Veteran is more than just a blind baker

On top of my Baking Blind adventures: cooking around the world I’ve also been running my business, Disability Dynamics since I left the Royal Navy in 1999 after losing my sight.     The business has been devoted to helping other disabled people to work.

“When blindness forced me to leave the Royal Navy, I was in despair as I couldn’t see how I’d manage: no income; unable to pay my mortgage; losing my home.  All of this gave me immense motivation to try to assist other people facing the same situation so I set myself up as a disability consultant and then started my business “Disability Dynamics”.  Over nearly twenty years, with a team of colleagues, I’ve worked to change employer attitudes, influence Government policy and deliver practical support for other people with disabilities.   Probably the most satisfying activities have been enabling people to become self-employed and start their own businesses through the Work for Yourself projects.  Building on my personal experience, I know that often people facing the most challenges can be highly imaginative and entrepreneurial – and  running our own ventures means we are in control of where, how and when we work too.”

As my “second retirement” potentially appears on the horizon, I’m just thrilled to have been selected as a finalist in the category of “Inspiration of the Year” in the British Ex-Forces in Business awards

It is less about me and more about all those other men and women veterans who have left the Armed Services with life-changing injuries and illnesses but still gone on to succeed.  “I know that there are many other men and women whose military careers have been cut short through injury or illness – but they still want to be independent, successful and fulfilled.    I’m trying to be their standard-bearer and show others that we can still play our part in work, in our communities and in wider society.,    Just having a health condition doesn’t limit our talents, potential or ambitions – we just need more employers to see the  people we are rather than be distracted by misunderstandings about disability.”


Damson chilli Jam

Worth a try: • Damson chilli jam that uses the tail-end of the crop.

I mentioned that I’d made up this recipe a few weeks ago – using all those tiny and unripe damsons that aren’t worth much other effort.  It has been popular here:

2lb 4 oz small unripe damsons – stones in.

2 thumbs ginger – keep them small thumbs to avoid overwhelming the fruit.

2 chillies de-seeded

3 cloves garlic

2 tbsp fish sauce

2 tbsp dark soy sauce

12 oz sugar (with 8 oz it was still pretty tart).

Quarter pint cider vinegar

Just cover the   damsons with water and poach until soft and can remove stones when cooled – might need to put through a sieve.  If removing the stones by hand, it’s worth counting the damsons in to the pot and the stones out!

Finely grate/chop ginger, garlic and chilli – could do in a food processor.

Add all remaining ingredients except sugar to pan and return fruit pulp.

Bring to simmer, add sugar and cook until done then pot in to warmed and sterilised jars.

Good with cold meats, ham, cheese etc.  I’m going to use the riper ones to make damson gin!

Poor health means poor work prospects

What do you think:

  • Improving health and upskilling must be part of helping people to get back to work?
  • If better education improves skills leading to better jobs with less health risks, would we increase overall employment?
  • Are failings in education the root cause of high unemployment for people with long-term health conditions?
  • Is there any point in employment support without tackling poor health?

Catching up on summer reading, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation June report reveals just how significant poor health and low skills can be when unemployed people try to get jobs, stay in work, increase their wages and progress to full-time, permanent employment.  All of this resonates with current thinking that there needs to be much closer links between Jobcentres and the NHS when tackling unemployment.

Having a disability isn’t necessarily always associated with “poor health” (as many Para Olympians demonstrate) but there’s no doubt that many of those claiming benefits due to long-term health conditions will say that their health is poor.  We would all want them to have a better chance of working – with all the financial and social benefits that this can bring.  But the report suggests that work is not always going to lift them out of poverty because:

  • When people with poor health are employed, their jobs are more precarious, lower paid and more likely to be part-time and temporary.
  • People with poor mental health or drug/alcohol misuse can fare even worse.

However, it seems that having more skills can offset the disadvantages of poor health.  Which does beg the question as to whether having skills in the first place (and so avoiding those jobs with higher health risks) helps reduce the likelihood and/or consequences of poor health.  Perhaps it all goes back to the success (or not) of the education system?

Here are a couple of quotes from the report (the layout is mine):

  • “individuals who report poor health are significantly more likely to move
  • from employment to unemployment,
  • from permanent to temporary contracts,
  • from full-time to part-time work and
  • from activity to inactivity.
  • Similarly, they are significantly less likely
  • to stay in employment,
  • to move from unemployment to employment,
  • to move into a full-time job and
  • to move into a permanent job.

This section (of the report) also presented evidence which highlights that individuals with poor health are less likely to move out of low-pay employment and are more likely to move into low-pay employment.”

“Although this does not establish a causal relationship between poor health and labour market disadvantage, it is nevertheless informative and revealing about the importance of good health in relation to the labour market performance of individuals in Britain.”

“A more sophisticated statistical investigation than the one presented here would be needed to investigate the causal impact of health and qualifications on the labour market performance of individuals. Nonetheless, the results reported here suggest that while having poor health is not the only issue associated with relatively unfavourable labour market transitions, it is a principal one, and a lack of qualifications exacerbates the problem. Putting it differently, having some formal qualifications can mitigate the adverse relationship between poor health and labour market performance.

The evidence presented here suggests that for some labour market transitions (such as those involving movements from unemployment to different employment types) the lack of skills seems to be more important than poor health.

However, for other transitions, such as for staying in employment, as well as for the passage from activity to inactivity, health seems to matter more than skill.

However, no clear picture emerges from this analysis of whether qualifications or health status is more important for transitions into low-pay and into temporary work.

One thing that can be said with a little more certainty is that the presence of qualifications seems to have a mediating effect on the negative labour market experiences associated with ill health.

Also, as in the previous section, the results are stronger when mental health is used as the health indicator than when physical health status is used.”

If you are involved in employment support or public health, the report’s Section 7 covering Summary, conclusions and policy implications is worth a read.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Self-employment test disadvantages disabled

Did you know? • Self-employed may need to show “commercial and profitable, genuine and effective” businesses to get Working Tax Credits. • Self-employed may need to pay themselves the minimum wage for 16-30 hours per week to get Working Tax Credits.

Following the Chancellor’s 2014 Autumn Statement, I raised the following query with HMRC:

From April 2015, self-employed WTC claimants will need to register with HMRC as self-employed.  Those declaring income less than the equivalent of working 24 hours per week at the national minimum wage will also be required to provide evidence to HMRC that the work they are undertaking is “genuine and effective”.  My concern is around disabled people who are working fewer hours – some will be doing so on “permitted work” and still receiving benefits while others may be getting their businesses started or may never work over 16 hours due to their health

The following response has been recently received:

“The Autumn Statement 2014 announced the introduction of a ‘genuine and effective work test’ to ensure that only people meeting the conditions of tax credit entitlement are able to benefit.  In the 2015 Budget the Government has announced that, after further consideration, a revised test will be applied so that in order to qualify for WTC a self-employed claimant will need to be carrying on an activity which is “commercial” and “profitable” or working towards profitability, and is organised and regular.

The test will be applied to the working hours requirement used to qualify for working tax credit as a self-employed claimant.  The working hours requirement will vary between 16 and 30 hours depending on a claimants circumstances in line with the current working tax credit rules. The hours requirement is 16 hours for those entitled to the disability element of working tax credit.

If earnings from self-employment fall below an amount equivalent to the working hours requirement x National Minimum Wage (NMW) per week, claimants may be asked to provide evidence to HMRC that their work is commercial and profitable, organised and regular.    HMRC may ask to see business records and, or further supporting documents such as a business plan, future cash flow and profit projections, trade specific documents or information on what work there is in the pipeline.”

Newly self- employed will need to demonstrate how they intend to carry on their self-employment on a commercial basis and how their self-employment will become profitable, organised and regular.

The revised test aligns more closely with principles already established in tax case law on whether a person is self-employed and also the self-employment test used for both Tax Free Childcare and Universal Credit.”

Over recent years there has been an exceptional increase in people becoming self-employed – and many may have been claiming WTC.  There is already concern in some areas that these micro-businesses may have limited sustainability due to individuals’ lack of preparedness (inadequate market research, marketing, business planning, ability to manage financial records and more).  This additional requirement for those claiming WTC may increase the pressure – and test how effective New Enterprise Allowance and other business support provision has been in creating sustainable businesses.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Self-Employment for disabled people

What do you think: • Is self-employment for disabled people just about new businesses or broader cost/benefit goals? • Generic business start-up advice isn’t difficult to tailor for disabled people with the right approach and advisers? • Is the bubble of self-employment sustainable or will it burst without support?

Not surprisingly, having run self-employment programmes for disabled people since 2008, I am rather more convinced  about the value of this work route than the academic paper provided to the OECD.    While new businesses are a great outcome, disability self-employment programmes have the potential to make much bigger social impact.

The paper draws on a range of research reports and found that, like the UK, working disabled people in Europe are more likely to be self-employed than others.  This should be reason enough for ensuring that business start-up support is inclusive and tailored for them.  But this certainly isn’t always the case so that disabled entrepreneurs may flourish despite, rather than because of, “mainstream” business support.  Just imagine how many more could succeed if their needs were met!

For example, our client-based Work for Yourself programme has been delivered over recent years to large numbers of clients with very different impairments and needs.  The trick is to make it relevant and appropriate:

  • The advice:  start-up advice is always likely to be fairly generic.  But it needs to be tailored:
    • for the client group –  concise,  jargon-free, written at the appropriate reading level,  bite-sized, available in alternative formats etc ;  one-to-one help delivered locally, not time-bound or following a prescribed format. Continuous satisfaction surveys check if we are meeting their needs.
    • For the likely businesses – proportionate to the size of the business (no/few employees, low turnover etc) but still covering the essentials (financial records and tax, marketing, insurance etc).
    • The advisers: ours have professional qualifications and many years experience working with this client group so have deep understanding of the benefits system, different impairment needs and the range of other personal circumstances  which all contribute to business success.
    • Inclusive approach: avoiding judgement of business viability or individual capacity but enabling clients to make their own decisions; including people with any form of impairment; enabling participation and progress at client’s pace etc.
  • Research and data: There is no doubt that there has been limited study of self-employment for disabled people.  Some of our work for EMDA is reflected in this recent academic paper.  We also have the information from 6 subsequent years of delivering the Work for Yourself programme plus contextual local population data for further research if helpful.

But we would also argue that self-employment programmes for disabled people have the potential for much broader social benefit.  The prospect of working for yourself can be a means of engaging people who are long-term unemployed, face employer prejudice and see little prospect of getting a job.  Self-employment offers control, flexibility plus the chance of getting off benefits and personal fulfilment.      Many of our clients are now running sustainable businesses.  But the outcomes for others are equally valuable:

  • Some clients step from self-employment in to jobs – often with their primary customers who have seen their enterprise and abilities.
  • Some use the personal development aspects of our programme to re-focus their ambitions and achieve jobs.
  • For others, the process helps them identify skills gaps so they take up vocational training.
  • For many, participation improves their health and well-being plus social integration.

I see self-employment support as opening a door to many possibilities and that starting a business is only one measure of success.  Consequently, policy makers need to consider enterprise for disabled people in a more realistic and much broader cost/benefit context.

On a broader topic, more people have moved in to self-employment than jobs in the UK in recent years.  There are those who have started new businesses, some chose this type of work rather than retiring   while others may have legally-fragile self-employment status.    Many will be the result of the Government’s New Enterprise Allowance scheme for unemployed people.

Now we need all that self-employment to be sustainable but there is a risk that the support that individuals received in the early stages was not adequate or long-term enough.    There are lots of schemes to upskill the workforce but support for businesses tends to be largely focussed on those considered to have “high growth” potential to contribute to GDP etc.

Most self-employed people need simpler help. HMRC has lots of sole trader tax and finance material (HMRC Key Messages February 2015)   but many may not be aware or able to use it.    However, the more pressing need is to make the new businesses sustainable: develop their goods and services, extend their customer base etc   – low growth that keeps people off benefits.  Stronger coordination between HMRC, DWP and BIS is probably the answer.

Disability Floristry Art

Disability Floristry Art

Bouquet of the week.

To mark Holocaust remembrance – for all those who were lost then and those facing similar fates now.

Following the pub lunch last week, the tenant landlord was proudly telling us about the squirarchy that still controls a local village: even the colour of the front doors is prescribed.  He was rather more sotto voce about the tenancy control that meant that there were no ethnic minority residents.  And then we spotted the youth in a jacket bedecked with Union and England flags.  We agreed that this is probably not a place for repeat custom.

Yours staggered-that-this-still-goes-on,

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Benefit claimants de-humanised

Did you know? Society’s attitudes and the benefits system are vilifying, de-humanising and not helping the most vulnerable people.

Getting permanently “signed off” work with a sick note can seem great at the time when you are struggling with the onset of a major health problem and all its consequences. But it can shorten your life expectancy by several years. Other long-term health conditions, especially mental illnesses, are more likely too.
At the start, the security of benefits can seem like a lifeline when ever earning an income again seems impossible. But the growing trend of public vilification of those on benefits can bring other awful consequences.

The “Who Benefits?” report contains worrying data about how the general public’s attitude to benefit recipients has been increasingly negative over recent decades. And those attitudes themselves can have devastating impact on already fragile lives. The report used responses from people claiming a range of working age benefits (including disabled people):
•The highest proportion (36%) of respondents said that the reason they had/were receiving benefits was directly due to disability and a further 9% due to caring for a disabled person.
•Respondents reported encountering verbal abuse (15%) and physical abuse (4%) simply because they were receiving benefits – and their children can also suffer abuse for the same reason.
•38% of respondents said their confidence and self-esteem was affected and 31% said that their mental health was affected by negative public attitudes towards benefit claimants. (Yet, these are the vital factors that can influence someone’s likelihood of ever getting back to work. So the public attitudes, driven at least partly by media and political influences, directly contribute to higher unemployment and benefits dependency.)
•Respondents also reported less favourable treatment from key players because they were on benefits: 18% by employers, 18% by banks/financial services, 16% by landlords. (So a disabled job applicant may face double prejudice: due to their health and their benefits history).
•Respondents also reported feeling excluded by their friends (18%), communities (17%) and families (11%). (Even if these percentages reflect claimants feeling excluded from multiple relationships, they still represent a substantial proportion who feel isolated and may lack the networks that can improve their life and work chances.)
Many people want to get off benefits but the negative attitudes that are being generated make this increasingly difficult.
And The Guardian report indicates that the key employment interventions of the Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and Work Programme may further reduce job prospects and increase suicidal tendencies, suffering and sanctions amongst disabled benefit claimants.

Disability Cookery

Disability Cookery

Bouquets of the week.
To all those who rang me last Saturday and received rather short shrift: I was dripping with apricot glaze and other stickiness in the midst of decorating over a baker’s dozen Christmas cakes. I’m really grateful for their patience and understanding!

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Employment Support allowance (ESA) fails disabled people

Did you know? Employment and Support Allowance is failing disabled people and their desire to work: DWP shoots self in foot.

There was quite a flurry in the media this week about the Work and Pensions Select Committee report on this benefit – and, over recent years, criticism of its integral Work Capability Assessment has become toxic. My reading (Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments) of the report is that the WCA just isn’t good enough to identify the adjustments and support that people with health conditions/disabilities will need in order to work. Even when there is some information, it isn’t reaching the people who are assisting them back in to employment.
The Select Committee is recommending that the whole benefit should be re-designed – let’s hope that DWP uses the knowledge and experience of disabled people and their organisations to do this. After all, we all have the same goal and want a system that helps rather than hampers.
Even more alarming elements within the report are the experiences of disabled people: described as de-humanising and distressing, stressful, confusing and more. One wonders how these policies, practices and procedures can be squared with the protection afforded by equality legislation and the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People?

Disability Floristry Art

Disability Floristry Art

Bouquet of the week.
This goes to Theresa, my office support worker for nearly seven years. She’s been an absolute brick in keeping me sane amongst inaccessible documents and websites, helped me keep the Work for Yourself programme ( on track and been wonderfully cheerful throughout. She has grown and developed great professional skills and is ready to move on to her new career in education: helping more of us with extra challenges and needs.

Yours supportedly,

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000