Disabling and deactivating the discrimination against disabled workers

Alison Mitchell explains why UNISON has dedicated 2022 to be to a 365-day disability campaigning agenda.

The union’s strength lies in its recognition of the value and unique experiences disabled people bring to the workplace and to our union. UNISON recognises that people are disabled by societal and environmental barriers rather than their medical condition. So, society’s institutions, structures and processes are designed to meet a ‘norm’, with no obligation on it to adapt for those that fall outside this. The consequence for disabled people is exclusion arising from poor inaccessible design in all parts of their lives.

Attitudes towards disability and disabled people have been shaped by history, influenced by religion, astronomy and culture. Throughout our history, disabled people have been criminalised, segregated into colonies, institutionalised, excluded from education, and excluded from the workplace. They have been denied welfare, being forced to rely on family and charity, or worse beg. They have been targets of ridicule and of entertainment. They have been victims of Eugenics and Witchcraft, being tortured and killed.

This has given rise to deep-rooted assumptions, attitudes and prejudices that continue to disadvantage and discriminate against disabled people in all parts of their lives. It’s a national shame, a history of profound cruelty and violence, but equally of resilience and hope.

Attitudes towards employing disabled people began to shift post-WWII. However, this was not due to a fundamental shift in attitudes towards disability but borne from a sense of obligation towards ex-servicemen disabled through war and to address the levels of unemployment created by war. In fact, there had been similar attempts post-WWI, providing limited employment opportunity for men returning from war, but that quickly waned.

Even in the 1940s, the opportunity for employment was limited to segregated employment, or reserved occupations and quota scheme employment in low skill menial roles, attracting low pay. These employment policies perpetuated a view that disabled people had limited capability creating barriers to employment and careers progression that persist today.

Today, our disabled children begin their education with the same aspirations as non-disabled, but by the time they leave school they are half as likely to be in employment, training, or education. We’re failing disabled people before they even enter the workplace, reinforcing a belief that they have less worth and bring less value.

One in five people of working age are disabled, yet disabled people are less likely to be in employment and more likely to be in lower graded, low-paid roles far below their aspirations or abilities compared to the non-disabled. The employment prospects for those people with certain disabilities is even poorer, and those who have learning disabilities or mental health conditions being least likely to be in employment. This has led us to a situation where many disabled people do not enter or disengage with employment.

We regularly hear reports from disabled members of managers refusing reasonable adjustment requests. At the top of their refusal list are: ‘IT difficulties’, ‘data protection issues’, ‘we can’t knit you a job’, and ‘it wouldn’t be fair on the others’. Managers’ proposed solutions are: ‘can you not reduce your working hours’, ‘you may need to rethink your work options’, and ‘have you thought about ill-health retirement’.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that you can overcome perceived IT difficulties and data protection issues, Archibald v Fife Council in 2004 demonstrated you can ‘knit a job’, and the Equality Act 2010 demonstrates that reasonable adjustments are to create equity. Covid has also presented an opportunity for people to view the world through the eyes of a disabled person, experiencing the limitations caused by poor design that did not work for the way we were living.

In 2016, the Scottish Government made a commitment to at least half the disability employment gap by 2035. At that time the gap was 35.8%. Fast forward to 2020, and the gap is 33.4%. To be on target the government needs to reduce the gap by at least 1% each year until 2035, or 3,362 additional disabled people into the workforce annually.

This leads into the next issue: the disability pay gap. In 2020, the Scottish Government reported that non-disabled workers earn on average 16.5% more per hour than disabled workers. The pay gap is worsening, rising from the 2016 baseline of 13.8%.

The crux of the problem is there is a lack of compulsion across all employers to commit to positive employment practices, and to report on disability employment. There’s a need for compulsion on employers to report on disability employment and a need for robust measures that are open to independent scrutiny. To be genuinely inclusive,employers need to measure what they do, and meaningful reporting on disability employment can help them do this.

The Scottish Government also needs to look at why our education system is failing disabled children and young people. The Disabled Children and Young People (Transitions to Adulthood) (Scotland) Bill is a significant first step to ensuring that there are structures in place to support children and young people through their educational journey to support equity on a par with their non-disabled peers.

We also need properly funded personal care to provide those who require it with the finance they need to support them into and to remain in employment.

So, the ‘2022 Year of Disabled Workers’ is an opportunity to focus on disability employment: to lobby our governments to introduce mandatory reporting of meaningful disability employment measures; to advocate and press for properly funded personal care and supported education plans; to educate in order to challenge entrenched societal and environmental barriers; to press for progressive workplace policies. And, to celebrate the successes and contributions disabled people have made in the workplace and beyond.

Alison Mitchell is secretary of UNISON’s Scottish Disabled Members Committee