As the labour market recovers we must ensure disabled people are not left behind

Addressing the disability employment challenge obscured by today’s labour market statistics.

Sian Eliot is a researcher at IPPR

Addressing the disability employment challenge obscured by today’s labour market statistics.

The overall employment rate is on the rise. This may be encouraging news, but what is missing from the picture is the difficulty that disabled people still face in finding and keeping employment, and most importantly, suitable employment that is flexible and adapted around their needs.

There are an estimated one million economically inactive disabled people who want to work, but who are excluded from the higher standard of living and other benefits that employment can bring.

For those with a work limiting disability, the employment rate for the first quarter of 2013 was just 42 per cent compared with 73 per cent for the general working age population, representing a huge gap that needs to be addressed. For some specific groups the situation is even more worrying – it is conditions such as learning difficulties, mental health problems and depression that most impact on labour market disadvantage – with employment rates as low as 13 per cent for people with mental health issues.

There is little sign that those people out of work and with a disability are becoming more active in the job market: at the start of 2010 11.5 per cent were actively looking for work, which has risen to just 13.3 per cent at the start of 2013.

The current approach to supporting disabled people into employment assumes the problem rests principally with the individual rather than the labour market itself. The Work Programme is now widely recognised to be failing the most vulnerable and hardest to help, including large numbers of disabled people. In its first year only 1 per cent of ESA work programme participants moved into work, and only 5.7 per cent in the second year, against targets of 5 per cent and 15 per cent respectively.

We need a renewed emphasis on the demand side of the labour market, and policy options to explore do exist.

Finland has increased the legal obligations placed on employers to secure either private or community-run preventative occupational health services and prioritise the creation of healthy working environments. Public subsidies are available to support the employers in achieving this. The services themselves include regular monitoring in the workplace, action programmes to assess and minimise risk, early detection of reduced work capacity alongside other strategies of disability prevention.

Quotas are an interesting, if controversial, measure currently used in 17 European countries to stimulate demand for disabled workers and increase their employment rate. These oblige employers over a certain size to employ disabled workers as a percentage of their total workforce.

In Austria and France, modifications have been made in which certain disabled people (further from the labour market or with more severe disabilities) are weighted so that they count more towards the quota.  In Austria, an ‘equalisation levy’ of 200 euro is paid by the employer for each place not filled and an extra payment per place is given for exceeding the quota as an additional incentive.

Another form of positive discrimination comes in the form of reserved employment – designating particular occupations for disabled people only, or giving them preference over other able-bodied applicants for certain jobs.

In Denmark, disabled people have successfully argued that only disabled professionals should be able to provide certain disability employment services. Those who are visually impaired also have reserved employment and preferential access to jobs as telephonists in Denmark, Greece and Italy.

These options, as well as other demand side interventions, warrant further consideration.

Although they may come with a price tag, given the scale of the challenge, it is clear that radical solutions are needed. As the labour market starts to recover, we need to ensure everyone benefits – including disabled people who are historically disadvantaged.

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