Achieving better employment opportunities

Liz Sayce OBE

March’s National Audit Report on disability employment support found that in the last 5 years the number of disabled people in employment rose by 930,000 – and yet the number of disabled people out of work has stayed about the same.

How is this possible? No one really knows (and perhaps they should know, as the NAO suggests). Perhaps more people already in work are feeling confident to say they are disabled, thus changing the statistics without really changing the numbers employed.

But what is clear is that for the 3.7 million disabled people still out of work and those who are working but in low paid, insecure roles – change is very slow coming. Half of people living in poverty in this country are either disabled themselves or live with someone who is. 

In late 2018 I published ‘Switching Focus’ which argues that policy has neglected making the world of work inclusive. It has focused too much on incentivising, pressurising or at best supporting disabled people to work and not enough on employers.

Disabled people are sanctioned – have their benefits reduced, for failing to comply with work-related activity requirements — over 60 times more often than employers face a fine for disability discrimination. And however well prepared disabled people are, if the way work is organised creates barriers, disabled people will still not get and keep jobs.  

I made four proposals to shift the balance. One was a requirement for large employers to report publicly on how many disabled people they employ, at what level of seniority — as part of a Dashboard on their workforce.

‘I think government needs to be a bit stricter with us – why are there requirements to report on gender as employers but not on disability?’ (Paul Polman, Chief Executive, Unilever, 2018)

This would bring accountability to shareholders and the public, stimulate peer pressure between employers, enable advocates to praise and challenge employers and let potential employees know which are good places to work. It was good to see Leonard Cheshire Disability make the same recommendation in their own 2019 report.    

Advocating this means, of course, that large charities must themselves report on how well they are doing: you can’t exhort other employers to employ disabled people well if you are not doing it yourself. But if you are — and we should expect disability charities to do better than the average corporate – then you can speak with more authority. When I worked at the Disability Rights Commission we told the story of our own learning from employing very diverse disabled people when we explained requirements to private and public sector employers.

My other proposals were:  

  • For government to share risks better with employers, for instance sharing cost when someone with a fluctuating condition will need time off work, but wants to work when well
  • To update and enforce rights, for instance to stop recruitment algorithms that screen out people with gaps on their CV, or people whose facial behaviour does not match the computer’s expectations (potentially discriminating against people with facial disfigurement, cerebral palsy, visual impairments, stroke etc) and 
  • For Boards and Government to exercise leadership, ensuring accountability and leading by example. 

For practical proposals like this to get taken up requires united, concerted action from a number of players 

There has long been mistrust between Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), led by disabled people, and larger charities, based on disagreements about ‘who speaks for disabled people’, about ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ tactics to influence change, and tensions about power and resources.   

Unity on specific goals – without suppressing difference – may however increase chances of success, as long as disabled people are in the lead. Academic Armine Ishkanian found in some other sectors (not disability), that whilst grassroots organisations might view large charities as ‘dulling the fire’, they sometimes also used resources, office space or evidence from large NGOs [1]. Meanwhile large NGOs found activists useful for making a noise and putting issues on the agenda. 

Without papering over difference, there can be a case for deciding to present a united front as the disability sector, on specific issues. Ishkanian found that coming together was hard but worth it in terms of potential influence. 

Alliances with others with complementary agendas – anti-poverty organisations, organisations concerned with flexible working – can be powerful; as can ‘unexpected alliances’ with those with power to make things happen, from business organisations to sector regulators.  

These are single issue alliances. They are not about coming together permanently, when on other issues organisations disagree. The point is to mobilise influence to get genuine, substantive opportunities for disabled people. Large charities may be able to find ways of offering support that DPOs would value. 

Building unity and partnerships to pursue specific goals could help secure improvements to the entrenched poverty - and stifling of potential — that affect so many disabled people’s lives. 

Additional notes

Switching Focus is available at:

1.Glasius M and Ishkanian A (2014 ) Surreptitious symbiosis: engagement between activists and NGOs. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Non-Profit Organisations P 24