The notion of what disabled people are capable of doing is changing. To some people this is going to be a frightening prospect whilst to others it looks like a genuine shift towards inclusion and further opportunity.

There is, of course, a huge distinction between disability rights and the notion of inclusion. Whilst legislation has been in place to protect the rights of disabled people in the workplace for a long time now, the interpretation and the spirit of the law is beginning to show itself. It isn’t just about rules and regulations; it’s become far more about doing the right thing and not leaving anyone behind.

The Disability Discrimination Act is still in place after almost 20 years after it was introduced (1995) making it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in the workplace or in the provision of goods and services. From this point onwards, employers and service providers have been obliged to make reasonable adjustments to enable access for disabled people.

Recent changes

More recently in 2005 saw the publication of a government report called ‘Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People’ in which it set out recommendations for achieving equality for disabled people by 2025, marking the first tangible recognition of the ‘social model of disability’. By the end of 2010 the Equality Act had been passed by Parliament that absolutely outlawed direct or indirect discrimination and harassment on the grounds of disability.

Between then and now of course, Britain, along with the rest of the developed world suffered a recession and suddenly ideas and promises started to shrink in scale. Worse still in 2011 the Government decided to make dramatic changes under the Welfare Reform Bill such as the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments. The principle behind the idea was sound; although the DLA seemed to suit it’s many beneficiaries, there were voices that it needed upgrading and perhaps further scrutiny about the level of awards people were receiving, as well as a more rigorous ongoing evaluation. These things happen in times of austerity.

Rights come with responsibilities and the flipside of modernising the system and enabling further inclusion for disabled people to take place was that more disabled people would be encouraged into work or education and reduce their dependency on benefits.

Commitments to disabled people

Some of the old framework still exists and still provides a certain level of guarantee for the rights of disabled people. The ‘two ticks’ symbol shows that employers have made five key commitments: to interview all disabled candidates that meet the minimum requirements for a job vacancy, to discuss with disabled employees what can be done to develop their abilities, to make sure that when an employee becomes disabled that they remain in employment, to develop an appropriate level of disability awareness amongst all staff and to review all of the commitments on an annual basis. Whilst the symbol is still respected there is a little irony that it’s supposed to encourage inclusion beyond a mere ‘tick-box’ exercise.

Elsewhere, the Business Disability Forum (previously known as the Employers Forum on Disability) continues to grow and cultivate ideas amongst mainly larger firms and organisations about what’s now known as ‘disability confidence’ along with other organisations such as Remploy and Diversity Jobs. These organisations have taken up the challenge of looking at disability from a different perspective.

It’s widely believed that one in five people in the UK lives with some form of disability. This figure is likely to increase over the next few decades, and smart organisations are beginning to think about how this is going to affect their ability to do business in what will be a changed population model to the one we see currently. In other words, they have started to think about how they include disabled people in their workforce and indeed, how they’re going to do business in an environment where disabled people are more prevalent.

Hard times

In a rare sense, the recession has put into focus the fact that companies simply cannot afford to overlook any customer at all. If they happen to be disabled, it’s the challenge of the business to become disability friendly (or disability confident) and not as was perhaps previously expected, the responsibility of the disabled customer. To this end organisations of all scale have begun to put firm solutions in place. Not only will the best ideas attract the customers but the bonus is that it’s the right thing to do. It’s what’s known in business as a ‘win-win’.

The big project backed by Government this year is the ‘Disability Confident Campaign’ that aims to continue to engage employers and build on the numbers of supporters who are pledging to think differently about disability. This isn’t just about numbers but concentrates on quality, starting right from making the recruitment process fairer and more accessible through to retaining disabled people when they face challenges associated with their disability.

Minister for Disabled People, Mike Penning MP has been in his current post since October 2013, just a few months after Disability Confident was launched and has been speaking on the tour of Disability disconfidentConfident employer events around the country. His main theme has been to tell businesses that he’s going to make it easier for them to employ and retain disabled employees. One point in particular might well be the key to forever changing the way disabled people are viewed in the workplace since Penning explained that it was currently much easier, seemingly, for a large business to have a solid disability (or diversity) strategy that it was for an SME (Small to medium sized business). The fact is that according to figures published by the Federation of Small Businesses, 59.3% of the private sector employment is done by SMEs. Penning’s plan, in short, is to sweep away health and safety ‘red tape’ and regulation that has, for so long, provided a certain fear factor for businesses in hiring disabled people or that gives them an excuse not to do it at all. He ended the session that Able Magazine attended with the positive message to business leaders to: “Give them a chance and you won’t regret it”.

The new deal

Whilst it is true that the new PIP assessments are likely to be more rigorous and mean that some disabled people will lose some of their benefits, there are schemes being run to give disabled people opportunity in the workforce (and to get into education). Some disabled people will see the new benefits structure as harsh, whilst others will insist that it will provide more money for those most in need and encourage more disabled people to get into employment.

The fact is that 2014 is going to see a shift in the way disabled people operate as a community with more of them entering the jobs market or taking up education to help them to succeed. There is still support available in the old style of Occupational Therapist provision and reasonable adjustments but there are also new things to look for as well. There’s a distinct cultural shift that sees businesses looking for disabled talent to help them understand, reflect and do business with a changing consumer environment. And, there’s now perhaps more than at any time, an expectation that disabled people will become an important part of Britain’s increasingly diverse workforce.