Capping aspiration?

Here are few quotes for you:

'I want to give people the chance to fulfil their potential'.
 (Priti Patel, new Minister for Employment, 27 May 2015)

'I truly believe we can make Britain a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing.'
(Prime Minister, David Cameron, 8 May 2015).

Conservative party manifesto 2015:
'As part of our objective to achieve full employment, we will aim to halve the disability employment gap: we will transform policy, practice and public attitudes, so that hundreds of thousands more disabled people who can and want to be in work find employment'.

Good stuff. But is disabled unemployment a problem? Yes, suggests the most recent ONS (Office of National Statistics) data:

  • There is a 30.1 percentage point gap between disabled and non-disabled people, representing over 2 million people.
  • Disabled people are significantly more likely to live in poverty and significantly less likely to be able to live independently, access cultural, leisure and sporting activities (and spend money on these activities) and to volunteer (one of the best routes to paid work).

So disabled people are in a vicious circle where often they cannot access the systems many take for granted, including networks providing crucial social capital. And this means they cannot contribute as they wish to.

I have worked with hundreds of deaf and disabled people over the past few years. I have not met a single one who did not want to work. Reputedly 1 million new private sector jobs have been created in the UK during the past 5 years, yet the figure for disabled unemployment has remained stubbornly high.

So what is needed? A mechanism to support disabled people into – and in – employment. Luckily we have it. In fact we should be celebrating it.

The UK is the only country to have a formal system to support disabled people in paid work. It is called Access to Work. When I worked overseas as a diplomat, I regularly heard how much the UK is admired and envied for Access to Work.

Access to Work pays for the support which enables disabled workers and entrepreneurs to use their skills so that they can operate at work equally with non-disabled colleagues. It doesn't involve handing over money. It's not a benefit and it does not confer any 'privileges'; it enables disabled people to work, pay tax and contribute to society. The fund currently costs £108 million and benefits 35,540 people. The Treasury has described the fund as creating a net profit. As a deaf social entrepreneur, I receive support via the fund. Access to Work lets me use my experience and skills to coach and train hundreds of marginalized individuals via projects with Result CIC. Many of them go on to succeed professionally and personally, making their own positive contributions and being valuable role models for others.

The DWP is now looking at how to reduce Access to Work's costs, including capping individual grants. This could lead to two unfortunate results:

  • It could lead the public (most of whom have never heard of Access to Work) to associate a work-enabling grant with 'benefits' – which is incorrect.
  • It could unintentionally cap the aspirations of disabled role models whose support just happens to cost more and – especially when human support is needed – prevent those role models from, as Minister Patel described it 'fulfilling their potential'.
Put simply, if you cannot get to the key meetings to develop your skills, clinch a deal or get that promotion, how can you progress? And if you don't progress, how will you contribute fully to society, and what messages will it send to those for whom you are a role model?

In the financially even darker days of 2009 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's then HR Director decided that my support costs as a 1-in-14,000 deaf senior diplomat who, against scarily high odds, had got a Deputy Ambassadorship, were too high. But by doing this she not only prevented me from doing the career-boosting job I had obtained on merit, she also capped my aspirations within the department, plus those of other deaf staff. In fact, those deaf staff bravely took a petition to the then Foreign Minister, one David Milliband, asking him not to do this, because of my high value as both an external role model for the UK internationally and an internal one for them as staff. (Read more of this story here.)

In my voluntary and paid work in the deaf and disabled communities, lack of role models is one of the major barriers for job seekers. It makes sense. If there is someone out there with your disability thriving and progressing, you are far more likely to have the confidence to try harder, be bolder and not allow your disability to limit the use of your talents.

I had an amusing illustration of this when I attended a talk given by David Blunkett in 2010. I was at that point struggling to feel I could contribute, having had my career prospects effectively destroyed. David said I should take heart. He had recently been travelling with a trade delegation to Poland and recommended an amazing woman who everyone had been talking about – a deaf diplomat – whose name he could not remember. The room filled with smiles and I said 'That sounds like me!'. Blunkett roared with laughter. But the point was made: I had to be my own role model.

There are far more generous types of support available to boost employment and business including various tax breaks and incentives for companies. Access to Work should be considered alongside these – and would be dwarfed by them if it were. The link with disability is actually almost irrelevant – take the 'caps' (capital letters) off the name and the planned policy looks crazy 'let's cap access to work'. Is this really what the government and the UK needs?


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