Tackling the disability employment gap

Raphaele von Koettlitz highlights how few disabled graduates are aware of the financial support available to them for access to work.

As it stands, disabled people are 28.6 per cent less likely to be in work than non-disabled people.

This difference is widely known as the ‘disability employment gap’. There’s much work to be done to close this gap and ensure disabled graduates have equal opportunities to enter the workplace.

A joined-up approach

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) professionals are tasked with the responsibility of increasing representation of different minority groups in the workplace, including disabled people. However, this work is often done in silos, focusing on different strands of diversity separately, relegating the “less pressing” inclusion issues to “our long-term objectives”. This is flawed logic, as different aspects of identity don’t exist in silos. A disabled black woman could be experiencing racism, ableism and misogyny all at the same time.

There’s a clear need for an intersectional approach to inclusion and accessibility, to ensure workplaces are open and welcoming to people of all backgrounds and experiences. We are moving in the right direction, and movements that spotlight inequality and under-representation have been louder and more visible in recent times – you only have to think of campaigns around Black Lives Matter and the gender pay gap.

So whilst government initiatives, businesses and campaign groups are stepping up to shift the dial on the disability employment gap, we as individuals can make sure we are making the most of all the information and resources at our disposal.

Access to work

Access to Work (AtW) is a government funded scheme that provides support to disabled employees in the workplace. From support at interviews, to starting a job, staying in work and/or moving into self-employment or starting a business, AtW provides grants to cover costs for any support or equipment required. This sounds great, I hear you say.

But if you do the maths, it is wildly underutilised. To sketch this out, roughly 19% of the working age population in the UK is disabled, which equates to about 7.9 million people. Of the estimated 4.2 million disabled people who were in employment, only 32,010 people applied for AtW in 2018-19. This means a mere 0.76% of disabled people in the workforce are applying for AtW.

This represents a huge drop-off in applications for support in comparison to disabled students in higher education, where 19% of those who had disclosed a disability were claiming support via the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). To contextualise, 58,600 full-time undergraduate students from England received DSA in 2018-19, out of the 308,000 students in higher education that had disclosed a disability of some kind.

Why so few?

There are many reasons why people don’t apply – from not knowing it exists, to fear of discrimination. Applying can feel like a really daunting process, with lengthy forms to fill out and assessments to undertake.

That is why Diversity and Ability teamed up with Disability Rights UK (DRUK) and Evenbreak to create a short and simple video guide to getting started with the application.

We hope this will encourage more people to access the support they need in the workplace. It is critical that we, as practitioners in higher education, are equipping our students for their onward journey into employment. Disability Services and Careers Services play a vital role in signposting students and prospective graduates to the resources available to them. In the wake of Covid-19, it is an unusually uncertain time to be entering the job market, so it’s all the more important that graduates are armed with all the knowledge and support that could stand them in good stead.

Beyond the social good of getting more disabled graduates into work, universities also have a mandate to show strong employability outcomes. With performance being partly rated on the basis of graduates’ career prospects, institutions must be doing all they can to ensure disabled students can segue smoothly into the world of work.

Whilst we as a society are striving to lower the disability employment gap, let’s ensure our graduates have access to the tools already available, that will help them find, stay and thrive in work.

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