In recent weeks some commentators have started to highlight the way in which, since 2010, as a direct result of the Government’s unfair and inept welfare reform programme, disability campaigning has become overly focused on the benefits system. A clear example of some of the problems this has created is the debate around Employment and Support Allowance, the Work Capability Assessment and the controversial issue of “fitness for work”.
Sick and disabled people face complex barriers to participation and employment but, in seeking to expose the lunacy of the work capability assessment, much of the media reporting has been guilty of playing right into the Government’s hands. Take headlines that read something like: “Double [lower limb] amputee told he’s fit for work” (shock, horror!). This kind of headline, whilst entirely understandable, misses the point and undermines the inclusion of disabled people. Many double amputees are able to work but simply finding such a person “fit for work” drives them further from the workplace.
A double amputee who has always worked in an occupation that necessitates, for example, the ability to walk without restriction, faces enormous barriers to employment. These barriers include those relating to their impairment – the need to adapt to the use of prostheses and/or a wheelchair, to manage phantom limb pain and stump pain – as well as non-impairment related barriers, including the need to acquire the skills needed for a sedentary job and to overcome the discrimination severely disabled people face in today’s labour market – where employers can choose, from hundreds of applications, an applicant who has no additional support needs. The Government’s Work Programme has been shown to be almost entirely incapable of providing effective support to enable disabled people to face and overcome any of these barriers, whether impairment-related or otherwise.
Most disabled people want to work, but an approach focused on compulsion and sanctions, confining the issues to the benefits system, is doomed to fail. What will enable disabled people to work, if their health allows, is effective, holistic support combined with equality laws that actually make a difference to the way employers behave. The issues go beyond the benefits system; the real question is “how does our society view sick and disabled people?”