The government's commitment to closing the disability gap, ie the difference between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people, is I would argue a key measure by which we should evaluate its promise to build 'a stronger, fairer, more prosperous Britain, for all of us.'
In mid-2016, the Department for Work and Pensions calculated that 49% of disabled people aged 16 to 64 were in work, compared with 81% of non-disabled people. The gap therefore stood at 32% which is worse than it was in 2010 (30%).
Embarrassingly, the UK also falls well behind when benchmarked against the majority of EU countries, including France (10%), Italy (12%), Spain (15%) and Germany (20%), as well as the EU average of approximately 25%. It's worth mentioning that outside of the EU the situation for disabled people wanting to work is often much worse: the employment gap in Russia is 52% and in the US it is 46%.
I argue that if the UK government is serious about addressing the disability gap and getting a million more disabled people into meaningful employment, then it must engage with industry and provide incentives for them to work with the third sector to both recruit and retain disabled people.
The government can't tackle this issue in the corridors of Whitehall alone. There is a lot that they can do, including reforming the Work Capability Assessment – a stressful process for many, particularly those with severe conditions – and making sure that disabled people receive financial support that is appropriate and proportional to the severity of their condition via Personal Independence Payments and Access to Work grants.
But to create sustainable, long-term employment opportunities for disabled people, the government needs to look beyond job creation and see that the challenge ahead is ostensibly one of job creation and retention. To prove my point, you only need to look at new research from disability charity Scope (with whom we launched a new corporate partnership this year) who claim that for every 100 disabled people who found employment between October 2016 and March 2017, 114 left.
One of the principal reasons why the retention rate for disabled employees is so poor in this country is that disabled people still face a culture of misunderstanding and prejudice everywhere they go. Over half of disabled people say that they've been bullied or harassed at work and over two thirds of people in the UK say they feel uncomfortable around disability. This has to stop.
It's for this reason that we've partnered with Scope on a year-long 'End the Awkward' campaign to encourage Amey employees to feel more confident and less awkward around disability in the workplace. Scope are holding a number of training sessions up and down the country with our workforce to highlight the normality of disability and the reality of unconscious bias.
Together Amey and Scope want to change attitudes and behaviours towards disabled people, making sure that they feel included and valued at work and ensuring that they want to come and work for us and stay working for us. We hope that more companies will follow our lead and that the government will do all it can to support such initiatives.
After all, the benefits of getting disabled people into work are huge, both for businesses who stand to gain new skills, experience and perspectives and for the economy as a whole, which will see a boost in productivity and a significant reduction in welfare costs.
In their 2016 report 'A Million Futures', Scope estimate that the UK economy could grow by £45bn by 2031 if an extra 1 million disabled people were brought into employment. That's not a number that the government can afford to ignore.
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