Disabled but not unfit

New moves to combat inequalities in the jobs market
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The Independent Online

Government research shows that disabled people in the UK are six times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. And even when they have jobs, these are likely to be low-status. But athletes competing in the paralympics, which starts next weekend, will prove once again that disability is not a bar to achievement.

Government research shows that disabled people in the UK are six times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. And even when they have jobs, these are likely to be low-status. But athletes competing in the paralympics, which starts next weekend, will prove once again that disability is not a bar to achievement.

Unum, a long-term disability insurance company, is so appalled at the Government's figures that it has embarked on an awareness campaign. It is hosting a symposium this week, bringing together experts on disability who will then work on establishing a set of recommendations to be unveiled in March.

"The ultimate aim is to encourage disabled people back into employment and to ensure they are empowered in the workplace," says Eugene McCormack, marketing director at Unum. He points out that 70 per cent of disabled workers become disabled during their working lives and yet they are still discriminated against.

"We want our findings to have the biggest impact yet on policy-makers," says Pat Owens, an independent consultant on health and disability programmes and a speaker at the forum. However, all the speakers agree that there needs to be as much emphasis on breaking down employers' prejudices through education as on considering legal reform. In the US, where heavy-handed anti-discrimination legislation was brought in a decade ago, employers are now seen as the enemy of regulators. "Employing disabled people should not be about adhering to legal regulations. Nor should it be perceived as a charitable act," says Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of the Employers' Forum on Disability.

Michael Willmott, another speaker at the symposium and founder of the Future Foundation, which undertakes social and economic trend analysis, says employers need to be aware that the term disability now has far wider definitions than many realise. "Consider, for instance, people who are or become visually impaired or hard of hearing," he says. "Mental health problems including depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder are also covered by the term."

As it is, he believes, many employers see the "Do you have a disability?" box ticked on the application form and discard it, even though these issues don't necessarily have a negative impact at work.

One in four of us will experience some form of mental illness at some point in our lives, says Marjorie Thomson, a director at the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Yet job applicants have more chance of being recruited if they say they've been to prison, according to the mental health association, Mind.

When employers are informed that the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) puts the onus on them to make reasonable alterations to the work environment, the usual response is a groan. "I think it's unfair. I haven't got the time, money or space to start making wide enough areas for wheelchair-bound workers," one director of an insurance firm told the Independent on Sunday. The word "wheelchair" had not been mentioned.

"Sometimes all that's needed is an increase in flexible working practices," says Dr Stephen Duckworth. He broke his neck in an accident in 1981 and subsequently gained a PhD in the promotion of equal opportunities for disabled people. "And even if wheelchair access is necessary, there is financial and practical help out there for employers."

A recent survey carried out by the disability charity Radar found that 95 per cent of smaller companies were unaware of this. Almost 80 per cent have no idea where to go for advice. It doesn't help that companies with fewer than 15 employees are exempt from the DDA's regulations on adjustments.

"This is the point at which the argument for legal reform will hit the symposium's agenda," predicts Mr McCormack. He cites the fact that while three million of the 5.2 million disabled adults in Britain do have jobs, there are a further 400,000 who are willing and able to work, but can't find employment. "Our job is to explore every possible means to change that."

* 'New Beginnings: a Symposium on Disability' is at Glaziers Hall, near London Bridge, on 10 and 11 October. Call 01306 887766.

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