Disabled people must be able to shape policies that transform their lives, writes Marsha de Cordova
When the Labour party was founded in 1900, its explicit aim was to increase labour representation in Parliament. It was about empowering working class people to take positions of power, formulate their own policies and fight for their own interests. More than a century later, our Manifesto With and For Disabled People was a proud testament to similar values of empowerment, as was our commitment to do ‘nothing about you, without you’. Labour will only be able to truly transform the lives of disabled people, ensuring that we have the same opportunities in life as everyone else, if disabled people lead the process of change.
Labour’s offer on disabilities needs to start with disabled people in the lead. That’s why our acceptance of the social model of disabilities is so fundamental. Once you recognise that people are disabled by the way that society is organised, rather than by their particular impairments, then you can see how much a Labour government could do to empower those with disabilities. Unfortunately, over the last seven years, disabled people have been ignored, excluded and made to bear the brunt of a vicious Tory austerity programme.
In 2016, a UN inquiry reported that Tory government policies had led to ‘grave, systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities’. There are more than 4 million disabled people living in poverty in the UK and, according to Scope, the 2012 Welfare Reform Act has resulted in cuts of nearly £28bn in social security support for disabled people. Meanwhile changes to the work capability assessment and the assessments for personal independence payment have created a cruel and chaotic system which continues to deprive people of the support they both need and are entitled to. The government’s own estimates show that by 2018, 600,000 fewer people will be helped.
Labour’s approach needs to build a social security model which provides real support and dignified treatment for disabled people. But I want to draw attention to another fundamental area: employment. Only 46.5 per cent of working age disabled people are in work, compared to 84 per cent of the non-disabled population. Of those who are out of work, the majority are talented and motivated people who are able to and available for work despite their disabilities.
The biggest barrier here is often the attitude of employers. According to a survey by Action for Hearing Loss, nearly a third of business leaders do not feel confident about employing a person with hearing loss. For other forms of disability this figure will be much higher. Part of the problem is that employers are not aware of the support that already exists. For example, nearly two-thirds of business leaders have never heard of the access to work scheme, which provides practical and financial support for disabled people in work. However, raising awareness of this scheme will only go so far. We need a much more proactive approach if we are serious about shrinking the disability employment gap.
The current Tory government has focused much of its energy on the ‘Disability Confident’ accreditation scheme. However, there are three serious problems with it. First, it is far too easy to get accredited. Indeed, companies accredited on the previous ‘Two Tick’ scheme (which had to be closed because of how many companies had become accredited without taking any serious action to improve disabled employment) were automatically transferred to the new system. That is hardly likely to inspire confidence among disabled people. Second, accreditation is offered by several different competing organisations – a classic neoliberal move – and standards do not appear to be consistent across accreditors. Third, because the scheme only relates to companies’ relations with disabled employees, not disabled customers, we have ended up in the laughable situation where the DWP itself is accredited.
There are three key areas in which Labour could start to remove the social barriers that hold back those with disabilities.
The first is the manifesto pledge to ensure that companies employing more than 250 people would have to publish statistics on how many disabled people they employ. This would very quickly help to raise awareness of the issue within companies and in the wider public realm.
Second, public sector contracts offer a powerful tool for government to shape business attitudes towards disabled employment. Employers in receipt of public sector contracts should be required to demonstrate inclusive recruitment and retention policies. Government departments and agencies should also be encouraged to become exemplars of good practice in the area.
Finally, as well as helping disabled people get jobs, we also need to make sure they can retain those jobs. This will require a new legal framework which prioritises employment retention and supports a right to return to work within a year of acquiring a major disability or long-term health condition.
Everyone knows – or should know – that there is a serious issue here. And everyone agrees – or should – that tackling the disability employment gap needs to be a government priority. But we need to start listening to what disabled people themselves have been saying for years: if you remove the social and institutional barriers which hold us back, we will flourish.