Debates about Covid-19 recovery and economic renewal ignore disabled people. This is shameful given that even before the virus, the UK’s 7.7 million working-age disabled people already faced significant inequalities.
Government figures for April to June 2020 show the employment rate for disabled people was 53.6%, compared with a rate of 81.7% for non-disabled people. Less than 6% of learning-disabled people are in paid work.
Despite equality laws and a Conservative Party pledge to reduce the disability employment gap, the gap persists (albeit slightly improved on last year). The government’s national recovery strategy states that it “will ensure people with disabilities can have independent lives and are not marginalised” and “their overall health outcomes do not suffer disproportionately”. But the current response is inadequate. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Plan for Jobs policy aimed at boosting recovery refers to disability once. The Job Support Scheme subsidising salaries for employees who now work fewer hours is welcome, but it contains nothing specifically for disabled people.
Since austerity measures kicked in after the financial crisis, eligibility criteria for support have tightened. From 2013, the introduction of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) has been dogged by delays and lost payments. And – as research from Disability Rights UK shows – in the workplace existing challenges include inaccessible offices, a lack of disability awareness and a reluctance among employers to spend money on modifying equipment for disabled staff.
Covid-19 exacerbates existing barriers to economic inclusion for disabled people. Almost two-thirds of all those who have died from the virus in the UK are disabled, according to the Office for National Statistics. Figures from health and social care regulator the Care Quality Commission show a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among learning-disabled or autistic people during the pandemic. Even before Covid-19, people within this part of our population died an average of 15–20 years earlier than others because of poorer healthcare, according to the NHS-commissioned Learning Disability Mortality Review.
What is missing is a focus on the economic benefit of employment support for those stereotypically seen as less productive. In 2010, a landmark study on supported employment (where dedicated support staff enable disabled people into work) for Kent County Council suggested that, for every learning-disabled person helped into a job, the council reaped an average annual saving of £1,300.
What is now needed are schemes like Surviving Through Story, an Open University-backed project sharing the views of autistic or learning-disabled people, creating a national record of Covid-19’s impact. The voices of support staff are equally crucial. Social care training organisation Paradigm surveyed 120 support workers (staff who help people in their own homes) around the UK about their experiences. Almost 85% said their biggest concern was that the people they support would contract Covid-19. These findings reflect the widespread frustration of a workforce bypassed in terms of recognition and investment during the pandemic.
The national recovery plan should include a fully inclusive vision for employment. In the absence of a government plan, disability charity Leonard Cheshire has published its own. This argues for more support to help disabled people to find jobs and the introduction of a single labour market enforcement body for employment rights, as proposed by the RSA’s Chief Executive in his review of modern working practices.
Alongside this, it is vital to unpick the assumption that earning a wage will negatively affect welfare support. This is often a perceived rather than a real fear, based on a lack of information or incorrect advice. The government’s ‘permitted work’ rules mean certain benefits (like PIP, which is not means-tested) can still be claimed when earning a wage.
Oxford-based charity My Life My Choice (MLMC), which is run by and for disabled people, employs learning-disabled people as consultants. They deliver disability awareness training and can earn £500 a month without this affecting their benefits. Leeds-based human rights charity CHANGE has a ‘co-worker employment’ model where non-disabled staff support disabled colleagues.
During lockdown, healthcare services were focused on Covid-19 patients. Once the national lockdown was lifted, the public were encouraged to start seeking medical help for non-Covid-related issues again (although at the time of writing, with lockdowns looming once more, it could be that this advice again changes). However, this message has not been targeted towards disabled people, many of whom already experience physical or communication barriers to using public services. In response, Oxford’s MLMC has created regular mailouts with ‘easy read’ advice encouraging disabled people to use services again. The charity has also arranged meetings with local health and care commissioners to discuss issues such as what services people miss and how easy it is to see a GP.
Giving everyone a voice
These are the kinds of innovations, perspectives and practices that national policymakers should embrace, encourage, learn from and share publicly if we are to discover what everyone in our society needs as we respond to Covid-19.
The current response to the pandemic overlooks the very people it has hit the hardest. There is a clear moral argument for ensuring our economy and public services are inclusive. But aside from the ethical imperative, there is a practical reason for everyone to play a part as we try to cope. Supporting all our citizens means people are less likely to be pushed to a crisis point demanding emergency health or social care. The question is not why or how we should include disabled people in debates on Covid-19 recovery, it is why not?
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal
Richard James FRSA
As the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crises continue, empowering communities will be more important than ever, argues Richard James FRSA.