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The exacerbating unemployment levels amongst disabled people


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“How does being unemployed make you feel?”

“Pissed off, what more can I say than that? Pissed off”

Last night BBC Two relayed the first of six episodes of Employable Me, a series following the journey of eight different job seekers all with life-changing disabilities.

It was warm and enriching; for every moment I sympathised towards the job seekers unfavourable search I’d suddenly be uplifted by their optimism.

When Tourette's Syndrome sufferer Ryan is told he’d secured an interview at a local aquatic centre his smile and passion was so radiant you are reminded, behind his disability, just what a loving and emotional human being he his, all he wants is a job.

The documentary is simply brilliant and everything the BBC should be. Informative, educational and entertaining - in that order. Television can distort reality, it can make lovely people look like jerks and jerks look like lovely people; this isn’t happening here.

The episode may be winsome and charming but it also perfectly captures the underlying, unavoidable mood. Frustration.

No wonder Andy’s “pissed off”. Before his stroke which led to him being partially paralysed, he was a successful businessman, a director of a million pound motorbike business and the main breadwinner for his young family. Andy’s stroke spawned aphasia, a condition affecting his speech making communication strenuous. Overnight his vocabulary significantly reduced, you can see how tiring it is for Andy to maintain conversations, how such an educated soul struggles to find the correct words to best express himself. Andy was being turned down interviews for cleaning positions.

In the end, both Andy and Ryan find jobs. Jobs that suit their personal needs and fulfill their specific zeals. But this was after two days worth of advice from recruiting experts. What’s the answer for the other 53.5% of working aged disabled people who are also out of employment?

The disability employment gap, the difference between the employment rate for those with disabilities and those without, currently lies at 32%. In 2013 the Government stressed they wished to halve these figures, moving 1,074,000 disabled people into employment and raising the employment rate from 48% to 64%. But the proposal was radically over-optimistic. At present, the difference has narrowed by merely 1.3% since 2013. If this rate continues it will take until 2065 to reduce the gap to the target of 16%.

Employers have been given more incentives through the Government’s Access to Work scheme offering companies grants to adapt their equipment to be user-friendly and free disability awareness training for existing staff. But it has clearly fallen short, under advertised and with an unfortunate lengthy application process, employers save time and money simply by hiring someone able-bodied.

I wonder that for every Ryan and Andy, whose family are so patient and helpful, actively encouraging and helping in the job seeking process, there must be those who are alone, trying to find work unaccompanied, going through the grueling process unchaperoned.

Of the approximately 88,000 children in the United Kingdom in foster care, around 17,000 have a disability. Who helps them search for a job once they reach adulthood? Where do they turn to for advice?

Last summer I wrote an article for BBC Sport spotlighting the personalities and characters of Warwickshire’s disability team. The age range was from 14 to 48 yet nearly all the players, young and old, were accompanied by a family member. As one parent told me, “You do worry what will happen after you’re gone. If you’re not around who is there to look after him.”

I never asked the older players if they were in employment, it didn’t seem right at the time, the conversation was solely focused on cricket. The closest was talking about university with the Warwickshire captain who suffered from cerebral palsy.

He studies mathematics at the University of Bath and wished me luck on my own higher education and a potential career in journalism. I’m not worried about him, intelligent and charming he’ll find employment. I’m worried about the sizeable majority who may not.

The recruitment process is the first major barrier. Computerised recruitment tests, which often involve time-sensitive tasks exclude those who may have a visual impairment or have an inability to type or click swiftly. Location is also key. Travel is notoriously difficult for the physically disabled and many mental disabilities are exacerbated in public places like train stations and bus stops.

When a disabled person gets a job they’re also more likely to be paid less than non-disabled people. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that, during the period 1997-2014, the disability pay gap was 13% for men and 7% for women. The Equality Act 2010 forbids employers to discriminate against those with a disability but as these figures show, it doesn’t seem to detain much power.

Sadly it’s hard to find a solution to the disability employment problem. Clamping down on biased recruiters would be useful but is both extremely costly and difficult. Rosa Monckton, whose daughter has Down’s syndrome, wrote in the Spectator last March proposing that those with learning disabilities be allowed to work below minimum wage as an incentive for employers.

In the US it’s legal to pay disabled workers sub-minimum wage yet I fear this system may be susceptible to exploitation and could send a dangerous message that disabled people are somehow less valuable than those who are able-bodied.

It’s difficult. Andy and Ryan may have found work in the end but the gloomy reality is so many willing disabled people can’t.

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