Disabled young people left behind by Covid recovery

The government must act now to halt the unfolding employment crisis amongst disabled young people, leading UK disability charity Leonard Cheshire has warned. 

Change 100 intern Grace working from her bed
  • 89% of disabled young people (18-24 years old) have said that their work had been affected by the pandemic.
  • Only 49% of young people think they would find another job if they became unemployed.
  • One in five employers (19%) would be less likely to employ someone with a disability.
  • Leonard Cheshire’s findings emerge as the TUC draw attention to the pay gap between disabled and non-disabled employees.

Almost seven in ten (69%) disabled adults said that their work had been affected by the pandemic, according to research by the charity. Among 18–24-year-olds, this rate rises to 89%. Impacts included lost income, reduced hours, and unemployment. 

Building on evidence gathered last year, the study suggests that disabled young people have grown more pessimistic about their employment prospects compared to September 2020. Less than half (49%) felt they would be able to find another job if they became unemployed compared to 41% of disabled young people in 2020. According to the Office for National Statistics, the employment rate among disabled 18–24-year-olds was 46.4% in 2019, versus 71.0% among non-disabled people of the same age.

Stigma towards disabled job seekers remains entrenched amongst employers with one in five (19%) still reporting that they would be less likely to employ someone with a disability, a proportion that has been consistent for several years.

Leonard Cheshire released its findings on the same day as the TUC marked Disability Pay Gap Day (9 November). The TUC’s analysis demonstrates that non-disabled employees earn on average £1.90 an hour (16.5 per cent) more than disabled employees – or £3,458 more a year (based on a 35-hour week). 


That means disabled workers effectively stop getting paid today, and work for free for the last 52 days of the year. The TUC has branded today ‘disability pay gap day’.

Along with the TUC, Leonard Cheshire is urging the government to act now to close the disability employment and pay gap and ensure disabled people can gain and retain quality employment.

Sarah Woods, 24, was forced to leave her job during the pandemic due to anxiety. Leonard Cheshire supported her back into work through its Changing Futures programme, which supports young disabled people back into employment. 

Sarah said:

“After leaving my job, I began to feel even less confident in myself and my anxiety surrounding work started to get worse. I dreaded application forms and was dismissing many jobs as soon as I saw something, thinking they would make my anxiety worse. I was so worried I would end up in the same situation again.

“Changing Futures made me aware that for many jobs, there are adjustments that can be put in place for my anxiety, and this has helped me feel that there are many more jobs out there I can do.”

Despite the worrying situation facing disabled job seekers, there have been some positive signs of a change in attitudes. Leonard Cheshire’s research reveals almost two thirds (63%) of employers would support a mandate for employers in businesses with a workforce over 250 to publish the data on the number of disabled people they employ.

Leonard Cheshire has supported over 60,000 disabled people globally to seek employment during the past two years, and one of its policy calls has been a day one right to flexible working – a measure the UK government is consulting on. 

The charity is now calling for the introduction of a disability-inclusive successor to Kickstart. This is a scheme to create jobs for 16–24-year-olds on Universal Credit. 

More investment is also needed in the Access to Work scheme, which funds workplace adjustments and support for disabled employees. Our research cited long waits for grants to come through and low awareness among employers that government support is available in the first place.  

Only 37% of employers stated that they used the scheme, and 61% of recipients waited over three months for support after applying. The full findings can be found on Leonard Cheshire’s website.

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

“Disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and employment support is vital to ensure they’re not further left behind. Our research also suggests stubborn levels of stigma remains amongst employers and young disabled people remain adrift in the current job market.  We call on government to increase efforts to support disabled job seekers and recruiters to continue working with us in recognising the depth of talent available.”

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady added:

“Disabled workers have been hit hardest by Covid-19. Many have been pushed into financial hardship and left without a safety net.  With a cost-of-living crisis looming we need urgent action from ministers. As we saw with the last financial crisis disabled people are all too often first in line for redundancy, and those who keep hold of their jobs face a yawning pay gap.

“Disabled people deserve much better. We need mandatory disability pay gap reporting to shine a light on poor workplace practices that fuel inequality at work. Without this, millions of disabled workers will be consigned to years of lower pay and in-work poverty.”

Still Locked Out

Governments and businesses have adapted to the challenges presented by the pandemic. However, many key barriers to disabled people finding and staying in meaningful employment unfortunately remain.

The government must act now to ensure that disabled people aren’t left behind both during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

Read our Still Locked Out report

Media enquiries

For further information, interview requests and case studies, please contact Jonathan Sim on jonathan.sim@leonardcheshire.org.

Notes to editors

Leonard Cheshire and Employment 

Leonard Cheshire has been delivering successful and innovative employment support for many years in the UK as well as internationally. In the UK Leonard Cheshire has worked with over 170 SME and corporate businesses via its Change 100 programme.  

Leonard Cheshire is currently collaborating with the West of England Combined Authority’s (WECA) on their Workforce and their Future programme, where 100 businesses will receive tailored, targeted disability inclusion training to help them create a more diverse workforce. Furthermore, the Changing Futures programme in London will see over a hundred disabled youngsters in the capital benefitting from work experience and volunteering placements as we emerge from the pandemic, thanks to an innovative new scheme.

The charity partners with employers in the UK who believe disability isn’t a barrier to a brilliant career.


Savanta ComRes interviewed 1,201 working age disabled adults (18-65) in the UK between 20 August to 13 September 2021. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of working age disabled adults in the UK by age, gender, and region. 

Savanta ComRes interviewed 518 UK line managers with a responsibility for recruitment online between 20 August to 13 September 2021. Data were weighted in both instances to be nationally representative of employers by region, company size and sector.