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Discrimination against disabled people in the workplace still common

Employment and discrimination lawyer Emma Satyamurti talks about new research published by Leigh on workplace attitudes to people with disabilities

Posted on 03 November 2014

Welfare minister Lord Freud’s recent remarks about paying some disabled people less than the minimum wage may have been taken slightly out of context in the ensuing media furore, but they certainly highlight the fact that when it comes to work (and indeed many areas of life), having a disability places you at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Freud is not alone in suggesting that disabled people’s work is worth less than the work of others; the justice minister Andrew Selous is reported to have suggested at a Tory conference fringe meeting that disabled people work harder because they are grateful to have a job.

But worrying though the attitudes revealed by such remarks are, we should not allow these recent events to distract us from the real issue: the significant barriers and discrimination faced by very many disabled people in the workplace. 

Leigh Day today published a report of its recently commissioned research exploring the experiences of disabled people in, and trying to get into, work. Our findings show a mixed picture, with some encouraging data.

For example, 65% of disabled people requesting adjustments in the workplace got all or some of what they asked for. And the vast majority of respondents felt supported by colleagues and managers. 

However our survey also highlighted the fact that prejudice and discrimination are still widespread and represent a significant impediment to disabled people’s access to work and career opportunities.

Nearly half of our disabled respondents said they would not feel comfortable disclosing their disability when applying for a job, with those suffering from mental illness being particularly wary.

This reflects a realistic concern that prospective employers would rather not employ a person with a disability. It also means that where the prospective employer participates in the ‘two-tick’ scheme guaranteeing an interview to disabled applicants who meet the basic job requirements, these applicants may not be able to take advantage of this.

Also of concern are our findings that 20% of disabled respondents felt they had suffered discrimination at work, and 15% had experienced discrimination when applying for jobs. Of those experiencing discrimination, 20% said that their health had suffered as a result. 

As an employment and discrimination lawyer, and as a disabled person myself, I see at first-hand how much these issues matter at a human level, behind the statistics.

Work is (or should be) the main gateway to many of the most vital elements in a fulfilling life; financial independence, social inclusion, self-worth, status, and self-development to name a few. To be deprived of, or restricted in, one’s ability to fully participate in work is a very big deal. And government statistics show that this blighting of many disabled people’s life-chances is occurring on a large scale.

According to the 2012 Labour Force Survey, only 46.3% of disabled people of working age were employed, compared with 76.4% of working age non-disabled people.  While of course some people with disabilities are not able to work, this is unlikely to account for such a substantial differential. 

Prejudice is surely the most damaging and insidious barrier of all. The remedy for that is greater awareness and normalisation of disability so that it is no longer seen as something to be afraid of and avoided.

Campaigning organisations have an important role to play in taking this on; Scope’s recent ‘End the Awkward’ campaign stands out as a fantastic example of how addressing preconceptions head on can start to break down discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people. But people in positions of power have a responsibility to provide leadership in fostering the cultural changes that are needed if disabled people are to achieve equality.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Messrs Freud and Selous for unwittingly igniting a public outcry against bigoted attitudes towards disabled people. But that outcry is a storm in a teacup and soon life will be back to normal (Labour’s motion of no confidence was defeated on 29 October).

What we’ll be left with then, is the knowledge that discriminatory attitudes are alive and well at the very heart of government, another stark reminder of just how steep the path to true equality is.