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Being open to change is a key ingredient to closing the disability employment gap

I remember learning about the social model and medical model of disability as a bright eyed and bushy tailed student of Social Policy back in the early 2000s.

I was committed to tackling inequalities from a young age, never feeling I quite fitted in being from a mixed race background in a predominantly White British area of the country, but always looked at this through the lens of ethnicity and race, so for me, understanding the historic and contemporary experiences of people with disabilities, was eye opening and a great cause of concern.

2020 marked 25 years since the first piece of legislation that focused on Disability that came into law in the UK, namely the Disability Discrimination Act. This new legislation came about after many hard-fought years of campaigning, and protected people from discrimination in employment, transport and the provision of goods and services.

Until this time, people with disabilities did not have the same level of protection of those making claims on the basis of race or gender discrimination, and eventually, the disability specific protections would be included in the Equality Act (2010) which covers all nine protected characteristics. (Disability Discrimination Act: 1995 and now, 2020)

The Social Model:

“says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people's attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can't do certain things.” (Scope, 2022)

Understanding inequalities issues through the lens of the social model empowers each of us to look at society as either empowering, or oppressing people with a variety of abilities and circumstances.

Over decades and centuries people with disabilities have tirelessly campaigned against systems within society that have seen disabilities as the barrier, rather than the system itself.

By appreciating that the social model of disability is real, we can get to work to remove barriers and enable people to work, live independently, and have agency over their lives, rather than maintaining or replicating a deficit model that leads to barriers in daily life.

The Medical Model.

“says people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The medical model looks at what is 'wrong' with the person, not what the person needs.” (Scope, 2022)

This view of disability can affect the way people with disabilities view themselves, and removing the motivation in society to integrate services, or make any changes to improve peoples experience of the world, and ultimately leads to social exclusion.

Where are we now?

We currently live in a society where only around 50% of disabled people are in work, compared to over 80% of people that are not disabled (ONS, 2021). Although the gap has reduced over recent years, and has been helped in some ways by the agility and enlightenment around working from home brought on by the pandemic, the gap is still stark and illustrates the lengths still needed to reduce the employment gap.

Pay is also an area of concern, most are aware of the Gender Pay Gap reporting that was made mandatory in 2017, for organisations with over 250 employees, and highlights the difference between the average (mean or median) earnings of men and women across a workforce. There have since been calls to introduce an ethnicity, and a disability pay gap, however the gap for those with disabilities is already widely understood to be an area of stark inequality,

Recent research showed that non-disabled workers are paid 17.2% more on average than disabled workers, equivalent to an extra £3,731 a year. The gap has increased from 16.5% in 2021. (TUC, 2021)

Contemporary injustice

We know, that people with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the Covid19 pandemic, and indeed, many people became disabled through that period, meeting the legal definition of having a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

With increases in mental health conditions and a variety of long terms health conditions, we must ensure that those hardest hit by societal barriers, do not also have to endure the financial tax of having a disability, resulting in lack of employment opportunities, or lower paid roles when compared to non-disabled people.

What should employers be doing to reduce the gap?

Although we know that we have a high proportion of people in the UK at working age with a disability, most organisations are unable to capture accurate information about their workforces through voluntary reporting.

It is not a legal requirement to tell your employer that you have a disability, however people should feel safe to tell their employer if they need support, feel that they or others are at risk, or feel that by telling their workplace, that it may prevent issues further down the line. The reality is that, in most organisations, people do not feel safe to 'disclose'.

One of the major reasons given for not sharing information about disabilities, is due to the fear of being bullied or harassed, assumptions around capabilities being made, and it having an adverse effect on career progression (Harvard Business Review, 2019).

In addition, ableist language can cause distress and cause people to feel excluded, for more information you can check the government’s Inclusive Language Guidance.

There is lots of best practice out there on how to make improvements, which range from:

  • Be aware of your legal obligations around disability

  • Creating a workplace environment that is enabling and supportive

  • Being inclusive and aware of workplace health and wellbeing issues, and having inclusive policies and practices

  • Auditing processes and practices that may adversely affect people

  • Understand and activate Reasonable Adjustments to enable everyone to perform in their roles

  • Improve education and awareness around disability

  • Use inclusive language and communication

The history of disability rights and legislation is full of stories of campaigning, advocacy, and tireless commitment by people with disabilities to ensure their voices are heard.

Having a disability should not be a cause for exclusion or unfair pay, we can all do something to improve experiences of others, by actively removing disabling barriers, and enabling everyone to play their role in the workforce by having employers that understand their responsibilities, and that are open about how they are making visible change for all.


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