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The Closing Disability Gaps at Work Conference, British Academy, 12th December 2016, London

21 February 2017
Debbie Foster and Lord Chris Holmes. (c) Natasha Hirst
Debbie Foster and Lord Chris Holmes. (c) Natasha Hirst

On 13.12.2016 we hosted the “Closing Disability Gaps at Work” conference at the British Academy in London, which bought together about 80 academics, disability rights activists, trade unionists, occupational health professionals and others interested in disability and employment

At the conference we launched the report “Closing Disability Gaps at Work – Deficits in Evidence and Variation in Experience” by Ralph Fevre, Deborah Foster, Melanie Jones, and Victoria Wass.

Below, we reproduce a conference report written by Dr Peter Scott (University of Portsmouth), who attended the conference.  We thank Peter  for allowing us to reproduce his conference report here:

“It is clear that this is an area in which there is quite a lot of current public policy interest and numerous research gaps of interest to policy-makers.”

The context

Disability issues, particularly as they relate to access to, and retention in employment have risen up the policy agenda in the last year or two as a result of a number of reports, inquiries and interventions. The immediate occasion for the conference was the consultation currently running on the government’s Improving Lives – the Work Health and Disability Green Paper. Other 2016 milestones have included the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act and Disability’s highly critical report in March, this month’s report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability Ahead of the Arc, and the Resolution Foundation’s Retention Deficit. A low point has been the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ Inquiry into the UK’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the first ever inquiry into any signatory state – which found evidence of grave and systematic violations. Given the government’s rather dismissive official responses to the House of Lords and UN CRPD reports, caution must be expressed about its wider concern for disabled people, but we appear to be at a point where disability as a protected characteristic will be harder to relegate.

The conference

The main arguments presented at the conference can be found in greater depth in the conference report available online.

keynote speaker Dame Carol Black. (c) Natasha Hirst

Opening plenary was given by Dame Carol Black. She pointed to the size of the disability employment gap ((DEG: 48% for disabled people cf. 80% for the working population as a whole) and the significance of mental health problems as now the leading cause of sickness absence. Good quality work was needed, rather than poor quality jobs, and more drivers to keep disabled and ‘not 100% fit’ workers in work. She traced the way in which many of the workplace problems had not changed since her earlier official reports on sickness absence and, indeed, since the diagnosis in one academic paper on absenteeism from 1957.




Nicola Gilpin
Nicola Gilpin from the Work & Health Unit speaks to conference. (c) Natasha Hirst

The new cross-departmental government Work and Health Unit (WHU) is charged with delivery of current government policy on these issues and turning the Green Paper into a reality. Nicola Gilpin, its Deputy Director, was next up and presented about what the WHU was trying to achieve. The main thrust of the Green Paper was what it would take to close the disability employment gap. There is some uncertainty over whether there is any longer a timescale to halve the gap (i.e. by 16%), originally stated in the 2015 Conservative manifesto as being over the lifetime of the next Parliament. By any standards, progress will be a tall order. There are large variations in the disability employment gap by region and by type of housing tenure. 8% of employers report hiring a person with a disability or long-term health condition (so what about the other 92%?). Interestingly, she suggested that the public sector should lead by example, which could mean a possible use for contract compliance.

Victoria Wass explaining speaking to conference. (c) Natasha Hirst

The moving timescale for meeting the 50% reduction in the DEG was taken up further by Victoria Wass (Cardiff), who concentrated on statistical variations in the measures of the DEG. The main point here is that there are too many variations in the way statistics and calculated and in questions asked in the main survey series to be able to calculate longitudinally to what extent the DEG has actually been reduced. So there’s a lot of opportunity for political gamesmanship in determining whether policies have been achieved and targets met.

Melanie Jones (Cardiff) demonstrated that not only is there a disability employment gap, but also an hours gap, a pay gap and a job satisfaction gap, all of which get less attention. To what extent should policy measures also take these factors into account? The 6th WERS survey also suggests that disabled people fared worse in the recession. There was considerable discussion here and elsewhere at the conference about higher rates of self-employment for disabled people, whether this was a good or bad thing, and how much it was an accommodation to discrimination in the labour market (as others have argued in respect of high levels of ethnic self-employment). Disabled people themselves tend to view it as positive, and the ‘gig economy’ may provide more such opportunities, but the counter-argument is that a lot of self-employment is precarious and low-paid, and being in employment can make provision of some resources, such as Access to Work, easier.

Ralph Fevre explaining his research to conference. (c) Natasha Hirst

Ralph Fevre (Cardiff) used evidence from previous large-scale surveys he’d been involved in to argue that disabled workers experience proportionately more ill-treatment in the workplace than any other group with a protected characteristic. However, importantly, they do not tend to attribute this to discrimination by employers or others, despite all the evidence to the contrary, preferring to rationalise the treatment they receive as just the way that workplaces are.


Debbie Foster speaking to the conference. (c) Natasha Hirst

Debbie Foster (Cardiff) focused on the importance of the collective experiences of disabled people in the workplace, the social model of disability, the importance of co-production of research with disabled people and the role of qualitative research in achieving this. She argued that the individualised experience of disability and the current UK employment regime combined to put disabled workers at a disadvantage in organisations where being ‘able’ is the norm. Organisational performance pressures, and tensions between different organisational actors in knowing how to respond to disabled workers, combined to exacerbate the situation. Employers don’t seem to want to learn collective lessons on dealing with disabled workers and any organisational learning is disrupted by frequent personnel changes.



Evan Odell (left) speaking at workshop

Most of the afternoon was devoted to four workshops:

  1. Collaboration on data collection. How to define disability and measure the disability employment gap. – led by Victoria Wass
  2. How should we monitor and address disability gaps in the quality and experience of work? – led by Melanie Jones
  3. The role of worker representatives and disability advocacy organisations in supporting disabled employees into the labour market and in employment and improving workplace well-being. – led by Deborah Foster
  4. Working in partnership to change employer behaviour towards disabled people: HR, occupational health, health practitioners and the law. – led by Ralph Fevre

I went to Workshop 3, Chaired and organised by Debbie Foster, on the role of worker representatives and advocacy organisations.

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Speakers were Conservative peer, paralympian and EHRC representative Lord Chris Holmes, Huma Munshi (TUC Equalities), Dr Natasha Hirst (Disability Wales) and Evan Odell (Disability Rights UK). Themes of the contributions and subsequent discussion included the following.

  • Relative failure of existing organisations and initiatives, such as the EHRC, the ‘Two Ticks’ initiative, Access to Work, to get things where they needed to be. Various reasons, including lack of monitoring, lack of knowledge and awareness, funding and resource shortfalls in general (e.g. the former Disability Rights Commission when it was wound up had a bigger budget than the entire EHRC does today). There’s a need for disability advocacy in getting the people who need it access to the right resources.
  • Lack of data and evidence and monitoring mechanisms. The EHRC will be doing work next year on the disability pay gap, and will need evidence and data to go into this (as well as into the current Green Paper consultation).
  • Much discussion of whether a dedicated commission for disability was needed again, and advocacy and expertise on the different nature of disability had been lost since the demise of the DRC. Differing views expressed on this, although some felt that if a single commission worked properly it’d be more powerful an advocate for disabled people than a separate DRC. Some felt that equality can’t be successfully ‘mainstreamed’ in the case of disability without having specialists involved too.
  • Impact of Brexit: possibly the Great Repeal Bill will force people in the UK to become more positively engaged with equalities legislation.
  • Disability support is a large and difficult specialist area in the workplace. Trade union equality representatives exist, but they need to be upskilled. They need to be in negotiation meetingswith employers about disability, and not just outside sources of advice. However, equality reps have no statutory right to time off for union duties. There’s widespread misunderstanding about reasonable adjustments and how they should be applied. Stigma around disability, and consequent reluctance to disclose, is a major issue. Dissemination of good practice within and across organisations is lacking and needs improving: ‘disability champions’ might be one route. Some of the workplace issues around representing disabled workers are similar to those around equal pay for work of equal value

The closing plenary brought up a number of issues, including the relative lack of integration across government and other organisations in dealing with disability compared to e.g. Ireland. There has been a lot of ‘incentivisation’ to work, not least in the notorious Work Capability Assessments, but precious little success. A lot of disability caused by work, such as musculoskeletal problems, is actually a consequence of the way we (over-)use technology, and it needs to be designed out of the environment. Good occupational health provision may be one of the keys to supporting disability and ill-health, but the profession and OH provision is in crisis and increasingly being outsourced.

Key messages

Overall, I would say the main messages from this conference are these.

  • Disability and ill-health is rising up the political agenda, partly because of the ageing population and way in which the urge to get people into work and retain them in work is confounded by the appalling statistics for recruitment and retention of disabled people and those suffering long-term ill-health.
  • Notwithstanding that, disability and the relevant issues around employment remain under-researched at academic and policy levels and poorly understood at employer level.
  • Disabled people and their organisations want to be actively involved in discussions and action, rather than this be something that is done to them.
  • There is a thirst in policy and governmental circles for more evidence on disability and work to underpin the strategy set out in the Green Paper, although there will have to be a radical change if current policy goals are to be met, let alone broadened out to address other aspects of the disability / work experience.
  • There are gaps in the support available to disabled people and in wider awareness of what does exist, mainly due to lack of funding, integration or both.