As I’m sure most of you have heard, a couple of weeks ago Lord Freud suggested that some people with disabilities may not be worth the minimum wage, and some could be paid £2 an hour instead for employment. His off-hand statement has of course garnered a backlash including calls for his resignation and a petition asking for him to be fired. Lord Freud has since apologised, releasing a statement stating that he has been “proud to have played a full part in a government that is fully committed to helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment.”
However, this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. The government have in fact done the opposite and driven many people with disabilities out of work, by cutting vital support in the form of the Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment transfer; removing Independent Living Fund, cutting funds to councils for Direct Payments and reducing what support Access to Work will fund. These cuts tell a different story, and leave many people with disabilities having to reduce their hours, change the type of work they can do or leave employment entirely.
Working with a disability can often be very difficult, both in terms of securing employment, the on-going difficulties some face with juggling their health and work, as well as employers and colleagues attitudes.
What is Access to Work?
Access to Work is a scheme set up a number of years ago with the aim of helping people with disabilities attain and remain in work. It’s worth around £80m a year, and can be used to pay for a range of equipment, adaptations and assistance. However changes have been quietly happening to the scheme, putting much more of the onus on the employer to fund this support.
Instead of suggesting people with disabilities should work for less than half that of a non-disabled person, the government should instead be increasing funding for Access to Work, and promoting it to employers. Many still do not know it exists, or what kind of help it can provide.
Employers often think that the implication of employing a person with a disability will be that they will cost more, and sadly due to the subtle cuts to Access to Work this is becoming true in some cases.
How did the scheme previously work?
At the time I had my first Access to Work assessment the rules were that if you applied for an assessment within your first six weeks of work, they’d usually cover the cost of any disability-related equipment/support required, and after six weeks it would be down to the size of the company. For a smaller employer they’d still pay, for a medium sized company they’d contribute, and for a larger firm they’d expect them to pay. This was a pretty fair system – and it reduced the risk that a disabled person would not be offered a role because of the extra cost for their support. In that first job I was given a range of items to help me – from a specialist chair, to smaller items that made life easier, such as an electric hole punch/stapler.
How has that changed?
They have now decreed that the company has to pay for pretty much everything.
So by the time I changed jobs and was taken on by a small charity, the rules meant almost everything I’d had funded previously was now not covered by the scheme. My new assessment asked for a specialist chair that included heat to try and ease muscle spasms, a desk that could be raised, an £80 headset so I could answer the phone, a recording device or electronic notepad for taking notes in meetings and numerous other items that directly related to my disability and the role I was doing.
The bill was thousands. My Access to Work Advisor managed to get the chair funded, as the heat function pushed it past a standard item, but what was left was still a lot of money.
I’d just convinced that company to take a chance on me, and had already had to bring up all the reasonable adjustments I needed from them, and now I was supposed to hand them a huge bill? So instead I looked over the list and decided what I really, really needed, and what I could live without even if it made life more difficult, or more painful. Only then did I hand my list over, with my fingers crossed they didn’t find a way to get rid of me. I really didn’t want to be seen as more hassle than the non-disabled person they’d picked me over.
What impact has this had?
Statistics show that disabled people are much more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. So my fears that employers see disabled people as more costly are true. It’s very short-sighted of the government, as funding the one-off bill for equipment a disabled person may need to work, could keep that person in a job rather than having to pay for much longer term benefits.
What won’t they fund?
The list of items Access to Work will no longer fund include chairs, electronic adjustable desks, perching stools, back wedges, analogue hearing aids, laptops, temporary wheelchair ramps, voice recorders, anything to do with phones (i.e. headsets, mobiles, etc), writing slopes, staplers, hole punches, and much more.
The fact is that many of those items cost significantly more for a disabled person than a standard work, or the item wouldn’t be required at all without a disability. For example the ergonomic keyboard I was provided cost approximately £60. A standard keyboard is around £20, and probably cheaper if buying in bulk for a whole office. A standard hole punch is around £2.99 and a stapler similar. The electronic one I was provided was £40. These prices soon add up, including a specialist chair without the heated function (£600+), electronic height adjustable desk (£500+) and a laptop for home working (£700+).
What about people that have longer term support in place?
The changes have impacted them also. Those that do have long-term support paid for by Access to Work, such as personal assistants, daily transportation or interpreters are now finding they are having their support constantly reviewed, sometimes even on a month-to-month basis which means they are under a huge amount of stress that the support they rely on could be pulled, or reduced at any moment. Other people are being told that high levels of support are only available to people in certain professions and that their work won’t be covered under the scheme.
The government are shooting themselves in the foot here because by funding the support that somebody needs – for example a personal assistant, means that two people are being employed. Otherwise they’ve got two people on benefits, while they’re pumping millions into coming up with new schemes run by private companies to put pressure onto these people to find employment.
They’re also regularly making changes without a consultation with the user base, or any kind of impact assessment.
How can this be fixed?
People with disabilities don’t want to be told they’re worth less than a non-disabled person, as it’s an incredibly untrue statement. What they do need to know is if they happen to require support to work (and not all disabled people do of course), is that it will be funded by the scheme that was set up for this exact purpose, and that it won’t be stopped or reduced for superfluous reasons.
Increase and strengthen the funding, and see a happier, less stressed workforce, and not so many having to fall back onto the benefit system.