All posts by Robert Trotter

Public Policy Advisor - Employment and Skills Follow me on Twitter: @rob_trotter

A million futures: halving the disability employment gap

Today we published a new report exploring disabled people’s working lives. The report – ‘A million futures’ – shows that last year alone, 220,000 more disabled people fell out of work than found a new job.

We wanted to explore why disabled people are struggling to stay in jobs.

Our new research with hundreds of disabled people found that a lack of flexibility in the workplace is a critical issue.

“I, like thousands of others, fall into the grey area of too disabled to hold down a job without health implications, yet not disabled enough to get help from the Government.” – Sarah, Isle of Wight

Nearly half (48%) of the 700 respondents to a Scope survey said that flexible working time and practices could have helped them stay in work.

Many disabled people told us that a key benefit of flexible working is that it can allow them to manage changes in their lives related to disability, or to manage a fluctuating condition, or recover from treatment.

Yet our survey found that only one in three had been offered the flexibility they needed.

“If I’d been given the opportunity, I could have sat down with them and said ‘look, this is what I’m capable of doing, this is what would help me get back into the workplace” – Jane, West Midlands

As a result, too many disabled people and their families find themselves relying on taking sick leave to manage this need for flexibility – often against their wishes.

Over half (60%) of those on long-term sick leave are disabled people. Once in sick leave, it can be very difficult to return to work.

Providing better support for disabled people must be a priority for Government and employers – and can bring benefits for everyone.

For those disabled people who are able to continue working, it means they can continue working, contributing, and taking home a pay packet.

Employers are able to keep hold of the knowledge, experience and contacts that often experienced disabled people can bring.

Crucially, better in-work support can bring benefits to the Government, by rebalancing spending on expensive programmes back to supporting those in work.

For more details, see the full report.

Find out more about our previous reports:

A tale of two systems: the Government’s health and disability employment strategy

Today the Government has published proposals showing how it intends to improve the way it supports disabled people to find, stay in and progress work.

Work is a huge issue for disabled people. Only one in two disabled people currently have a job. Disabled young people are twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET). And if the same proportion of disabled people were in work as the wider population, there would be 2 million more people in the workforce.

But how well does the new strategy address the challenges disabled people face? Will it create the personalised support disabled people need?

What are the challenges for disabled people?

Many disabled people want to work – but find the labour market a daunting place. Many report that employers see them as too ‘risky’, often making assumptions about what they can and can’t do.

During recruitment, disabled people feel like having an impairment can automatically ‘discount’ them from jobs even when they are qualified to apply.

Disabled people looking for work also rely on having a wide range of other support services in place which can be very difficult and bureaucratic to co-ordinate, typically including housing, social care, welfare advice and other support such as childcare.

So it’s vital that there is joined-up, specialist support available for disabled people. But as Scope’s recent report found, disabled people too often report that the support they receive to find and progress in work is just not up to scratch.

The Work Capability Assessment – which tests whether or not someone is fit for work – still hasn’t been sorted out. 90,000 disabled people have had their benefits suspended for things like missing interviews at Jobcentre Plus. And only 1 in 20 disabled people have been supported to get a job through the Work Programme.

So it’s really welcome that the Government are trying to find ways to improve the system. But the challenge is that today’s proposals risk creating a tale of two systems – of high quality support for the few, and a one size fits all approach for everyone else.

High quality support for the few

The good news is that the Government recognises the need to make improvements, and have put forward a number of new proposals.

Some are really welcome. They propose creating a new ‘gateway’ to support, so that disabled people can get the right support at the right time. This is something Scope has called for before and that has been endorsed by the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

There’s also a focus on who delivers employment support, with more emphasis on specialist and smaller providers like Disabled People’s Organisations. This is good news, as many – such as the Essex Coalition of Disabled People – are doing excellent work and can offer a unique perspective on employment issues.

There’s also a welcome focus on the need for better evidence about the kind of support disabled people feel is useful, and how it can be best be delivered.

One size fits all for everyone else

The problem is that even if these proposals are enough to create a genuinely personalised specialist support offer, the chances are that too few disabled people will benefit.

The details of exactly who’s in or out of the specialist system are yet to be worked out, but the strategy is clear that the majority of disabled people will only receive employment support through the mainstream offer – primarily the Work Programme.

This is worrying. Despite some improvements it’s pretty widely accepted that the Work Programme is still a long way from being effective for most disabled people. We know that only 3.16% of the combined ESA groups found work, and a number of commentaries show that too often disabled people are being left without the right kind of support.

Although the strategy does contain some proposals for mainstream support such as introducing ‘ESA Champions’ in Jobcentres, it’s hard to see these delivering the step-change in personalised support the mainstream offer needs.

The strategy also makes clear that there is only very limited money available, which is ultimately what’s placing the limits on access to specialist support.

The Chancellor announced in the Budget that £350 million is available for disability employment and the Department is clearly still grappling with how to spend this money. But the indicators are that it is likely to be through greater rationing of specialist support and placing as many people as possible into the generic programmes.

So although today’s strategy is welcome, there’s a real danger that we end up having a tale of two systems: effective, holistic support for a small number of disabled people with high support needs; and patchy, heavily-conditional mainstream support for the rest.

As the Government starts to think about how they will deliver the proposals, it’s vital that they work to ensure that as many disabled people as possible receive personalised, specialist support.

Behind the figures: what do today’s sanctions figures mean for disabled people?

New figures out today show the scale of the Government’s new sanctions regime. In total, over 90,000 disabled people have had their benefits suspended for anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 years. Here’s four things you need to know:

How many disabled people do sanctions affect?

Since November 2012, when sanctions were tightened, 90,004 disabled people have had their benefits suspended.

This breaks down as 82,860 disabled people on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) – the out-of-work benefit available to everyone – and 7,180 disabled people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which is meant to be for those who face the biggest barriers to work.

This means that 1 in 7 of the total number of JSA claimants who’ve been sanctioned are disabled people, and 4 in 5 of the total number of ESA.

How does this compare to previous years?

It’s hard to say exactly, because DWP haven’t published figures specifically for disabled people before last year.

But looking at the figures for those on ESA – the majority of whom are disabled people – we can get a sense of how many more people are being sanctioned under the new regime. The increase is pretty shocking.

Since December 2012 the number of ESA sanctions was 11,400. For the same period in 2011/12, the number of people sanctioned was 5,750. This is an increase of 50%.

Compare this with an 11% increase for JSA sanctions year on year, and it’s clear that the regime change has had an even more dramatic effect for those who face the most barriers to work.

Why are people being sanctioned?

What the stats show is people being sanctioned for things like missing interviews with advisers, or not engaging with the Work Programme, or sending enough job applications.

What they don’t show is the reality for disabled people: interviews with advisers clashing with medical appointments; inaccessible transport; advisers without specialist understanding of conditions and impairments; a lack of jobs with the flexibility disabled people often need.

Do sanctions work?

No. Disabled people face a wide-range of barriers to work. Lack of available jobs, fewer qualifications and even negative attitudes from some employers can make the workplace daunting.

So simply taking away benefits from a disabled person really doesn’t help – as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have repeatedly pointed out. In fact, suspending benefits can make things worse: stats from the Trussell Trust show that increasing use of food banks is linked to the tightening of sanctions.

Instead of simply suspending benefits for no reason, we need a system that actually works for disabled people, that supports them to find a job they want, and that takes seriously the barriers they face.

Making technology work for disabled people

New technologies aren’t always up to scratch for disabled people.

Mainstream devices can be highly adaptable but don’t do a great job of meeting disabled people’s needs. Technology designed especially for disabled people can be very good at meeting needs, but is often expensive and doesn’t do everything a mainstream device can.

So as part of BT’s Connected Society programme Scope, BT and the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design explored how we can start to close this gap between mainstream and disability-specific technology.

Our report Enabling Technology (PDF document) found that the key to creating enabling technology is, wherever possible, to support disabled people to create their own solutions.

This means focusing on the person, not the system  – on adaptability and flexibility rather than rigid codes and standards.

It can be a difficult shift to make for manufacturers and service providers, but creating ways to bring disabled people ‘closer’ to technology can have real benefits, bringing down costs and increasing independence.

Here’s three key ways we think this can happen:

1. Adapt mainstream technology

By far the best way to use technology to support disabled people to live more independently is to adapt already existing mainstream devices.

Sheni using the pop-up readerAn example is the ‘Pop-up Reader’, an innovative prototype inspired by Sheni – a visually impaired singer who needed a better way to read written lyrics.

Sheni already had a smartphone, so the team built a cheap, easy-to-make stand to hold her phone – and the page – in the right place. Crucially, it also folds up and fits into her handbag.

Crucially, this simple, easy-to-make stand costs a few pounds to make – compared with between £500 and £2000 for a specially made device.

Find out more about the Pop-up Reader, or even try making your own.

2. Build easy-to-tailor products

To make technology work for every disabled person, it makes sense to tailor devices as much as possible to suit individuals. Building this approach into product design is often the best way to achieve this.

To show what we mean by this, we created a new approach to computer hardware called ‘Tailored Touch’.

Using cardboard, a cheap circuit board and paint that conducts electricity, Tailored Touch can be used to build a range of things like keyboards or a computer mouse.

Lyn, a musician from the Paraorchestra, had a number of challenges using her instrument through a touch screen device. She struggled to control the instrument accurately enough to play live with the rest of the orchestra.

So the project team worked with Lyn to build a new musical keyboard, using only cardboard, paint that conducts electricity, and a cheap circuit board. Christened the Lynstrument, this approach completely changed the way she plays live through her computer.

Lyn using the Lynstrument

This approach can also be used to enable anyone who struggles to use traditional interfaces – such as  a mouse or keyboard – to get online.

Learn more about ‘Tailored Touch’ and the Lynstrument, and make your own device.

3. Measure accessibility using timed task completion

Online services such as shopping or banking can be really helpful for disabled people – but they aren’t always fully accessible.

Although most sites now meet accessibility standards, our research found that some disabled people still struggle to use these services.

This is because there are so many different technologies disabled people use to go online  that it’s difficult to continue updating rigid codes and standards. This means that even if designers tick all the boxes, they may still end up with a website that isn’t completely accessible.

So our report argues that we need more responsive ways of measuring the accessibility of digital services, focusing on the person not the system.

One way to do this is to time how long it takes a disabled person to complete tasks online compared with non-disabled users of the same site. If it takes longer for a disabled person to finish a task, the site just isn’t accessible enough.

Our report sets out a clear philosophy for involving disabled people far more in the way technology is designed, used and evaluated by supporting disabled people to create their own solutions.

We’ll be doing more on the theme of technology over the coming months, so watch this space and get in touch if you want to find out more. We’d also love to see your videos and photos of building these ideas – so get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.

Lords debate support for BME disabled people

The research team here at Scope has been working with the Equalities National Council (ENC) – a charity run by and working with black and minority ethnic (BME) disabled people – to find out about the lives of BME disabled people, and to find ways they can be better supported.

Our research findings – published last year – were shocking:

  • There are at least one million disabled people from BME background in the UK and this figure is growing.
  • One in two BME disabled people live in poverty.
  • Only two in every five BME disabled people have a job.

Last week the House of Lords recognised the importance of this work, and held a two and a half hour debate on the report. The debate was tabled by the former Minister for Disabled People, Lord Paul Boateng.

The challenges BME disabled people face

The debate gave lifted the lid on the challenges BME disabled people face. Over 15 Peers spoke powerfully and movingly about issues ranging from the importance of translation services for BME disabled people, to the need to fix the social care system so that everyone who needs care and support can get it.

Many of the Lords echoed our recommendations. Scope and ENC found that many disabled people are falling between the cracks of Government departments – an issue that the Government Minister Baroness Browning argued needed to be resolved.

Disabled children from BME communities experience deep and saddening barriers to the support they need. Baroness Tyler recognised this in her contribution to the debate, and asked the Government to consider the recommendation of Scope’s Keep Us Close campaign to ensure that BME disabled people can access the right services in their local area.

Our report also found that the best way to provide services is to support small, user-led organisations like ENC to provide local services, a point Lord Addington made in his speech.
Although the debate successfully raised awareness of the challenges BME disabled people face, it is important to recognise that this is just the first step in a longer journey of change for this often overlooked community.

In the words of Lord Boateng, when introducing the debate: “To be black, a member of an ethnic minority or disabled is to know what it is to be invisible – to be there but somehow not be seen, or to be heard but simply not heeded.

“You suffer a double whammy of neglect and disadvantage. All too often you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

“When we take action to enable and empower all of us in our God-given and precious diversity, then we really will have something to celebrate.”

You can find a transcript of the full debate in the Lords here.

Over-looked Communities, Over-due Change

Guest post from Robert Trotter

It’s one of Scope’s ambitions to be completely inclusive. This means that we work hard to make sure that disabled people from all backgrounds have the same opportunities as everyone else.

But in the past it’s been difficult to support disabled people from ethnic minority communities, as there’s been very little research done to find out what kinds of support are needed, and how it can best be provided.

That’s why we’ve worked with another organisation – the Equalities National Council – to talk to disabled people from ethnic minority backgrounds to find out what their experiences of services were, and how these could be improved.

Our report – Over-looked Communities, Over-due Change – has some clear findings that should help us better understand this growing group of people.

Those we spoke to told us that life can be very difficult. Like many disabled people, money can be really tight. Life can often be very lonely. Sometimes it can be a struggle for people simply to know where to go for help, especially if their English isn’t the best.

Yet they also told us lots of simple ways that services could be improved. So in our report we explain how the Government, as well as those providing care for ethnic minority disabled people, can provide better support by involving communities better in the way that services are designed.

We hope that by reporting what ethnic minority disabled people told us, and offering ideas and solutions for improving their life opportunities, we can kick-start a journey of change – because as our report shows, it’s absolutely vital that we find ways to better support this often-overlooked community.

You can read a full copy of the report or an executive summary.

If you’d like more information, please contact Robert Trotter (Research Officer) atrobert.trotter@scope.org.uk