Equality for disabled people

What do you think? • Have 5 years of the Equality Act made any difference for disabled people? • Will House of Lords review of equality legislation make any improvement for disabled people? • Do disabled people face systemic and institutionalised discrimination?

There has been a recent call for evidence from The House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability as part of their review of whether the legislation is working for disabled people.   Drawing on previous blogs over a couple of years, I sent them the following comments – and couldn’t hope to cover all the other areas in which we still aren’t getting an equal chance.

Without doubt, five years of legislation have had limited positive benefit for disabled people and, in some ways, their situation is probably worse.  This is particularly true in relation to the failings of the Public Sector Equality Duties. The Government initiative to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential and have equality of opportunity by 2025 has become a creature of smoke and mirrors, shackled by austerity cuts, deaf to the legislation’s demands during policy creation and blinkered to it’s requirements in delivery.  The generous amongst us may believe these failings are simply oversights of lazy, broad-brush policy thinkers whereas the more cynical may perceive systemic and institutionalised discrimination emanating from the very heart of the nation’s public sector.  Would other laws be flouted so blatantly?  How can we possibly hope that employers, businesses and others will comply and make a difference when it is so obvious that the public sector does not?

 Perhaps the answer is really simple?  The majority of “disabled” people (about two thirds of us according to the Office for Disability Issues research) wouldn’t use this label about themselves.   So we are very unlikely to have any homogenous coordinated political voice.  Would another 20% of the electorate be ignored so consistently?

 One wonders how these public policies, practices and procedures will be squared with the protection afforded by the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People when the UK’s performance is next reviewed.

 Just a few examples of issues that have been publicly evidenced over recent years:

Life chances:

  • Prisoners.  The 2014 Ministry of Justice report was lamentable (out-of-date data and disability definitions) but did reveal that the proportion of prisoners with limiting long-term health conditions was about twice that in the general population.  Does this mean that, as a nation, we manage some impairments through the criminal justice system or does the system itself create those impairments – or both?  We are probably unimpressed by other nations that imprison disproportionate numbers of those from, say, ethnic minorities but seem to barely raise an eyebrow at similarly skewed outcomes of our home-grown justice system.
  • Bedroom Tax.  There is a disproportionately higher level of disabled people in social housing.  They are more likely to be receiving housing benefits.  It is good news that there has been more flexibility in waiving “bedroom tax” for those disabled people who need extra space for their impairment-related equipment.    But how were their needs considered when the policy was created and the rules designed?
  • Disproportionately poor health outcomes.  The Chief Medical Officer’s 2014 report highlighted that people with visual (like me) or hearing impairments are more likely to acquire dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, other long-term health conditions, anxiety or stress and have less confidence in managing our health.    Yet suggestions to her that a key issue is the failure of the health sector to communicate effectively with us using alternative formats, auxiliary aids etc received just the response that Equality Act compliance rests with individual health providers.  So where is the leadership and policy drive to redress the situation and implement the legislation?  The consequences are not just discriminatory but life threatening.

Employment issues.  My primary interest area:

  • Increased age requirements for State pensions.  Expecting people to work longer before they can claim their state Retirement Pension goes hand-in-hand with an ageing population.  But does all the supporting policy make this feasible for that majority of disabled people who acquire their impairments during their working lives (some 70% according to DWP).  It is very well known that propensity for disability increases with age (under 5% of those starting their careers which more than quadruples to 23% of those approaching retirement).  So, let’s have the policy but make sure that it works in reality by tailoring and delivering employment legislation, practices and support accordingly rather than jeopardising the livelihoods of even more people with impairments.
  • Work Programme and Work Choice.  The original concept was good: help people to get back to work.    But it needed much more attention to practical realities to avoid disproportionate outcomes for disabled people.  Instead, flawed funding models, poor contract management and insufficient specialist delivery has left those facing most work barriers still on the shelf.  Overall, it looks as if the improvement in the economy is probably the biggest factor in the employability of jobseekers whereas publicly-funded employment support has more potential impact amongst disabled benefit claimants.  But this depends on good delivery: holistic, individual, specialist, tailored, flexible, local with all adjustments in place and empathetic, experienced front-line teams – so quite different from much current delivery.
  • Employment and Support Allowance, Work capability Assessments and Access To Work (ESA, WCA and ATW).  These should be the three pillars that help disabled people get back to work.  But a 2014 Select Committee report described WCA as de-humanising and distressing, stressful, confusing, uncertainty and more.  Another Select Committee report the same year was similarly highly critical of the ATW system for providing in-work support for disabled people and said it required substantial improvement (and those self-employed have had a particularly hard time).   So, with two legs buckling if not actually broken, are the policies properly in place to give us equality of opportunity?  Instead, it seems that unlawful discrimination and harassment are endemic in the delivery systems.
  • New Enterprise Allowance.  Where is the evidence that the policy design and delivery detail for this initiative took account of the needs of disabled people?    It should have been a basic consideration that then merited even higher attention because disabled people are the largest and most costly group of unemployed people and, as shown by the 2011 Census, those who work are more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled peers.  Of course, some disabled entrepreneurs will have survived the judgemental processes and inadequate timescales but was the real potential of the initiative fully realised?  We receive phone calls and e-mails from across the UK each time one of our new disabled business owners is featured by the BBC –showing that the demand is there but the NEA is not hitting the mark.

Return to the old box-ticking equality impact assessment processes would just risk resistance to bureaucratic red tape.  But we know that one-size doesn’t fit all.  Instead those creating and delivering public policies need to undertake more robust success and risk impact assessments that address equality issues.  Where citizens with protected characteristics such as disability will be most affected by a policy, those characteristics need to be at the heart of decision making and delivery design in order to be successful.  “Most affected” means that disabled people (or other protected groups) may experience positive or negative consequences at disproportionately higher levels in relation to either/both the overall population or individual impact.

There is an untapped resource of experts with practical experience who can contribute to shared goals alongside those in the Government Departments that most affect disabled people.  Utilising them offers more chance of getting policy and delivery right from the outset rather than years of subsequent criticism and costly change.

Current enforcement seems patchy at best and very difficult for individuals to access.  While there is scope for improving enforcement, it is highly preferable for those in the public sector to be better motivated from the outset by recognising that effective consideration of disability issues will improve the success of their policies.  More carrot than stick!

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Status Quo bias and disability

Did you know? • Staying on benefits can seem the safe, easy option if work prospects look too difficult and risky. • Status quo bias: sticking in your “comfort zone” even when it’s not comfortable. • Cut unemployment: offer a new status quo with real benefits, reduce risk and failures, and make change easy. • Psychology plays a part in long-term unemployment.

A BBC Radio 4 programme caught my ear when it explained people can resist change even when it will improve their lives due to their “status quo bias”.  Could this be a factor when supporting people back to work after long-term unemployment (often due to ill-health/disability)?

Like fellow practitioners, I’ve talked about building motivation, aspiration, self-confidence etc but hadn’t considered that there might be other strong psychological bias that needs to be addressed.

My layman’s understanding is that status quo bias can be the driving factor when people prefer to stick with what they know rather than make a change.  This can even occur when the change offers real benefits.    Just applying logic may not overcome the bias so we need to use a combination of other methods (many of which will already be familiar):

  • Offer a different status quo.  At the general level, when everyone talks about high rates of unemployment and “benefit cheats”, it’s easy to accept that this is the norm.  Instead, we can offer the more positive reality that 50% of disabled people already work and another 25% would if they could – and that benefit fraud amongst disabled people is very low.  At the individual level, new activities, life experiences, community involvement and more can start changing a couch-potato out-of-work lifestyle. Role models and peer-to-peer interactions offer a new sense of what could become normal life.
  • A true “Better-Off” calculation.  If someone has already had to adapt to a way of life that is “good enough”, they may need very strong incentives before giving up and changing what they have learned to accept.  Status quo bias can mean that people place more importance on what they might lose if they make a change than on the benefits they might gain.  Previously, “Better Off” calculations have focussed on the financial impact of returning to work.  But there may be other persuasive advantages to be gained: holistic, realistic, robust and personally-relevant benefits.  These might include: longer term growth of finances on the new career ladder, new colleagues and friends, feeling more optimistic about the future, not bored by being stuck at home, managing health better, more independence etc.
  • Reduce risk of a wrong decision.  People are often aware of the disadvantages of their existing status quo but prefer this to the risk of change.  And when that change is already being resisted, it is even more unlikely if current apparent advantages could be lost and future gains are uncertain.  Moving back to work shouldn’t be a gamble but as risk-free as possible.    This could range from testing the water through volunteering and work experience/placements, continuing assistance once in employment,  supportive employers who provide workplace adjustments, Access To Work funding for equipment, support workers and more plus continuing help to further develop long-term employability (follow the link and click on Steps to sustainable success).  And a straight-forward way of reverting to the status quo of previous benefits gives the parachute reassurance if the wings come off.
  • Success rather than failure.  I worry about all those people who have not achieved a job through the various employment programmes out there.  An experience of “failure” is more likely to reinforce their reluctance to attempt change again in the future.  Perhaps funding regimes need to penalise providers who don’t achieve some level of success for every client?
  • Make change easy.  When there’s lots of information to weigh up, different choices to be balanced and complicated decisions to be made, just sticking with what is familiar rather than change is the easiest option – especially when life is currently “good enough”.  A straightforward, step-by-step progression that flows towards the change is more likely to be productive – nudging people from inertia and along a safe path rather than precipitating a leap in to the unknown.

Read more about status quo bias.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Disabled benefit claimants are largest group

There are more disabled people claiming out-of-work benefits than any other group.

I discovered this weekend that talking about “Glasto” seems to be the way to show one is cool and in touch with the music festival scene. Clearly I’m not – but was at a great little event in the New Forest at the weekend. It seemed to be aimed at the Baby Boomers as the refreshments were either Pimms or champagne plus locally-sourced comestibles. All very civilised and lots of family groups until it got too cold.

Did you know?

In previous times, the number of people claiming Incapacity Benefit gave a broad approximation of numbers of unemployed disabled people. Now things have changed: with the introduction of Welfare Reforms and the Work Capability Assessments, about a quarter of Jobseeker Allowance claimants now have long-term health conditions/disabilities in addition to those claiming Employment and Support Allowance making them the largest group of unemployed people.
Despite much enthusiasm, the Work Programme has not proved successful for this large group as described in a recent paper by Inclusion. They and Scope have issued further reports and recommendations for improvements. I have gathered some highlights and nuggets of information from their reports.
There can be little doubt that we cannot afford so many people being lost to the workforce due to the onset of disabling conditions. Based on Scope’s figures, about eight million people (80% of all disabled people) gain their impairments during their working lives and, at the moment, only just over half of them manage to keep their jobs. We need the health services to actively help people stay at work: providing treatment without disabling delays. Last year, for example, for every two disabled people falling out of work, less than one managed to return. This suggests that, with an ageing workforce with increasing propensity for disability, tackling retention by employers must be a top priority. Lots of employers manage this and reap the benefits: there are about 4 million disabled people at work and nearly 40% have been with the same employer for over 10 years. Now we need to get the rest doing the same – seet the ‘Disability Confident’ video clips
All the evidence indicates that, once disabled people have left work, their likelihood of returning is low – with many poor consequences for each individual and the overall economy. Just considering the couple of million or so unemployed disabled people who say they want to get back to work, effective employment support to fulfil their goal could improve the economy by about £26billion.
There is the will to make changes. Thankfully, the old days are over: people being relegated to Incapacity Benefit with little support so being more likely to reach retirement age than get a job if they didn’t get off the benefit within 12 months. The concept of Employment and Support Allowance holds promise despite the on-going controversy around the Work Capability Assessments. However, the timing and pressures of the economic situation have been a huge disadvantage.
The absence of successful employment support hasn’t helped either: specialist Jobcentre staff are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth, the Work Programme hasn’t done as well as hoped and the “specialist” Work Choice help wasn’t well targeted. Alongside, disabled people seem likely to bear the brunt of the future Welfare Cap.
The pressure on the Department for Work and Pensions “Disability and Health Employment Strategy” is going to be intense but it could produce great benefits for everyone if it has realistic resourcing and timescales, makes best use of local, specialist support and gains the active commitment of the health sector and employers. We need to keep their toes to the fire and to make sure this happens. So it’s a bit disappointing that the proposals for the ESF Operational Programme 2014-20 don’t yet take much account of disabled people.

Disability Floristry Art

Disability Floristry Art

Bouquet of the week.
After years of train travel all over the country, I can’t speak highly enough of the station staff who provide passenger assistance. Whether I’m at Birmingham, Chesterfield, Fareham, Southampton Parkway, Waterloo or somewhere in-between, they have been excellent. And it’s a great relief (and rather fun) to be swept through Waterloo on the buggy rather than having to negotiate the rush-hour crowds. Of course, there have been the odd exceptions. There was a memorable occasion when, after waiting nearly an hour for my connecting train, I was put on to one going back to Chesterfield. Blissfully unaware due to laptop ear plugs, it was a rude awakening to be fished off the train at Derby to do a lap of honour back to Birmingham again. But they did manage to hold the next connecting train: imagine the sight of cane-wielding blind person flanked by apologetic out-riders cutting a swathe down the platform – at speed! Assistance at stations is invaluable and has the huge bonus of all those snatched conversations: over the years, hearing about the lives of a whole network of people – even down to the latest tattoo. It makes train travel a completely different experience

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000