I’m deeply concerned that trust between disabled people and the state in relation to employment has been eroded – to such an extent that offers of employment support get viewed through the filter of possible sanctions and benefit loss.

For instance, we sometimes see protests against employment programmes run in GP surgeries and the like. Even where such programmes state they are voluntary and have a commitment to confidentiality of data, disabled people fear they could become mandatory at a later stage, that data could be shared with DWP, that taking part could impact on benefit eligibility (and more).

Since the regime of the (broken) Work Capability Assessment and sanctions came in, activities linked to the state (whether the NHS or any organisation contracted by government) seem to get tainted by the fear of compulsion – and fear of poverty. When benefits can be reduced just because you don’t comply with something meaningless or worse (like CV writing courses when you have a CV but no employer prepared to take you on with your sickness record) it’s not surprising people feel afraid.

On the other hand, if you ask disabled people what they want from services, support to get or keep a job is almost top of the list. The largest group of people on ESA are those with mental health problems (48% of incapacity-related claimants have a mental health problem as their main impairment[1]).

A 2015 national survey of people with mental health problems found that only 25% got employment support; 47% said they didn’t get it but wanted it. Compare this to the figures for getting talking therapies/treatment – the exact opposite: 47% got talking therapies, and only 25% said they did not but wanted it.

The survey – and studies of other groups of disabled people – show repeatedly that people are not getting the support they want with life issues and not getting the peer support they want: 43% in this survey didn’t get support with accommodation but wanted it, 48% didn’t get support from others facing similar challenges but wanted it. There was nowhere near this level of dissatisfaction on any of the treatment questions. And the dissatisfaction with lack of employment support has got worse since 2014.

Incidentally, as Rachel Perkins and Julie Repper have pointed out[2], this does rather beg the question of why mental health organisations are campaigning so hard for more treatments, beds and other traditional mental health services when what people want most is support with housing, employment and benefits.

The survey also shows that there is a desperate need to meet the demand for employment support. People – simply – want jobs and careers. They generally don’t want to lose their jobs if they develop health conditions and do want to get jobs when out of work.

There are several learning points from this.

First we should campaign vigorously against sanctions and the culture of coercion and fear that they engender. If they frighten people off even voluntary employment support something is going very wrong – and the government’s own plan to halve the disability employment gap is undermined.

Second, we need collectively to develop alternatives to coercive employment support. Disability Rights UK is working with DPOs and with the Work Foundation to identify good practice – based on peer support; and with DPOs we have proposals that would make careers massively more flexible, with incentives and support for employers to do so and opportunities for large numbers of disabled people to get skills and apprenticeships that equip them for careers, not just jobs. This could include people being able to work when well – with back-up from the state in the form of better support for both disabled people and employers. And let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the dismal track record of the Work Programme and Work Choice. We need alternatives that work for the people they are there to serve.

20 years ago as disabled people we campaigned for the right to work, the right not to be underestimated or written off. Since the sanctions regime kicked in, campaigns have grown for the right not to work – to have the realities of impairment, pain, fatigue and confusion recognised. ‘Impairment impairs’ as Pat’s petition puts it. In this climate, any emphasis on employment can be treated with suspicion – seen not as meeting what disabled people want, but as promoting the agenda of the state to compel people to do inappropriate work or work-related activity.

We need to campaign against the poison of coercion and sanctions; and to argue vehemently for an expansion of the voluntary employment support that people want.

For people to seek careers, we need hope. The very last thing we need are cultures of fear.

So let’s campaign for employment support – and against coercion. It isn’t one or the other – it’s both. We shouldn’t throw away the baby of employment support with the bathwater of coercion.

And as people try approaches to employment support that aim to be better than the Work Programme – let’s subject them to scrutiny. If they are voluntary, if they respect everyone’s confidential data, if they foster hope and opportunity – then let’s support them and learn from how disabled people find them. If they don’t – let’s campaign against them.

[1] Reform (2015) Employment and Support Allowance: the case for change. Seehttp://www.reform.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Employment-and-Support-Allowance.pdf

[2] Perkins R and Repper J (2015) ‘Parity of esteem’ for mental health services or parity of life chances for those experiencing mental health challenges? Mental Health and Social Inclusion 20 (1) p 1-4

This was first published on the Disability Rights blog

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