A Decade of Empty Promises and the Unresolved Disability Employment Gap

The persistence of the Disability Employment Gap, when viewed alongside the weak policies set forth by the Government, show that systemic bias against disabled people is still a serious problem in today’s society. This negatively impacts both these individuals’ chances of social participation and the economy as a whole. Statistics on disability employment in the UK are woefully disappointing as they currently stand. The percentage of disabled people in employment, while improving over the last decade, still only stands at 52.6% - 29.8% lower than non-disabled individuals. The amount is even lower for those with learning disabilities (at 26% employment) and autism (29%).

Policies legally obliging employers to take disabled people on as part of their workforce, such as a more robust rework of the Disability Confident scheme, are necessary. Combining the compulsory reporting of figures on disabled people within individual businesses, with practices that encourage diversity, awareness and accessibility will allow for a more cohesive understanding of barriers still present, and how new policies can be designed to be more effective. This is important, not only to protect the rights of disabled individuals within society, but also to take advantage of the great economic benefits proven to be gained by engaging disabled people in the workforce.

The ‘Disability Confident’ scheme aims to create a standardised method of assessing employers on their commitment to making their spaces accessible and welcoming for disabled workers. Three levels of awards - Committed, Employer, and Leader - are given depending on evidence of past inclusive practices, and company policies which demonstrate improvement in the future. However, elements of its design have caused it to be almost entirely ineffective. For example, one of the required commitments at all levels is to interview all disabled candidates who meet the minimum requirements for the job. However, at Level 1 (Committed), there is no legal obligation to do so, meaning the award lacks any credibility. Worse, there have been examples of employers using self-disclosed information to actually screen out disabled applicants. Therefore, there is a strong need to give the scheme ‘greater teeth’. This can be done by making the scheme’s Level 1 requirements compulsory for all businesses and legally enforcing the obligations of all ‘Disability Confident’ businesses - including giving all suitable disabled applicants an interview and making reasonable accommodations and flexibility to suit disabled employees' requirements.

As accurate data is essential for any effective policy design, mandatory information on disability in the workforce from employers should also be universally enforced. However, only voluntary schemes have existed thus far. One of the most recent is the 'Think, Act, Report' (TAR) scheme, which attempts to engage with employers and collect data about their disability employment practices. This is done through the voluntary submission of employee demographic statistics, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policies, and information on how disabled people in particular are supported within workplaces already. However, results have simply not created data sets large enough to create many meaningful assessments. Only 175 firms submitted data, with an extremely small proportion consisting of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Even within this limited sample, the results were very poor - no business scored ‘full marks’ under Khan et al.’s analysis framework. This is worse when taking into account, again, its voluntary nature - meaning the results are heavily biassed, and the actual situation is probably much worse. There have been other attempts to collect data - the Disability Survey 2021 asked questions relating to finding work and flexibility within workplaces (where the results showed a dire need for improvement), but these were extremely limited.

The core ideas of both the ‘Disability Confident’ and the ‘Think, Act, Report’ systems are good, and could be effective tools to tackle the Disability Employment Gap. However, their current voluntary nature nullifies the schemes’ credibility and makes them ineffective in promoting inclusivity - both the individual and the wider economy miss out as a result. While it would by no means ‘solve’ this complex social and economic issue, legally obliging companies to actively participate is an important step on the pathway to greater equality.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.