging effects as a result of the pandemic.
  • 42% of employers were discouraged from hiring disabled job applicants due to concerns around supporting them properly during the pandemic.
  • 1 in 5 employers (20%) say they would be less likely to hire someone if they were disabled.

The charity's study surveyed 1171 working age disabled people and 502 employers, revealing the scale of the impact on jobs from COVID-19. It uncovered a 'crisis of confidence', among young disabled people who are pessimistic about their futures. 

At the same time, the study seems to suggest that representation of disabled people in the workplace is in decline amid lingering discrimination in the employment of disabled people. 

71% of disabled people who were employed in March had their employment impacted in some way by the pandemic: such as being furloughed, losing income, feeling at risk of redundancy, or losing their jobs. 

For many disabled 18-24 year olds, this impact was psychological. More than half (57%) said they felt that the pandemic had affected their ability to work, and 54% that it had hit their future earnings potential. 

Sophia Kleanthous, an alumna of Leonard Cheshire’s Change 100 programme based in London, said: 

“In the past I've been told I didn't get a job I applied for because they were concerned my health would 'get in the way', that they needed someone who could be relied upon (referring to my disability) and that I'd be a burden to the company. This has to change.”

Separate figures cited by the report hinted that this impact disproportionately fell on disabled people. Analysis from Spring by the Institute for Employment Studies found that 40% of disabled employees were either furloughed or had their hours reduced, compared with only 30% of non-disabled employees. 

Employers seemed to be discouraged from hiring disabled people due to the pandemic. Two in five (42%) of employers said that a barrier to doing so is being able to support them properly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a fifth (20%) admitted they were less likely to hire a disabled person overall. Meanwhile, the proportion of employers who say their organisation employs any disabled staff has fallen to 33% in 2020, a 16 percentage point drop from 2018 (49%). Only 21% had hired any disabled people since 2018.

Leonard Cheshire has urged the government to act on the problems uncovered by the report. In particular, the charity pointed to measures in its own ‘Plan For Jobs’, published earlier this month. 

The Plan For Jobs outlines ways of ensuring the economic recovery from Covid-19 is disability inclusive. These consist of preserving the furlough scheme for shielders, introducing a Job Guarantee for young people, and overhauling Universal Credit to protect disabled people from hardship. It also proposes measures to make employers more inclusive, such as mandatory reporting on disability employment rates and pay. 

Leonard Cheshire also called for improvements to employment programmes for young people such as the Kickstart scheme. It pointed to its own employment scheme for young disabled people, Change 100 as an example of how such programmes could continue during the pandemic. Change 100 arranged 40 internships for disabled students and graduates in 2020 regardless of the pandemic. It also helped 52 students and graduates secure remote mentoring with employers. 

Gemma Hope, Head of Policy at Leonard Cheshire, said: 

“Our findings are stark. But we should see them not as gloomy forecasts for policymakers but as motivators for immediate, wide-ranging action. We must stress that prompt, decisive action can stop the trends we have identified from becoming more serious. 

“Still, we cannot understate the urgency of the challenge. Our study suggests that inclusive practices at employers have been put at risk by fears relating to COVID-19 as the economic outlook darkens. We urge the government to take on the recommendations we make in the Plan For Jobs, and work with businesses to make our recovery from this downturn an inclusive one.”

Notes to editors

Final report

Read our Locked out of the labour market report (PDF - 1.8MB)

Plan For Jobs

Leonard Cheshire revealed its Plan for Jobs as a submission for the Comprehensive Spending Review in September.

In this plan, the charity recommends:

  • Funding new ‘Purple Passport’ documents for disabled people, outlining the support they need in the workplace. The ‘Purple Passport’ scheme would replicate a scheme trialled by the government in Canada, wherein employees hold a ‘passport’-style document detailing the adjustments and support they need at work, and removing the need for these employees to re-apply for adjustments when they move roles.
  • Extending the furlough scheme for working people who are shielding to help them retain their jobs
  • Giving all employees entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay and flexible working on day one of employment
  • Employers reporting on the numbers of disabled people they employ and for large organisations to report on the disability pay gap
  • Abolishing the five-week wait between claiming Universal Credit (UC) and receiving payments while topping up the Employment Support and Disability Support Allowances to deal with Covid-19 related hardship

Change 100

Change 100 is a programme of paid summer work placements, professional development, and mentoring. It aims to remove barriers experienced by disabled people in the workplace, to allow them to achieve their potential. It is delivered in partnership with leading employers. Change 100 has been running since 2014, and has helped more than 400 disabled students and graduates into internships at more than 140 employers since then.

The programme is designed for talented students and graduates with disabilities or long-term conditions — including physical, visual, or hearing impairments, mental health conditions and learning disabilities.

Research methodology

Savanta ComRes interviewed 1,171 working age disabled adults (18-65) in the UK between 17 to 30 September 2020. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of working age disabled adults in the UK by age, gender and region.

Savanta ComRes interviewed 502 UK line managers with a responsibility for recruitment online between 17 to 30 September 2020. Savanta ComRes also interviewed 503 of UK line managers with a responsibility for recruitment between 29 June and 19 July 2018. Data were weighted in both instances to be nationally representative of employers by region, company size and sector.

Savanta ComRes are a member of the British Polling Council and abide by its rules. Full data tables can be found at: https://comresglobal.com/our-work/poll-archive