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The Government currently has an ambition to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. Yet, despite the ambition, little progress has been made. Earlier in the year the Learning and Work Institute, formerly the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), published evidence which showed that, on current trends, it would take 200 years to halve the disability employment gap.

Currently, 80% of those who are not disabled are in work, while just 47% of disabled people are in employment. This translates to a disability employment gap of 33%. Over the past six years, this Government and the previous Coalition Government introduced a number of policies aimed at reducing this gap. The Coalition introduced supported internships – which are structured study programmes based primarily at an employer for young people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, Work Choice – a voluntary programme which helps disabled people with more complex issues find work and stay in a job, and the Work Capability Assessment – which attempted to end the practise of consigning people who could work to long-term disability benefits.

Despite these reforms, there has been little progress. The employment gap has increased slightly since 2012, and, even on longer-term trends, progress has been very slow. In 1998, the gap stood at 35.9%. In the 18 years which followed, it reduced by just 2.8 percentage points, to 33.1%. This painstakingly slow progress is the result of a number of significant barriers which have proved difficult to overcome.

The skills and qualifications gap
Any conversation about the disability employment gap has to include the skills and qualifications gap between people and non-disabled people. Disabled people are around three times as likely to hold no qualifications as non-disabled people, and around half as likely to hold a degree-level qualification. Nineteen percent of working-age disabled people hold no formal qualification, compared to 6.5% for equivalent non-disabled people. Just 15% of working-age disabled people hold degree-level qualifications compared to 28.1% of working-age non-disabled people.

This lack of qualifications puts disabled people at an instant disadvantage in the labour market, where those without them face significantly more difficulty finding a job.  This is demonstrated by the significant gap in employment between disabled people with and without degrees. In 2012, 71% of disabled graduates had gained employment compared to 42% of disabled non-graduates.

The skills and qualifications gap appears to be driven by a number of factors. First, disabled children are more likely to have extended periods of absence from school. This combined with other factors, such as unconscious discrimination by teachers, where teachers assume disabled children will be less successful than their non-disabled counterparts, leads to significant differences in exam performance. In addition, disabled people are much less likely to access other forms of post-16 training, such as apprenticeships.

Support in finding work
The second barrier to closing the disability employment gap is the support provided to disabled people seeking work. Because of the special needs of disabled people, they often require enhanced support when attempting to find employment. Most disabled people are reliant on the government-provided Jobcentre for this support. Yet the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which funds Jobcentre, is operating under tight budgetary constraints.

These constraints often lead to a lack of resources for disabled people. Recent evidence has found that Jobcentre provides on average only ten minutes of support a month to just one in five of those on ill-health and disability benefits. Moreover, since 2010, there has been a significant reduction in the number of specialist disability employment advisors posted in Jobcentres. Their number has fallen to around 90 – which represents a 60% decline since 2010.

This apparent lack of support means a large number of disabled people are actively seeking work, but failing to find it. The disability charity, Scope, estimates that around half of working-age disabled people are currently looking for employment.

Employer attitudes
A third barrier to closing the disability employment gap is the attitude of employers. A survey of recruiters, published earlier in the year, found that 95% of recruiters say that companies are ‘fearful’ or ‘unsure’ about hiring disabled candidates.

Employers are frequently concerned that hiring employees with disabilities will be expensive to accommodate since they might require significant physical adjustments to the office, training for colleagues or other expensive measures. In addition, employers often fear that disabled employees may take long leaves of absence due to poor health which will make them less productive than a non-disabled employee.

These fears are often misplaced. The government’s Access to Work scheme – which provides funding for disabled employees to purchase technology and colleague training to support their employment – can significantly reduce the cost of hiring a disabled employee, but is not widely-known. Meanwhile, evidence shows that disabled people take less sick leave, stay with the same employer for longer and have fewer workplace accidents on average than non-disabled people.

The good news is that when employers do hire a disabled employee, they become much more likely to hire another disabled person in the future. However, the slow progress of closing the disability employment gap means that this effect is likely to take a long time to have any significant impact.

Staying in work
The final barrier to closing the disability employment gap is keeping disabled people in work. It is estimated that over 300,000 people move from work to disability benefits each year through ill health. In many cases, these individuals want to work, but there is a lack of in-work support to keep them in employment. Many of them might stay in work if they could reduce their working hours, the ability to work from home for periods of the week and other adjustments from their employer.

Currently, government provides significantly less support for disabled people in employment than to those seeking work. It is hoped that this will change with the roll-out of Universal Credit.  This new benefit rolls together six existing means-tested benefits and tax credits, and can be claimed by people out of work and well as those in work but on low incomes. Once fully rolled out, it will affect eight million households, and stays with people when they enter work until their earnings reach a certain level or until they can support themselves. For this reason, Universal Credit will offer low-income disabled people the support of the jobcentre – such as a work coach who provides personalised support, advice and guidance to help them develop and stay in work.

Because of the relatively slow roll-out of Universal Credit, it remains to be seen whether it will be effective in reducing the number of disabled people moving from employment to disability benefits.

The disability employment gap has proved extremely persistent. Over the last 18 years, it has reduced by just 2.8 percentage points., and it seems highly unlikely that the Government will meet its aim of halving it by 2020. In its latest forecast, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that there will be a total of 500,000 jobs created in the UK economy over the next four years. The disability employment gap would only halve if every one of these new jobs went to disabled people.

To halve the gap the Government needs to take a more long-term approach. This must start in schools and colleges, where the skills and qualifications gap puts disabled people at an instant disadvantage in the labour market.  It must also involve increasing support for those looking for work, trying to change employer attitudes towards disabled people, and finding effective methods of preventing disabled people from leaving the labour market.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue