As a disabled MSP and Scottish Conservative Disability Spokesperson I am in regular contact with disabled people and disability organisations. Without fail all want to discuss the critical issue of disability employment and how we can improve employment rates for disabled people.
Disability Agenda Scotland (DAS) has identified that disabled people, like most of us, see the importance of work as a source of income, something to do for their own wellbeing and as a way for people to feel they are contributing to society.
However, despite the employment rate improving and the introduction of the Equality Act, there is still a significant difference in the number of disabled people in employment (42 per cent) compared to the overall figure (73.4 per cent). There are disabled people who will never be able to work and both the UK and Scottish governments must never turn their backs on those most in need. However, the reality for many disabled people and those with long-term health conditions, learning disabilities or mental health issues is they continue to face particular and complex barriers to sustained employment, such as societal and employer attitudes or lack of confidence, skills and low expectations.
In order to learn more about this issue, I have been meeting employers and disability organisations to listen to their experience of disability employment and to discuss how we can work in partnership to narrow the disability employment gap.
Within the business community I found overwhelming support for the recruitment of disabled people. Rather than viewing the employment of disabled people as a diversity box-ticking exercise, employers see an opportunity to increase the pool of high-calibre candidates within a business. They recognise that reflecting the diversity of a customer base within the workforce can help in maintaining an offer that people buy into more willingly.
However, all accepted there is much more employers can do to narrow the disability employment gap. A number of employers acknowledged a fear of “getting it wrong” and agree that along with us all, they have a part to play in changing societal attitudes and creating a culture where it is widely understood that there is no stigma attached to declaring a disability.
Charities believe there needs to be better support provided for both disabled people looking for employment and employers seeking to recruit disabled people. Discussions with businesses back up this view. The split in employment legislation between Westminster and the Scottish Government creates complexity. Employers refer to a crowded landscape, where they can receive conflicting advice when looking for guidance. There is wide support for a pragmatic “one-stop shop” where employees and employers can find advice on disability employment.
During my discussion all agree that due to the complex nature of disability a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the disability employment gap is unlikely to succeed. Possible solutions include more nuanced employment programmes, an inclusive approach to the recruitment process, improved awareness of grants available to support disabled people in the workplace like Access to Work and encouraging and supporting young disabled people to have aspirations and the confidence to believe in their own abilities.
The truth is many disabled people have lots to offer the workplace. Employers recognise the benefits of a diverse workforce and there is a real willingness across the private and public sector for the workplace to be more inclusive but there is a way to go and it will require cultural change. I for one intend to play my part in helping everyone fulfil their potential.
Jeremy Balfour is a Conservative MSP for Lothian