Thursday, 19 September 2013

Does the UK expect too little of disabled people?

64% of working age disabled people are unemployed, and those paralysed by Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) are no exception when it comes to the many difficulties faced when finding work. As a charity offering practical support to spinal injured people, disability, benefits and employment are always high on the agenda as elements affecting opportunity, choice and independence.

We’re a bit late with this, but a week or so on and we’re still disappointed with Dr Stephen Duckworth’s comments about disabled people and employment. You see, we think that disabled people should expect more from Britain, not the other way round as Dr Duckworth suggested.
Duckworth, the chief executive for Capita’s Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment services, angered many disabled people recently when he stated that “north of a million” people currently claiming disability benefits should not be. In a rather confusing interview with the Sunday Times, Dr Duckworth suggested, without providing any evidence, that many of those claiming disability related benefits were not really disabled and merely had ‘trivial injuries’.  Appearing to switch between talking about Disability Living Allowance (DLA)/PIP, which he has previously acknowledged is an important and ‘enabling’ benefit, and Employment Support Allowance (ESA), he said Britain had failed disabled people by not expecting more from them. This expectation appears to mean an expectation to work with Dr Duckworth asserting that, “It is far better to go back to work to get better than to wait to get better to get back to work. Use work as a therapeutic intervention.”

Aspire agrees that there are merits to working and that many disabled people currently not working should be. Being in employment, volunteering, education or training has repeatedly been shown as having mental and physical health benefits. However, just because someone is looking for work there is no guarantee they will find employment. Despite legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act and now the Equality Act, disabled people are more than four times more likely to be involuntarily out of work than non-disabled people. And almost 60% of adults with impairments experience barriers in the type and amount of paid work they do. In an already competitive jobs market, though, where discrimination is still being fought, the notion that employers should take on staff who are in need of paid ‘therapeutic intervention’ is hardly likely to improve things for disabled people. Indeed, the situation is already compounded by the threat that many disabled people who currently receive DLA will no longer do so under the new PIP system. DLA/PIP is, in Dr Duckworth’s own words, “an enabling benefit...that in part removes some of the additional costs, which are imposed as a result of the disabling barriers that society imposes” on disabled people. The government has said it expects 20% less people to receive PIP than currently receive DLA. This may prevent many of this 20% who currently work from doing so due not being able to mitigate some of those disabling barriers through receiving DLA/PIP. Perhaps this is something Dr Duckworth should be more concerned about rather than appearing to attempt to dismiss those receiving ESA as not ‘really’ disabled.

Because Dr Duckworth is himself disabled, his words appear to be given extra weight and this is problematic on several levels. Disabled people are not a homogeneous group and different impairments affect people differently. Even those with a similar impairment to Dr Duckworth may not experience the same barriers to employment or the same experience of impairment. For example, being able to afford a top end wheelchair can make both moving around and remaining in your wheelchair much easier than the sort of standard wheelchairs most people receive through NHS provision. Also not everyone with a SCI will experience the same levels of pain, spasms, mental health response to major trauma, bladder and bowel management, and so on. Unfortunately, Dr Duckworth appears to be being held up as a disabled role model, an example of how to ‘overcome’ disability. However, no two people’s lived experience of disability is the same and focusing on the structural barriers which can lead to the higher rates of employment amongst disabled people is crucial.

It is a shame that his comments add to the general public’s confusion over the difference between ESA, which is an out of work benefit, and DLA/PIP, which is aimed at alleviating some of the additional costs of disability regardless of whether someone is in or out of work. At the same time, his words add to the idea that if disabled people just tried harder they could work, and don’t address the more pertinent issues of what employers could do to enable more disabled people to work. Disability and employment is a hugely important discussion that has to take place. But if we’re to see sensible discussions with positive outcomes, then both those speaking and those reporting on the discussions have to ensure that they are coming from a position of sound evidence and clear understanding of the bigger issues.

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