Inclusive work: what are we learning? - RSA

Inclusive work: what are we learning?


  • Picture of Ben Harvey FRSA
    Ben Harvey FRSA
  • Picture of Liz Sayce FRSA
    Liz Sayce FRSA
  • Picture of Simon Lydiard FRSA
    Simon Lydiard FRSA
  • Employment
  • Accessibility & inclusion

The government recently committed to consulting on the possibility of mandatory or improved voluntary reporting by large employers of their disabled workforce, RSA Fellows Ben Harvey, Simon Lydiard and Liz Sayce share learning from a recent interactive online event.

The pandemic has and will continue to have an enormous impact on jobs, the quality of work and inclusion. There have been some positive impacts. For example, although individual experiences have been very different, increased use of remote and flexible working has enabled some disabled people to be better included. The fact that more people are becoming disabled with ‘long Covid’ may also be increasing awareness in some employers of the flexibilities needed for people with energy impairments more widely.

Covid-19 has of course had detrimental impacts, beyond the immediate health effects.

There is evidence of unemployment in the disabled population growing faster than amongst people without disabilities. Young people have been particularly impacted. The pandemic exposed inequalities and speeded up changes in working. These impacts need to be understood and addressed, not just for the benefit of disabled or older workers, but also for all who want to create a more inclusive working environment.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has worked on disability policy for 20 years. Its initial focus was on tailored early intervention, incentives to work and the role of employers. Policies in many countries have changed since then, with early intervention initiatives getting more attention, and benefits systems and medical approaches overhauled. However, employment rates have not improved significantly across OECD countries. The disability employment gap is largely unchanged, and benefits systems often do not meet disabled peoples’ diverse needs.

The OECD identifies two possible reasons for the disappointing outcomes. First, some countries never implemented the changes proposed a decade ago. Globally, spending on measures to improve access to employment is still minor relative to spending on benefits. Any shift to an employment focus was marginal and early intervention is still not being put into practice. Second, labour markets are changing faster than policy, also as a result of the pandemic.

The OECD, together with United States Department of Labor, identified four issues for future attention.

First, the transition of more disabled young people into work. This requires inclusive education, but also effective career preparation and employment protection. Too many young people move directly from education onto benefits, never experiencing work.

Second, doing more to boost the skills of workers and jobseekers. Labour market changes will eliminate some jobs and even some occupations altogether. This threatens low-skilled and disadvantaged groups, particularly disabled people. But new jobs will be created, especially those associated with green growth. It will be essential to provide the relevant skills for these jobs to disabled people.

Third, labour market dynamics should be considered from all angles. We need policies that not only help disabled people into the labour market, but also facilitate job changes, career progression and employment retention.

Finally, there needs to be adequate social protection and a coherent benefits system. Many disabled people experience high levels of poverty.

The RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network

Covid-19 formed the backdrop to a recent event, led by the RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network, which involved disabled people, policy leaders and international experts. Participants considered the question: inclusive work: what are we learning?

The Network brings together people with lived experience, practice understanding and policy expertise to explore the actions by different players that can make most difference.  At its online event on 29 April 2021, participants and speakers shared a range of ideas throughout. There was interest in setting out an overarching national plan in the UK, looking to other nations. In the US, the ‘Biden plan’ sets aims for full inclusion of people with disabilities in policy development and good jobs in competitive, integrated employment, with aggressive enforcement of existing civil rights. Inclusive recovery, with racial and social equity, is a priority for the new administration.

Participants talked of the need to meet people’s desire for opportunities to flourish, to reach their potential and to find purpose. Making this real requires employers to genuinely embed ‘inclusion’, not as a bolt on to enhance or sanitise their brand. That means changing cultures and behaviours at the top and inclusive practice by line managers, as well as a range of practical changes. This includes recognising interviews are often inaccessible to neuro-diverse people and offering work trials or skills assessments instead, and ensuring that the design of universal technology and communications are inclusive.

It also means learning from the forced rapid adoption of remote and flexible learning during the pandemic to build hybrid approaches that enable a diverse range of people (including those with energy impairments, long Covid, learning difficulties and caring responsibilities) to achieve work and thrive. For example, this may mean working on the basis that you get the job done within agreed deadlines but that how and when you do it is up to you. These should be core to the definition of ‘good work’ and integral to thinking on the future of employment (including the UK government’s task force on hybrid working, and the RSA’s own work).  

Disabled people are key actors in policy formation but need tools and resources to secure their rights. For example, young people may not know what support they could get or how to ask for it. Improved advice and representation are important if people are to secure existing rights. And improved support delivered by disabled people’s organisations and people with deep understanding of inclusion is vital to enabling people to get into work, establishing their own enterprise, growing and progressing.

Influencing employers

Education and skills development programs need to expand opportunity through full inclusion, in everything from the transition into work to diversity in professional bodies.  Achieving this requires influencing employers and participants at the Network event discussed how this could be done and how to embed change.

Employing more disabled people can create a virtuous circle, with employers benefitting from their contributions and talents. Transparency and accountability are also an important spur.  We have seen how mandatory gender pay gap reporting has created a momentum for changeReports from the Centre for Social Justice, EHRC and others have recommend similar reporting for the disability pay gap. Meanwhile, the Business Disability Forum’s 2021 report explores how leading companies already are monitoring, understanding their workforces and reaping benefits. Business support is vital and it exists. It is now time for government to bring in mandatory reporting on disability and ethnicity as well as gender, focusing on pay and progression as well as numbers employed. 

The Disability Confident Scheme should change from naming employers ‘confident’, even where they have no track record in employing disabled people, to recognising outcomes in recruitment, retention, progression and pay of disabled people.

Government could use the billions it spends on procuring goods and services as a major lever to incentivise better employment of disabled people, learning from how this has been done successfully in the US through changes in Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. This could ensure all employment programmes, like Kickstart and the Plan for Jobs, are fully inclusive, as well as reforming disability programmes like Access to Work and employment support services. 

One further idea floated was that employers could be required to invest – in proportion to their own disability pay gap– in action for inclusion.

Non-governmental  initiatives can also make a major contribution, particularly when collaborating with public authorities. For example, the Zero Project publishes, every year, global examples of good policies and practices that meet the aims of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  In 2021 they identified 10 policies and 72 practices relevant to employment. Examples include: a project in Germany to refurbish IT,  creating green jobs for disabled people; an initiative in New York to enable disabled jobseekers to secure  opportunities and providing them with a range of support to succeed; and a project in Montenegro to tailor individual transition plans to assist disabled education leavers  to access the labour market.

Change is multi-faceted and disabled people need to have the power to co-produce solutions and to negotiate for their own requirements. Progress will require effective employment support systems, genuinely inclusive employers and concerted government action to build and sustain momentum.

And this brings us back to the idea of an overarching plan for the UK, which would help different players unite on common goals. We need to get away from meaningless awareness days and focus instead on multi-level action. Mindful of the OECD insight that the needle has not really moved in 20 years, we need to focus on the levers that will make most difference, building on a growing resource of academic, think tank, lived experience and practice learning, nationally and internationally.

RSA Fellows Ben Harvey, Simon Lydiard and Liz Sayce are involved in the RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network, which aims to advance an inclusive future of work for disabled and older people. To continue conversations on what can be done to improve employment for disabled and older people, join the Network. You may also be interested in reading another RSA Comment article from Ben and Liz, which summarises a previous event about inclusive work.

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