Disability, employment and the law

Guest post from Emma Satyamurti is an employment and discrimination lawyer with the law firm Leigh Day.

If asked to list the key ingredients of a good life, I would bet that most of us would rank work pretty high.

A decent job provides more than a salary; it provides a role, not just in the narrow sense of the job description but a purposeful connection with other people and of contributing to a shared enterprise. At a basic level, getting a fair wage, is a confirmation that you have value in the world. It is not surprising, then, that long-term unemployment can impose a heavy burden, in terms of financial poverty but also through the pain of social isolation and low self-esteem. Not to mention the economic costs of wasted talent and lower tax revenues.

The recent report published by Scope – ‘A million futures: halving the disability employment gap’ – makes important reading. It begins with some striking statistics:

  • The gap between disabled and non-disabled people’s employment is 30%.
  • 10% of unemployed disabled people have been out of work for 5 years or more as compared with 3% of non-disabled people.
  • 220,000 more disabled people left than entered employment last year .
  • More positively, halving the unemployment of disabled people would add £13 billion to the economy.

Of course not all disabled people are in a position to work, but for too many people the obstacles are caused not by their disability but by the hostility of the world of work. The political penchant for stigmatising them as benefit scroungers completely misses the point.

Protection

The law provides disabled people with many protections. It protects from disadvantageous treatment because of their disability. It also places employers under a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to remove barriers faced by disabled people. This obligation is one of the most powerful tools in the disability rights toolkit. It offers a lever for creative partnership between employer and employee that can be a force for real progress.

But theory and practice are not always in step. While many employers take a constructive approach to disability issues and want to do the right thing, many do not. As an employment lawyer specialising in discrimination (and as a disabled person myself), I see first-hand how often quite simple, inexpensive adjustments would make all the difference.

Yet these are not always forthcoming. I am thinking, for example:

  • The visually impaired client who needed better lighting.
  • Clients whose mental health difficulties mean that a small degree of flexibility in working hours.
  • Clients recovering from medical treatment who, while not yet at full capacity, are keen to return to some form of work and need a non-permanent but intelligent approach to ‘sickness’ absence to do so.

Indeed this last point emerges as a key focus of Scope’s report. Their research suggests that employers’ inflexible approach to sickness forces many into long-term sickness absence and ultimately job-loss. Adjustments to (for example) working hours and location could have supported them to remain in productive work. This is a lose-lose situation for both employers and employees, and for the economy.

One of the recommendations in Scope’s report is for the introduction of a new type of ‘adjustment’ leave to counter the current all or nothing approach. This caters in particular for periods of crisis or change. This would enable employees to take a limited period of part-time sick leave to deal with the situation, while still being able to work on other days. The current system of GP fit notes, and the duty to make reasonable adjustments would support such an initiative, and it will be interesting to see if the government takes it up.

I am optimistic

Unemployment is a damaging form of social exclusion which impoverishes those out of work and society as a whole. Disabled people are particularly vulnerable given the prejudice and fear that still surrounds disability. But I am optimistic. In my own work I have dealt with many cases where employers have (albeit with a little help!) found ways to accommodate my clients’ needs. They can turn what could have been a downhill spiral into a temporary glitch in a successful career.

Scope’s report provides a reminder of the difficulties faced by disabled people. It also shows how much we have to gain from progress and proposes some thought-provoking steps we might use to get there.