The disability employment project I worked for has been gone a while after being swallowed up by another similar, but better funded scheme. I took the handsome redundancy offer at the time but still checked in occasionally to see how they were doing. In the course of this blog post, I won’t mention the name of the projects, employers or employees I’m discussing.
I worked in communications and development so didn’t have much contact with clients directly regarding getting placements but I was heavily involved with the clients in the process preparing for and leading up to placement and the many different agencies we worked with. I soon became well aware of the issues we, as a project including the clients, faced.
In my time working there, it was apparent that even in periods of economic success and high general employment, people weren’t keen on taking on disabled employees regardless of their skills, qualifications or abilities. Part of the work we undertook was to try to change attitudes of employers, even within more flexible workplaces such as the NHS or Social Services. It often felt like we were fighting a losing battle.
The process was generally two tiered. Those who had worked previously but became sick or disabled while in employment and lost their jobs, and those who had never worked. Both groups were desperate to gain meaningful employment. Not once did we speak to anyone who didn’t want to work. In theory the approach to education, training or retraining and gaining employment was to be different for the two categories. Practice didn’t work out that way… I’ll explain below.
The Never Worked Group
We found that those who were in the ‘never worked’ group were far easier to place in employment, via a partner supported-employment programme. The jobs gained were entry-level, often menial and always unskilled. For those who had never been in employment, and some were in their 30′s, 40′s and 50′s when they came to us, the prospect of having any job was enough to satisfy their needs.
Some of the “jobs” were only voluntary, which provided a greater level of support and flexibility for those who had complex employment or care needs. Often they were better designed for dealing with making adjustments and were more open-minded with regard to doing so. Sadly they did not actually pay the “employees” anything more than reasonable expenses which couldn’t be in excess of £20 a week or benefits were affected. In the words of one very capable but high needs employee, “it’s better than nothing”.
It’s a myth that disabled people don’t want to work. Often the largest barriers are not of their creation. Of those who entered “voluntary work” not one was offered a job. For all the well-meaning organisations harped on about voluntary work being a stepping stone to employment, for unskilled disabled people, it was often the only stone of employment. There was no career ladder.
Those who entered paid employment did so, usually at minimum wage. There were far less supports and adjustments made, and those with more complex support needs were often supported not by the employer but our partner organisation who were funded by the then labour government. Many were employed on short-term or probationary contracts through the supported employment organisation and as soon as these contracts ended, they generally were not renewed.
In the years I was working with this project, only 7 people of the hundreds we dealt with were kept on with their employers at the end of the contract period. All 7 were with the same supermarket employer who were by far the best, in terms of offering support and considering adjustments. They also paid above minimum wage (just) and offered training to ensure employment progression.
Of those who were “let go”, I am not aware of any who went on to further employment without more input and support from charitable organisations. In essence these people were moved from project to project, temp job to temp job, all on short-term contracts and with no future prospects. Any chance of climbing a career ladder just didn’t exist. Despite gaining skills and experience that boosted the quality of their CV, they were essentially considered unemployable. This was an attitudinal issue of the employers rather than inability of the staff. This is the reality of trying to find work with complex support needs.
Those who had worked previously
Of those who had worked previously, strangely the situation was even harder. It seemed odd to consider this would be the case at the start of our project. Based on the research-led assumption, it was thought that those who had worked previously would be easier to get back into work. How wrong we (and the researchers we based our theories on) were.
Often, those who had become sick or disabled during the course of employment found that they had to retrain as their original careers were no longer suitable or they had been out of the loop for too long. This presented far more problems for ourselves and our partner organisation. Not through lack of trying or motivation did the problems arise, and this is where it got interesting, but very disheartening.
People who came to us had perhaps worked for 35 years in a single career. They were a combination of highly skilled and/or highly educated people, who had been self-sufficient for most of their adult years, until disability struck. These future employees had a wealth of talent and potential. Between them they had run businesses, supported entire industries, worked for governments or the judiciary. Without a disability many of these potential employees would be snapped up without question. Sadly, it’s far harder to place those who have experienced being at the top of their careers than those who have never had a career. It’s also harder to satisfy them.
A combination of presenting as over-experienced to employers or the positions on offer were considered insulting and patronising, meant that placing these clients was a very difficult task. This is where my issues with the project began. There was so little support or few positions available for those who wanted or needed more than a minimum wage entry-level job. Employers were wary of taking on such highly skilled yet disabled people. Perception was a huge issue.
While we could talk until blue in the face of the skills and talents this group of people could offer an employer, few could see past the cost of disability, through either adjustment or potential employee sickness. It didn’t matter that more often than not adjustments cost little to nothing to implement.
Some of the younger clients in the ‘experienced’ group felt that retraining was their route back into employment. They wanted to show future employers that they may have faced difficulty through disability but that they had overcome this to retrain in a new more appropriate field. Sadly this route is rarely open to all but the wealthiest.
The biggest problem wasn’t motivating this group of people into finding work or looking for training, they were more than willing to do so. The biggest problem was funding them to be able to do so. People on sickness and disability benefits were able to undertake college courses on a full-time basis at NC level, that is, the academic equivalent to a Standard Grade or GCSE, without losing their benefits. They may also be able to take a course at HNC level on a part-time basis, occasionally with fee waiver – although many institutions seem to be phasing the fee waiver out for the most useful vocational courses in place of the ILA500 / Loan system that is being introduced, which would mean contributing out of an already restricted income. To do either, permission from the DWP is necessary and there are no guarantees of keeping benefits, especially for those claiming Income Support, where additional funding could or should be available.
As part-time courses are increasingly restricted, and colleges are reluctant to take on part-time students when the place could be filled by a full-time, full fee providing student, finding a place on a part-time vocational course that wasn’t accountancy or social care was particularly hard There were so few apprenticeships available for anyone over the age of 21, that route wasn’t considered available. Retraining was only possible and affordable to the level of an NC, the most basic entry-level qualification offered by most colleges. This didn’t encourage employers and many previously educated participants felt it was an exercise to keep them off the streets rather than a legitimate route back to employment.
Rightly, the previously employed group felt particularly despondent about their prospects. One of the projects that was being set up to make employment a realistic option for disabled people, continuously disappointed. In the words of one client,
“I looked at the brochure and saw a man standing outside The Herald newspaper offices, I got excited at the prospect of being supported back into work with a major newspaper, only to read further and discover it was for street newspaper vendors. I wasn’t going to be offered a job writing for The Herald or Evening Times, I would be selling them. I am a post-graduate with years of engineering management experience and this is all I’m good for now? I joke now about, ‘Get yer Evinin Tiyums heeeeyur’ but at the time I cried. “
The growth of despondency being experienced within this group was far higher than with the never worked group. It seems extremely unfair that highly skilled and experienced staff face such an uphill struggle both with their health and their search for employment. To be over-skilled or over-experienced for so-called menial positions but to be considered too different or difficult to place in an appropriate role makes their task of finding and keeping work near impossible. It was extremely disheartening for the staff of the project, many of whom had a disability themselves. It highlighted a bleak future. Little did we realise then, how bleak it would become.
Knowing what I do now about the changes to sickness and disability benefits, I cannot see how this situation can improve any more. When non-disabled people are struggling to find work, and knowing that employers must take into account their business costs in very difficult times, supportive legislation or not, disabled people are likely to be last in line for positions. I don’t believe its right or fair but nothing about the situation we find ourselves in at the minute is right or fair.
When the situation was already difficult in times of economic success and when there were more jobs available than now, what chance do disabled people honestly have at competing for jobs in the current market? Attitudes haven’t changed for the positive, indeed it appears that society is regressing in its attitude towards disabled people.
The lies pushed by politicians and media facilitate the hate, the hate promotes the myth. Disability does not mean inability. It’s important to remind people of that. It’s important to remind employers of that. The largest contributor to unemployment among disabled people isn’t their disability and it isn’t their unwillingness to work; it isn’t even their benefit scrounger status. The main reason for unemployment amongst the disabled is the attitude of employers and employees and where money and profit remain the main business motivator, this will never change.
The current system doesn’t take into account the reality of trying to find work with a disability. It doesn’t adequately or realistically consider the barriers. It also doesn’t consider that some people are just too sick or disabled to work. It’s all very well forcing people off support benefits into unemployment benefit such as JSA but when even those capable of working are unlikely to be offered a position because of disability, why should they be forced into poverty when it’s all out-with their doing? Why punish people for the actions and attitudes of others?
Why set up more and more projects aimed at getting the disabled off the streets and out of the benefit recipient statistics when the end result is likely to be a return to an unsatisfactory status quo?
The necessary changes to ensure disabled people find and keep work are far bigger than a well-meaning project can offer. The changes are far bigger than a multitude of well-meaning projects can offer. It requires a major overhaul of societal and employer attitudes and as long as the influential media and politicians continue to portray disabled people as belonging to one of two groups; workshy scroungers or comatose vegetables, this will never happen.
It saddens me that even in times of high employment there were major barriers faced and it saddens me even more than in times of massive unemployment, the highest for almost 2 decades, now parliament chooses to force disabled people into work.
@Grumpyhatman has a great saying about brewers droop that seems to describe well the situation we are witnessing now, “It’s like trying to put an oyster in a parking meter”. Mission Impossible.