TMCnet Feature
October 08, 2014

Disabled People and Employment Access: The Truth

 Anna Weglarz holds a Masters in Occupational Psychology and spent the past two years working as an Employment Support Worker in Edinburgh, helping people with disabilities to find employment. We spoke to her to find out more about the issues faced by disabled jobseekers and about the inaccurate perceptions that some potential employers may hold.

You worked in a role trying to assist people who faced challenges in getting back into the job market, can you give us an insight into what the job actually involved and what kind of challenges the people you assisted faced?

The responsibility of an Employment Support Worker is to assist a person with disability in seeking competitive employment, facilitating an employer’s decision to hire a person with a disability. Then, once in employment, employment officers provide on-the-job coaching and follow-along support, ensuring that the disabled individual retains the employment or (should this be the case) assist with dealing with employment termination and finding another job. I also provided vocational guidance and profiling, job analysis and interview skills support.  

My clients faced multiple challenges; some rooted in their individual predispositions and others in their employers and work environments. Most of the clients I worked with suffered from physical disability, mental health problems or Autistic Spectrum Disorders.  Since disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications, and half as likely to go to university, they struggled to secure jobs in the high-skills, competitive UK economy, especially at the time of the economic slowdown. Employers’ perceptions were an important factor too.

Many of my clients had impressive work experience and genuine enthusiasm to work, however employers were reluctant to offer them employment. This could be either for fear of having to make special arrangements or suspected high sickness absence amongst this group of employees. Also, the recent policy changes created a so-called “benefit trap”, whereby many people with disabilities are only allowed to work a certain number of hours.

One of my clients, who has had an excellent record of over 30 years of work experience, struggled to secure a permanent job and has moved from one temporary job to another. As a result, he had to “sign off” from his Jobseeker’s Allowance every time he secured a job, even though he knew it was temporary. Consequently, he spent most of his time off contacting the Job Centre to advise them of his current work situation, then signing on and off of benefit to avoid claiming it unlawfully. However, signing back on it usually took a number of days, during which he remained without any source of money and relied on loans.

During times when there are fewer opportunities in the jobs market, people with additional challenges probably suffer more than most, would that be correct?

I definitely agree.  According to the Labour Force Survey, there is a huge inequity between the employment rates of disabled people and the general population.

Stigma and negative attitudes of potential employers are a continuing problem, in spite of the Disability Discrimination Act making it unlawful to discriminate against a disabled candidate. Interestingly, they are the perceptions but research shows that people with disabilities are some of the most reliable, hard-working and committed employees, highly valued by their employers.

Can you tell us what the general success rate was in placing people in roles that suited them?

The rates depended on the time of the year - obviously, in Edinburgh, Christmas and summertime are the best for jobseekers. Therefore, the success rates were quite high at that point. However, many of these were temporary jobs and formally did not even count as “employment outcomes” for the service funders. The success rates also depended on the type of clients that we worked with. Naturally, some clients were closer to the job market than others and secured jobs within 3-6 months of joining my service.

Skilled, pro-active Employment Support Workers supported as many as 4-6 people into paid, permanent employment within a year. However, on average, 5-10% of service users secured paid jobs within a year. Many of our efforts were also directed towards improving our clients’ vocational skills; therefore we supported them in finding courses or placements, where they could develop their portfolio of skills and knowledge, potentially leading to securing a paid job.

Aside from the financial benefits of being employed, can you tell us about the wider impact that finding a job has on people’s lives?

The benefits of work are more than financial. The difference that a job made to a client was extraordinary; an occupation provided structure and purpose to their days, improved their self-esteem and social interactions. It often re-arranged their entire lives;  from the very basic aspects of it, such as having something to wake up to in the morning, a work group to belong to, independence and continuous development, to numerous higher order benefits. These could include a more positive outlook on life, greater hopes and plans for the future.

Unemployment is one of the most stressful life events, often leading to a diminished social status, disturbed social roles, debt and the feeling of guilt. We can’t forget that for people with disabilities there are significant additional gains from participating in open, competitive employment; particularly in the areas of illness management, higher quality of life and higher societal acceptance.

One of my clients, who used to shy away from any public meeting, became a very outgoing and sociable person after securing a job, chairing group meetings and participating in charity events. The job had awakened his potential, giving him the confidence needed to participate more fully in his local community and to take up additional training. Obviously, the financial security and reduced dependence on social security benefits has not been without importance. People need to be aware that most of my clients despised this dependence and were prepared to take up any job to free themselves up from it.

 How about their new employers and co-workers, did they find a positive aspect to being involved that went beyond simply filling a position?

 Yes.  In my experience, the employers who decided to employ a disabled candidate had additional “moral” motivation and were often quite creative and flexible.  Their motivation, however, often stemmed from previous positive experience of having a disabled employee or a disabled family member. Thus, there was no fear or knowledge gap. Instead, they demonstrated goodwill and cooperation.

Most employers seemed to be motivated by the desire to give disabled people greater opportunities.  While this is not to say that they didn’t have initial concerns about the business advantages and disadvantages or the work performance, most employers were co-operative and interested in making sure that the employee was comfortable at work.

 What advice would you give to people who feel like they face certain challenges that may rule them out of the jobs market?

Believe in yourself! With that belief, be brave and pro-active. Job seeking is a huge effort and can be an exhausting, disheartening experience but have confidence in yourself! After all, you have nothing to lose and lots to gain!

 And what advice would you offer to their potential employers?

Don’t let your fears and stereotypes affect your recruitment decisions! Disabled employees often possess skills and characteristics that may not be immediately visible on their CV but can be very beneficial for your business. Think about your staff and how good an influence a disabled colleague may have on developing teamwork and team dynamics, as well as attacking unfair stigmatising and prejudice.

When one of my clients, working in customer services, had his hours significantly decreased due to changing business needs, his colleagues decided to give their (already limited) working hours away, so that he would not lose income and could still work and be a part of the team.  So, the potential for raising awareness amongst employees and team-bonding is huge.

Thank you to Anna for speaking to us and giving us such an in-depth look at the situation faced by both jobseekers and employees with disabilities. We hope that it’s proved informative and helpful in giving employers and potential employers a clearer understanding of the surrounding issues.

At s1jobs, we’re committed to working with both employers and employment candidates of all backgrounds. As our Partnership Manager, Billy Girvan, says -

“With around 380,000 disabled people of working age in Scotland currently not in employment*, it’s a potential pool of talent that hasn’t been fully tapped by employers, there’s little doubt about that. The will to achieve in one’s life and carve a successful career isn’t just limited to the able bodied and, in my experience, the employers who do embrace the opportunity to better integrate reap great rewards for their people on many levels.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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