If a politician were genuinely serious about halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people and reducing the number of disabled people reliant wholly on benefit income to sustain themselves and their families they would focus on opportunity to work, not capability ‘for’ work.
Doing so would lead to two lines of reform.
On the employment gap, the test of public policy and programmes would be the degree to which they widened and deepened opportunity. Not just more disabled people getting into work, but equally getting on at work and, crucially, staying in work. Opportunity is multi-faceted. Government policy should strive to create, nurture or sustain the opportunity infrastructure that widens and deepens opportunity. Sadly the haphazard reforms of the current government are hacking away at this very infrastructure, drawing no distinction between the enabling supports that create and sustain opportunity and those areas of public expenditure which are emblematic of having failed to do so. The last government’s anti-regulatory zeal positioned equality law as a barrier to economic recovery, the imposition of employment tribunal fees saw a 45% reduction in disability discrimination cases in one year and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a budget now significantly less than that of the Disability Rights Commission in 2006-7.
An opportunity-focused agenda would:
- Address the gaping hole in government policy and programme to close the qualifications gap between disabled and non-disabled people
- Lead the reform and integration of enabling public service supports around the individual, both through personal budgets and local organizational support, as the Office for Disability Issues had begun to do before 2010
- Invest much more in enabling supports such as the Access to Work scheme & begin reversing the under and disinvestment in social care.
- Support and celebrate good employers for doing the right thing, encourage fence-sitting employers to do more and use meaningful sanctions on those that refuse to change, including through removing or significantly reducing Employment Tribunal Fees
A substantial amount of the costs involved could be paid for by cancelling the failed Work Programme as it relates to disabled people.
Regarding social security benefits, opportunity to work, not capability to work, would provide the new metrics for a personalized assessment regime that genuinely avoided the binary distinction of fit or not fit to work. A work opportunity assessment would be rooted in the understanding of disability included in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
‘disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’
Hence in determining individual eligibility for benefits, the Work Opportunity Assessment would centre on this ‘interaction’ and in doing so take account not only of the functional effects of a persons impairment or health condition, but the disabling barriers that person faces or would face also. This would mean for example, consideration of the realistic chance of workplace adjustments, the availability of human or technological support, whether a person can access the means to travel to and from work and so on, as well as impact on health and well-being. The outcome would not concern ‘fitness to work’ but ‘prospects of work.’
The Work Opportunity Assessment would simultaneously avoid writing anyone off, while at the same time avoiding subjecting people to unreasonable expectations by taking account of the full spectrum of issues shaping their realistic prospects of work. Through doing so, it would also inform strategies to close the disability employment gap by identifying barriers and acting as a further spur to find ways to remove them.