CCS Disability Action Employment Valuing people Welfare Reform

Not willing or discrimination, disability and unemployment4 min read

24/1/13 3 min read


Not willing or discrimination, disability and unemployment4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

We have already talked about welfare reform here and in the United Kingdom and heard people’s first hand experience of finding employment. We thought it might be time to look at the wider issues around disability, unemployment and welfare reform.

There are two different ways to look at what causes unemployment; labour demand or labour supply issues. Demand issues are due to employers not being able to create enough jobs or discriminating against certain people. Supply issues are problems with potential employees offering their labour to employers. This could be because they do not have the skills employers want or it could be because they do not want to work.

Demand and supply issues are not exclusive, unemployment can be caused by a mixture of the two, but welfare reform and employment policy has tended to focus on one over the other.

Welfare reform in the United Kingdom has tended to emphasis labour supply issues. Prof Mansel Aylward, whose work underpins the reforms, states that psychosocial factors such as an individual’s beliefs and lifestyle are the dominant barriers to a successful return to work in 75 per cent of cases. Employer discrimination or any labour demand issues are not in Prof Aylward’s list of the main influences on people returning to work. Alyward believes that the dominant barrier is disabled people not wanting to work or believing they cannot work (supply their labour).

This view has led to the United Kingdom reforms, which are designed to make income support (welfare) less attractive and put pressure on disabled people through increased work expectations, lower rates of payments, and assessments. This is meant to convince more disabled people to work.

Despite this pressure, the unemployment rate of disabled people in the United Kingdom is largely unchanged. Since 2010, the number of disabled people in employment has slightly decreased. People are not finding jobs. This would indicate that the demand side (employers) is the real barrier.

We cannot comment on whether unemployment is primarily a supply or demand issue for New Zealand as a whole, but for people who identify as disabled, there is considerable evidence that it is primarily a labour demand issue.

The Human Rights Commission reports that disability discrimination is the most common employment complaint it receives. People report being denied a job or fired based on their disability.

When Clint Dilks talked about his experience spending five months applying for jobs and attending numerous interviews, it was clear that the dominant barrier was employer attitudes. What made the difference for Clint in the end was a positive attitude from his employer.

The over demand of the Mainstream Employment Programme also provides further evidence that this is primarily a labour demand issue. The Programme, which provides a subsidy to employers, is only designed to address the labour demand side of the equation. Allyson noted this in her blog when she said “(I got work) Thanks to a range of taskforce green subsidies. Unfortunately, the work dried up when the subsidies stopped.”

In a recent survey of employers, 78% said they believed disabled people were discriminated against in employment. 59% felt there were barriers that might stop disabled people from being employed in their own workplace. Only 21% felt there were none. Most employer believed these barriers were either difficult to address or insurmountable.

There are also barriers from other employees and customers. Fewer than half of the employers felt that their staff would be completely comfortable working alongside disabled staff, apart from working with someone in a wheelchair (53% felt their staff would be completely comfortable with this). Similarly, fewer than half felt that their clients or customers would feel completely comfortable dealing with disabled staff members. The majority of employers said employee and customer attitudes influenced their hiring decisions.

Nearly all the employer showed, at least outwardly, positive attitudes to disabled people. Nearly all employers believed that disabled people deserved a fair go and that their low rate of employment was an issue. These positive attitudes, however, seemed to have no effect on their willingness to hire disabled employees. Neither did knowing disabled people or having positive past experiences employing disabled people. These views are held despite research showing that 75% of disabled people do not require any special equipment, modifications or support to work.

None of this data fits comfortably with the assumptions behind welfare reform in the United Kingdom. Labour demand issues are a serious and prevalent barrier for disabled people. It also appears that the issue is far deeper than just an awareness issue. Disabled people are shut out from the majority of workplaces by a strong combination of employer, employee and customer/client attitudes. There are no quick fixes. The strong labour demand issues will definitely not be addressed by the time welfare reform measures will take effect.

A key reason for our welfare system is that people should not suffer because of events beyond their control. Putting pressure on people through more assessments will be ineffective and potentially harmful, while the dominant barrier is discrimination.

Sam Murray
Policy and Advocacy