77% of the overall UK working population are employed, yet less than half (49%) of disabled people of working age are employed (ONS). Is this by design or by default? Are employers failing disabled people by not operating a more inclusive approach to their recruitment practices, or by ignoring physical and social barriers that prevent disabled people from working? And is our economy missing out on a huge potential resource and talent pool as a result? 

There are many barriers that prevent disabled workers entering the labour market from the more obvious physical hurdles such as lack of suitable transport links and inaccessible premises to the ‘hidden’ barriers of social attitudes, judgment and a closed minded approach to recruiting talent. The paradox is that it is often not the disability or impairment per se that is excluding disabled people from employment, rather it is social attitudes and metaphorical barriers that are omnipresent in modern life which are making employment untenable. Within employment practices, a lack of flexibility and inclusivity appears to prevail, making it singularly more difficult for disabled people firstly to obtain and then maintain employment. For many disabled people looking for work, it would seem that the cards are stacked against them from the very outset. For example, applicants for any job are often asked to state whether they have a disability, which can be very off-putting: either from a perspective of bias, unconscious or otherwise or for the feeling that you might be adding to a quota to help that employer tick a particular box.

The 2010 general election saw a marked shift in the cultural perception of disabled people (unfortunately a shift in the wrong direction) thanks to the continued focus on benefits’ cuts and increased use of terms such as ‘skiver’ and ‘scrounger’ by the media to refer to those receiving benefits of any kind. The percentage of disabled people who reported experiencing aggression, hostility or name calling rose sharply by 25% from May 2011 to Sept 2011 and it’s estimated that 9 out of 10 people with a learning difficulty have been victim of a hate crime or bullying (Inclusion London). The situation was worsened by regular media reports of benefit frauds who claimed to have disabilities that prevented them from working but were caught out by hidden cameras and the like. Although such cases are very much in the minority, the media focus on benefit fraud certainly had a knock-on effect for those genuinely claiming disability benefit and did nothing to improve social attitudes towards inclusivity.

But there’s another problem. When disabled people do find employment, they earn less money. Fact. The pay gap is considerable: 22% between disabled women and non-disabled women and 11% between disabled men and non-disabled men (Inclusion London). Taking into account the well-publicised fact that women in general already earn less than men, disabled women are coming out with a pretty raw deal. This is compounded by the fact that disabled people often have to fork out a considerable amount of their take home pay on specialist equipment, transport costs and additional help in the home, costs that are not necessarily incurred by non-disabled people. This has a dramatic impact on the social mobility and outlook for disabled people: a survey for the charity Scope revealed that disabled adults are twice as likely as non-disabled adults to live in persistent poverty (i.e. spend three or more years in any four year period living in poverty).

Little wonder then that there has been a marked increase in the number of disabled people taking up self-employment. 24% of disabled people in employment are self-employed, compared to 15% of non-disabled people (ONS 2015). There are two ways of looking at this. One, that there is a new wave of confidence among disabled workers, fuelled in part by technological advances which aid home working and flexible approaches to work. Technology has made work more accessible to disabled people and takes away many of the physical hurdles that can exclude people from the workplace. In effect, technological advances have made disability less critical and have levelled the playing field somewhat: who would know from an email that someone is deaf? Could you tell from a Skype call that someone is sitting in a wheelchair? But having said all this, the same technology is available to employers to help them to recruit disabled workers and we already know that this doesn’t happen in proportion to recruiting non-disabled people.

The other, perhaps more plausible, angle then is that disabled workers are so fed up with fighting their way into employment that they have taken matters into their own hands and created their own opportunities. Social media has no doubt played a role in driving this with forums such as Disabled Entrepreneurs providing both vivid and informative insight into the lives of successful disabled entrepreneurs, as well as inspiring a new generation to see their own potential and look past stereotypes and imposed limitations.  This is about seizing control. Self-employment allows you to work around your own needs, which for a disabled person could be many and varied. Even just the opportunity to work from home thereby avoiding the commute could be reason enough to become self-employed.

In fact, as entrepreneurs, there is perhaps an argument that disabled people are more naturally predisposed to being self-employed business makers than non-disabled people. The virtues of determination, fearlessness and sheer force of will which come with managing a disability mean that most disabled people have already overcome huge challenges simply to get through their everyday life. This in turn means disabled people are more resilient and have a better sense of perspective when things don’t go according to plan. There is certainly an argument that disabled people are just better at seeing possibilities of what can be achieved, overcoming obstacles along the way, and at not taking things for granted.

Starting your own business and becoming self-employed are both exhilarating adventures. But as great as self-employment is, it can come with huge challenges, whether you are managing a disability or not; isolation, the heavy burden of responsibility, the need to be a Jack of all trades with no IT department to call on. Being an entrepreneur does not suit everyone and is a very personal choice in terms of career options; disabled people have the right to the same choices and opportunities as non-disabled people, don’t they? Well here’s the really interesting part: of the disabled people who are self-employed, nearly half (45%) became self-employed due to lack of opportunity elsewhere (FSB 2015). Self-employment is therefore not a choice, but the only feasible option for many disabled people wanting to work. Whilst developing greater numbers of entrepreneurs is no bad thing, do we really want to live in a society that pushes disabled people out of traditional employment? And if we do so, companies are surely missing out on some amazing talent out there. In a world where we have marvelled at Paralympians achieving the seemingly impossible, where medical advances are improving the quality of life and scope of capability for millions, we need to see past out-dated perceptions and be the positive promoter of what is possible and what is achievable.

Here at great{with}diversity, we are passionate about promoting diverse and inclusive workplaces and we know for a fact that organisations who commit to diversity and inclusion are significantly more successful. We also know that diversity isn’t easy, or a quick fix. We use our skill and expertise to create the ethical and commercial case for diversity and inclusion in your business, providing robust analytics to ensure that interventions are successful and appropriate and to overcome objections. We are here to help you celebrate differences and to draw strength from them. You can find out more on our website www.greatwithdiversity.com