Having been born deaf, Natasha has always been interested in equality and social justice. She currently works as a photographer as well as an equalities consultant at Disability Wales/Anabledd Cymru. In this guest post Natasha gives her view on the Government’s plans for changing the support disabled people get in and out of work.
The UK Government has published the “Improving Lives: Work Health and Disability” Green Paper. This document highlights the issues of the disability employment gap, access to healthcare and employment support for disabled and people with long term health conditions.
There is much that can be said about the Green Paper, both bad and good.
Taking a medical model approach
The language of the Green Paper is very medical model and highly individualised. The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, whereas the medical model used here, says people are disabled by their impairments or differences.
It is also a forceful advocate of the “work is good” mantra. They take care to qualify that by saying ‘good’ work, but most disabled people will be aware that the opportunities for good and meaningful work are far fewer for us. It isn’t simply a case of disabled people trying harder, taking pills or going to physio in order to be ‘fit to work’. It often feels that this is the focus of the Green Paper.
This serves to depoliticise disability and that is dangerous for us. We are not disabled by our impairments or health conditions, we are disabled by the external barriers and attitudes in the world around us. That is political. No one individual can change that. It takes all of us together as a political movement to challenge and change those barriers.
What isn’t included in the Green Paper?
Opportunities to work are heavily dependent on many other factors which are barely mentioned in the Green Paper. Do we live in accessible and safe housing? Do we have access to transport to get us to work and back? Are education and skills training opportunities accessible to us? Do we have appropriate support, whether in the form of PAs, social services or appropriate and timely healthcare?
If our most basic needs aren’t being met, the stress of just trying to get by from one day to the next is considerable. How then, are people to cope with the additional stress put on them by a benefits system which isn’t designed to accommodate their needs?
My view is that the Green Paper doesn’t pay enough attention to these extensive but often subtle barriers that disabled people face, whether in work or out of work.
Challenges for disabled people who want to work
For disabled people in work and for those who want to work, there are a range of issues. Do employers understand the importance of reasonable adjustments? Do they value the skills, experience and perspective that disabled people bring to their workforce? Do Jobcentres and Access to Work provide enough support? The answer for many is a clear “no”.
Negative attitudes towards disabled people are a problem, and one that the Government has arguably perpetuated in recent years. A huge culture change is needed to shift the views, aspirations and opportunities focused on disabled people.
The barriers we face go beyond access and attitudes to disabled people. We live in a culture that serves the employer and the profit margin. This is a culture that has created the growth of zero hours contracts; of low paid workers taking multiple jobs just to pay the rent and put food on the table; of a culture that values unhealthy presenteeism and excessive working hours. In short, society values money and not people.
Society values disabled people even less. When discussing disability, I so often find myself saying “if you improve the situation for disabled people, you improve it for everyone else too.” It is a point that too many still fail to understand.
An opportunity to influence change
On a more positive note, the Government is saying “here are some of the issues we’d like to address and we recognise we don’t have all of the answers”. That at least presents disabled people with an opportunity to influence change.
The lived experiences of disabled people are crucial in influencing change. It’s going to take a considerable effort by the Government, the Department for Work and Pensions and others to make good things happen for disabled who want to work. It’s going to take even more effort to create an environment where disabled people can trust the ‘system’ to be there to support and not sanction.
Please take the time to provide feedback or respond directly to the consultation. There are a number of ways you can do this.
To make the world of work better for disabled people, it needs to be better for everyone and there are bigger issues that sit outside of the remit of this Green Paper.