Boris must deal with the UK’s equality own goal

Neil Heslop

Our chief executive Neil Heslop talks about the importance Sustainable Development Goals and Boris Johnson's appointment as Prime Minister.

The government needs to be doing more to ensure businesses are not overlooking disabled people and make firmer commitments to ensure workplaces are fully inclusive and fair.

Creating a world that is fairer and more prosperous for all was the United Nation’s motivation when it set the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. It falls to each member state to work towards a more sustainable world that improves quality of life for everyone, including people with disabilities.

Many people think the SDG’s are more relevant to the Global South. However, it’s clear closer to home we have a long way to go before a fair society for all is a reality. This year the UK reported on its progress towards the realisation of the SDG’s, with its voluntary national review presented at the United Nations’ High-Level Political Forum in New York on 14 July. 

While the review highlighted efforts underway and the progress towards increased inclusivity, a close reading shows just how far there still is to go in meeting the Goals in the UK.

Closing the disability employment gap

This is particularly apparent with employment. Closing the disability employment gap remains a challenge and too many disabled people face significant barriers when embarking on a career path that matches their talent and potential.

While the UK’s report does discuss the employment gap, it fails to fully acknowledge the continuous challenges disabled people must overcome throughout their working lives.

For a start, the recruitment process often discriminates with unnecessary barriers and anachronistic attitudes about employing disabled people sadly commonplace. The lucky ones who get a job are not always receiving the necessary support to remain employed or progress in their careers. 

Prejudice and misperceptions around disabled employees still hold back disabled job hunters. Leonard Cheshire’s recent research highlighted that 60% of employers admitted they would be less likely to employ a disabled person over concerns they would struggle to do the job.

This depressing finding alone shows just how far we have to go in order to break down barriers. The government needs to be doing more to ensure businesses are not overlooking disabled people and make firmer commitments to ensure workplaces are fully inclusive and fair. 

Importance of data

Data is increasingly important in international development and it’s also the case in our own back yard. In terms of employment, data collection and monitoring are crucial to ensure progress is made and we narrow the disability employment gap. Businesses of over 250 employees should be reporting on the number of disabled employees in order to increase opportunity.

Given that we know disabled workers typically earn less than non-disabled colleagues, full and transparent reporting from the UK government on this would enable targeted action. There is a growing recognition of the importance of holding employers accountable in building fair and inclusive workplaces and increased reporting is essential. There has been a marked improvement in gender pay gap reporting — so why aren’t we seeing the same for disability? 

Impact of welfare changes

Also lacking in the UK report is an unambiguous recognition of the links between poverty and disability. Current pay gaps between disabled and non-disabled people exacerbate the daily financial struggles experienced by many disabled people as a result of higher living costs and puts more pressure on a welfare state that is currently not fit for purpose. Yet the UK’s submission to the UN gave scant attention to welfare reforms. 

Many disabled people justifiably feel they have unfairly borne the brunt of austerity measures. Concerns over Universal Credit and other welfare reforms in recent years means the government’s progress towards the global goals is at odds with the actual experiences of disabled people in the UK. Deprivation is commonplace, with 4.3 million disabled citizens currently living in poverty.

To put that into perspective, that’s almost a third (31%) of all people living in poverty in the UK. A recent report from the Disability Benefits Consortium also highlighted the devastating impact that welfare changes and cuts have had on a community that have been hit four times harder than non-disabled welfare claimants.

Live, learn and work

It was of course pleasing for us to see recognition of Leonard Cheshire’s Change 100 scheme, our employment programme for students and graduates, in the UK’s review. However, our programmes and those of others are only scratching the surface of what is required. We know that the vital specialist programme, the government’s Access to Work scheme, which supports disabled people in employment, is not seeing enough take-up. Much more can be done to ensure there are enough well targeted schemes that reach the right people.

Our ethos of supporting individuals to live, learn and work as independently as they choose aligns to the overall aims of the Sustainable Development Goals and of course organisations like us must do more and play our part. However, the recent review has been a timely reminder of the UK’s shortcomings. 

Our new Prime Minister has an overflowing in tray of urgent matters. None more so than a long-term cross-party financial settlement to address the national scandal of social care provision. Ensuring disabled people are not being left behind in progress is an urgent priority for all of us in the UK, and Boris’s new optimistic ‘Can do’ spirit can have no more important test.

Neil is a co-founder of the charity Blind in Business, serving as a Trustee from 1992 to 2018, and acted as an advisor to the UK Government on the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act. He became CEO of international pan disability charity Leonard Cheshire in 2016.