Thursday, 16 October 2014

"Disabled are not worth the minimum wage" - some thoughts

The row yesterday over some people with disabilities "not being worth the minimum wage" really stems from underlying failures in the perceptions of the non-disabled and changes in legislation since 1997. Incidentally, the word 'disabled' also covers those with long term health conditions.

Employment quotas that gave the disabled access to work were abolished nearly twenty years ago and replaced by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA, 1997).  Since then, their numbers in work have drastically decreased, to 50%.  Prior to the DDA, every effort was made to train up and get people to fill jobs that employers had to offer them, under quotas.

The First World War veterans are behind the first of two influential disability Acts in the 20th century, one in 1919, and the second in 1944. They created the notion of a "right to a job" for those with disabilities; then made it mandatory for reasonably-sized employers to employ them.

The number of wounded men in Word War One (1.3m) was visible and appalling. A Jewish businessman in the rubber business in Lancashire came up with the creative idea of forcing companies to ensure that a certain proportion of their workforce must be WW1 veterans. The Government would not force them but made it optional and it was a huge success : within a year, 86,000 war veterans had been employed. In 1944, during WW2, with a shortage of employees, the civilian disabled were included. This time the legislation was mandatory on all employers with over 10 staff.  This situation lasted until 1997.

Of course, the DDA since 1997 has been positive for those with less serious disabilities - forcing employers to make workplace adjustments which have kept me in constant work since 1997. The Equality Act now also covers those with conditions such as ME and cancer, making it a legal duty to make adjustments for people with them. Employers must examine unconscious bias against disability. They must deem any bias a very serious thing - even if they cannot correct it.

For those with serious disabilities or mental illnesses who used to get special training and jobs created for them, there is little or nothing to get them back into the workplace. A 50% unemployment rate against a minority in need of support (vulnerable) is a failure in society.

Historically, civilian disabled were seen as something of a burden, in a way that military disabled were not - and they were expected to earn their keep, possibly making small things from home, or begging on the streets, selling matches. They used to rely on charitable help since the government did little or nothing for them. They were seen as "less deserving" and had to pay for prosthetics, which military disabled got free.

Having had a long term health condition in the workplace, my sense is that a few colleagues would never express their feeling that one may have some "unfair" advantages over them e.g. flexible working, or that you are lucky to be in work. However, my enduring sense is that the work and input of the disabled is not valued equally with that of those without disabilities - whatever they do - however outstanding. This is an attitude latent in our society, even in all of us, even today:  it is an instinctive and biased assumption that broke through in this gaffe discussed yesterday (shameful as the gaffe was).

The problem lies with innate, biased perceptions in the non-disabled. In fact, research shows that disabled employers are more reliable, less sick and often more very conscientious than their non-disabled-bodied counterparts, in spite of their added costs and challenges. Hence, they are doubly worth employing. They also add  value: 11m people in the UK have a disability or long term health condition and the disabled add a wider perspective to the narrow thinking of the non-disabled. Without their input, society soon runs just in the interests of the non-disabled, which results in a loss in quality of life for everyone.

I would value a rethink about employment quotas in the workplace for those with serious disabilities: the decrease in numbers in work since 1997 is wiping out the talents and aspirations of whole generations of people with disabilities and long term health conditions who deserve all the help we can give them.

Lastly, I would like to know if all MPs, and members of the House of Lords have regular training in "unconscious bias".

(A version is this article was recently published on a high profile website about World War One)

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