‘The soft bigotry of low expectations limits what we can achieve’ – Graeme Innes, ex-Disability Rights Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission
It’s important I think to recall that Lord Freud’s comments – that the proposal to ‘top up’ wages paid below the minimum wage to people with learning disabilities through the benefits system was something he would give consideration to – were set in the context of his thinking how to secure more employment opportunities for people with a learning disability.
What is it that offends us about this idea so much? This government and the last have subsidised the costs of employing various groups who are vulnerable to labour market disadvantage in schemes such as the Future Jobs Fund for the long term unemployed and wage incentives to take on young people. They have done so because employers would otherwise hire elsewhere. In short, because employers regard the long term unemployed and young people as worth less to them than those with ready experience. Further, the system of tax credits has sought to mitigate the impact of low wages on in- work poverty.
However, in such schemes people receive in their pocket from their employer at least the minimum wage. That is, the very minimum we as a society believe all people’s labour is worth. Moreover, the State subsidy involved is commonly regarded as a positive investment both in the development of the people concerned – in recognising their potential and enhancing their future ‘worth’ to employers – and in the economy.
Therein lies the fundamental difference with what Freud was prepared to contemplate with respect to supporting people with a learning disability into work. Freud’s starting point did not appear to be one of seeking to address the lack of opportunities people with learning disabilities have had to realise their potential, to acquire skills and experience and to tackle the prejudice that underscores employers unwillingness to hire – let us not lose sight of the fact that 79% of people with a learning disability have never been in paid employment. Rather it was to concur with the idea that people by virtue of their impairment alone are intrinsically worth so much less to employers and that unlike other groups are not amenable to initiatives aimed at enhancing their skills, experience and employment prospects. Further, Freud indicated a preparedness to give institutional legitimacy to such prejudices through making up the shortfall in wages via the benefits system – that is, by using public resources to compensate the individuals concerned for their unequal pay, not to invest in their futures through the kinds of subsidies mentioned above.
This is a further example of what Abina Parshad-Griffin once described to me as ‘malevolent benevolence’ – prejudice masquerading as kindness or which Graeme Innes recently described as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ which plagues the lives of people with learning disabilities (and disabled people generally) and which underscores the widespread discrimination many encounter in all areas of our society.
The task of tackling such deeply ingrained inequality is multifaceted and complex. It is positive and welcome that the government should be looking at ways to improve the employment prospects of people with a learning disability. Employment is for many a route to social inclusion and well-being. More people with learning disabilities visibly occupying job roles and interacting with their colleagues is a key way to eliminate prejudice and stereotypes. And the more people with a learning disability are in paid employment, paying taxes and relying less on social security, the more that the savings can be re-invested in opening up life opportunities for others.
But our efforts will be thwarted if Ministers in charge perpetuate – unwittingly or otherwise – the very same prejudices and low expectations that stand in our way. The success of all strategies to support people with a learning disability into employment pivot on one essential ingredient: high expectations.