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Access All Areas: The Job Market Challenge

November 30, 2010

As a week of BBC features looking at the issues facing people with disabilities – Access All Areas – continues, what challenges does the job market give disabled job-seekers?

Job hunting at the best of times can be a demoralising process. But if you are disabled and the country is in the midst of an economic downturn, then it can prove utterly pointless.

Richard Shakespeare is one such disabled person who’s been through the ringer when it comes to the labour market.

Richard, who has cerebral palsy, lost his job in the complaints department of an internet bank just over a year ago. He set out to look for a new job with optimism and vigour.

But 1,923 applications later, he threw in the towel and decided to start his own business as a disability consultant.

“It was getting ridiculous,” says Richard, “I was spending on average 50 or 60 hours a week looking for work.”

He found the attitudes of employers not always very welcoming:

“I would arrive for an interview, and you could see almost a look of panic in the face of the receptionist.”

Richard’s case is not uncommon. Just 15 years after it became illegal to discriminate on grounds of disability in employment matters, the figures are still extraordinarily striking.

Workplaces adapted

The Office for National Statistics says 52% of disabled people between the ages of 16 and 64 are economically inactive. That compares to a figure of 23% for the general population – in other words, you are more than twice as likely not to have a job if you have a disability.

The figures are even higher for people with learning disabilities, while Action for Blind People estimates that 66% of visually impaired people of working age do not have a job.

Radar, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, estimates that 44% of disabled 19 to 21-year-olds are not in employment, education or training – the so-called Neets – compared to 23% for the non-disabled population.

Successive governments have recognised the difficulties disabled people face in getting work, and have established schemes such as Access to Work, which provides money to employers to help them pay for any adaptations to the work place.

But a number of charities have recently expressed concern that the Access to Work budget will not rise as planned by the previous government.

And there are also fears that now government departments have to fund any adaptations for disabled employees themselves, managers will be discouraged from hiring people with disabilities, for fear of the cost.

But what about the private sector? Anecdotal accounts from there are not very encouraging.

James Parr, from Executive Headhunters, says he has placed some disabled people in larger firms in the past, but has heard of some disturbing practices by smaller businesses:

He said: “I have heard stories of people finding out further down the process, realising that people are disabled, then quickly finding a reason to reject them from the process.”

At the other end of the scale, David Clubb from Office Angels is more upbeat. He says his firm has placed disabled people in work, but usually for longer contracts:

“Obviously it’s going to be a major workplace adjustment for a three-day booking, that’s probably not going to be reasonable.

“However, sometimes some of our temporary workers are in place for three months, six months, and have integrated perfectly well into that situation.”

Outdated ideas

The Employers Forum on Disability has been trying to educate businesses on the benefits of taking on disabled people for 20 years.

Its head, Susan Scott-Parker, says plenty of progress has been made, but the system is not always delivering appropriately trained disabled people who can be taken on.

She accepts that some firms have some outdated ideas.

She said: “I had an HR director for a major company tell me the other day, ‘Well, blind people can’t use the internet, so why would I make my recruitment accessible?’

“But to be fair to her, she’s never seen a blind person use the internet.

“We’ve got a major problem with communication, and too many people with disabilities are being taught the wrong things, the wrong skills. “

For Richard Shakespeare, the need to work was partly practical – paying the mortgage – but also, he says, it is about self-esteem.

“The main thing for me was the issue of pride,” he says.

“I didn’t want to say to people, actually I don’t work, and to some extent play to the stereotype that people may have.

“A lot of people have said to me before, ‘well, you’d probably earn more money if you did rely on the state to fund your living’.

“Yes, but can I afford the holidays and the lifestyle I want to have on the back of the benefits system, and is it morally right to do so?”

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