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Unemployment twice as likely for people with disabilities

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Rebecca Kincade on May 2, 2014 - 8:11 am in In Depth

In the third and final article in our series on equality in the workplace, Rebecca Kincade explores how people with disabilities go about finding the right job and highlights what services are in place to help them.

The most recently released quarterly statistics from the Department of Finance and Personnel includes figures which show a clear picture of how disability impacts on our local workforce.

The October – December 2013 Labour Force Survey estimates that one in five (20.1%) persons (232,000), aged 16-64 has a current long-term disability – that is 20% of our customer base in Northern Ireland.

The employment rate for those without disabilities (75%) is twice that of people with disabilities (38%). Conversely, the majority of those with a disability (56.2%) are economically inactive, compared with 19.3% of those without a disability.

Barriers to employment

Laura McCartney, Employment and Training Manager, Disability Action, helps to find employment for people with disabilities. She said: “It can be difficult for anyone with a disability to find work at the moment. There are the obvious barriers around transport and access that hinder the process at the start. That said, only 5% of people with disabilities are wheelchair users and there have been significant improvements surrounding access to date.”

Disability Action delivers support programmes that are designed to help people with disabilities get in the door with employers, including Workable, a programme funded by the Department for Employment and Learning. In helping people with disabilities to prove themselves in posts, they have found it to be the most productive way or achieving a ‘win win’ situation for both the disabled person and the employer.

Laura said: “Some employers are excellent in their recruitment and retention of disabled staff. However, the current economic situation has resulted in things starting to go backwards following the positive momentum started by the Disability Discrimination Act. Queen’s University Belfast have recently recruited twelve people with disabilities for one year to help kick start their careers. Formula Karting in Newry, Euro Car Parts in Belfast, the Slieve Donard and Wrightbus in Ballymena are other good examples of local companies actively recruiting disabled people. If an employer is happy to take positive action then we can look at what will work best for them.”

Leading the field

Marks and Spencer, once again, has come up as a leading case study on how a company can create a culture of support for people with disabilities. Laura said: “Everyone that we have dealt with has been incredibly open and positive about taking on people with disabilities. They work to make the adjustments, they do it quickly. Nothing is too much trouble for them.”

Gillian Fowler has been working at Marks and Spencer on the Boucher Road since February. A past employee of the Co-op on the Lisburn Road, she was delighted when Marks and Spencers decided to keep her on when they took over the building.

She said: “Before I started work in the Co-op I had been out of work for three years. I found it really hard to get a job. I found that a lot of companies will put on their adverts that disabled people are welcome but that it was just for show. I didn’t find that I had too much problem getting an interview, but securing a job was tough.”

Gillian has a condition called Ataxia which affects how well and how far she can walk.

Gillian said: “When I started with Marks and Spencer my occupational therapist went out to make sure that the check outs were the right height. On my first day the manager came around with me to see if any adjustments needed to be made and they made it clear that they were happy to make changes. I really appreciated them thinking in that way. I had struggled in work places before this. One place even locked the toilet downstairs and I had to get upstairs every time I needed to use the bathroom.”

Whilst Gillian’s recent experiences are positive experiences there are many barriers which still exist. Even once problems surrounding access have been negotiated, more barriers crop up when completing application forms and even during the applications process. Laura continued: “People with disabilities may find that they have difficulty meeting education and experience criteria, particularly if they have come through the special education system where there are lower levels of qualification rates. While public sector organisations waive the qualification requirement and instead offer an aptitude text, this isn’t the same in the private sector.”

Over twice the proportion of disabled persons have no qualifications compared to non-disabled persons. Laura described a ‘vicious spiral’ effect where people can’t get into a job without experience, yet they can’t get experience without a job.

She said: “Employers need to really look at their criteria and see how they can remove barriers to employment. We would like to see more employers taking into account voluntary work as well as paid work and looking more at of how a person could demonstrate their ability to fulfil the role. Reasonable adjustments should be considered at every stage of the recruitment process, from deciding the person specification through to interview and selection.”

Positive action

When it comes to employing people with disabilities, employers are able to take action to discriminate in favour of a disabled applicant. The Disability Discrimination Act is the only type of legislation that allows positive discrimination.

Laura continued: “We are up against negative perceptions from some employers, that people with disabilities can’t work, that they will be off ill too much or that they will present a higher cost in order to make reasonable adjustments. Disabled people want to work, are often off ill much less than their non-disabled colleagues. Most reasonable adjustments are very low cost and there are schemes such as Access to Work which will provide financial support to employers.

It was disappointing to hear that employer action to support local people with disabilities has taken a backward step during the recession. Credit must be given to those companies going against the trend, creating a supportive culture and taking the steps to offer work experience, placements and paid opportunities, where they are most needed.

As Laura states, “disabled people want to work, and we know that many employers just need a little bit of support and guidance to make their recruitment processes and work places more accessible to people with disabilities. We believe that by working together to break down the barriers we will begin to see employers see the real value in employing people with disabilities”.

If you want to find out more about the types of support available to employers and disabled people visit www.disabilityaction.org or take a look at the video made by disabled employees and their employers about the positive impact of employing disabled people: http://youtu.be/SSHjveONiis

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