Getting a Job with a Disability: Has Anything Changed?

By Julie McElroy

Companies across the country are waking up to the considerable talents of disabled people in the workplace. How much has changed? 

In 2017, the UK Government announced an ambitious strategy which aimed to move one million disabled people into employment by 2027. According the UK Government statistics published in January 2023 stated that: ‘From July to September 2022, there were 4.9 million disabled persons working in the UK. From July to September 2022, the number of people with disabilities employment rate was 52.6%, compared to 82.5% for non-disabled workers. This represents a 0.8 percentage point decline year on year for disabled people and an overall increase of 9.2 percentage points since the same quarter in 2013.’

Julie McElroy investigates how much progress has been made in the six years since the strategy was announced. She speaks to people with disabilities to find out about their own experiences of securing employment. They all have their own personal challenge associated with their disability and how society embraces their talent.

Personal stories

Dr. Julie McElroy

Over the last eighteen years, I have witnessed how society is slowly evolving,  employers are now recognising talents amongst people with disabilities. I know for me personally, it has been a combination of dealing with intellectual frustration,  employers’ preconceptions and navigating the job market to find inclusive employers who truly practice what they preach. I have a long list of academic qualifications ranging from a PhD to an MBA and two Masters to ensure I am employable.
Leo’s story

Facebook: Leo graduated at Bangor University

Leo Johnson has a mild form of cerebral palsy. He’s a graduate of biological sciences from Bangor University with a first-class degree in Marine Biology (BSc), and a Masters’ degree (MSc) in Marine Biotechnology (Postgraduate Merit) from the University of Stirling.  He has competed in swimming at the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) Games for Team England. He works for Springer Nature in London and runs their disability network.

Facebook: Malaika who is deaf

Malaika’s story
Malaika Rose is deaf and uses BSL (British Sign Language.) She works in the third sector for a charity called Lifelink. She has a marketing degree from Glasgow Caledonian University. She also volunteers as Guides Leader with Girls Guiding Scotland and has been involved with Guiding for twenty years. She also volunteers for the National Deaf Children Society (NCDS) Scotland.

Twitter: Jill as a Rising Star in the AAC Communication Matters Awards 2023

Jill’s story

Jill Clark has cerebral palsy and is from Glasgow. She campaigns extensively for the rights of disabled people, including Changing Toilets/Places and AAC (augmentative and alternative communication). She uses a wheelchair and a communication device. Jill is actively looking for employment and qualifications she can do online. Recently, Jill won the Rising Star category in the Communication Matters, AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) 2023 Awards. Jill has two carers who take her out regularly.

Facebook: Andrew competed in the Boston Marathon in 2023

Andrew’s story
Andrew Tomlinson who has hemiplegia cerebral palsy which affects his left side. He also has a learning difficulty. He has worked for Penilee Credit Union for ten years, part-time. In his spare time, Andrew enjoys running and is a member of the Bellahouston Running Club. He has competed in the Berlin, New York and Boston Marathons. He is targeting the Chicago Marathon in October later this year. Prior to taking up running, Andrew had a keen interest in hiking and has climbed the Kilimanjaro and the Great Wall of China.

Challenges still remain for people with disabilities entering employment

Over the last six years, the UK Government has been under pressure to support one million people with disabilities into work by 2027. 2022 figures show that ‘the number of disabled people in employment has increased by 1.3 million since 2017, delivering on a government goal to see one million more in work by 2027.’ Securing employment is challenging if you have a disability. The 2010 Equality Act was implemented in part to reduce prejudice towards disabled workers in the workplace. Nevertheless, discrimination against disabled employees persists frequently. Leo is optimistic about the progress being made. He says: ’I feel businesses are waking up to the needs of disabled people. It is a long way off where it needs to be, but progress has been made.’

When it comes to obtaining employment, Malaika says: “I think the lack of education across all disabilities means there is a social barrier when entering employment. This can be down to pre-conceived ideas of what a disabled person is capable of before they’ve even me virtually or face-to-face. However, the knowledge of Access to Work and Basic Accessibility empowers disabled people to voice their requirements and therefore to get into employment.” 

Though it seems employment challenges are too great before entering employment. Jill Clark who is actively looking for a job around her disability, explains: “I have cerebral palsy and use an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device to talk.’ She says: “My experiences of accessing employment have been slow. I think this is because it is quite difficult to get a job which meets my needs as I am limited with how many hours I can work. I also require extra access such as changing places and a suitable toilet.”

For eleven years, part-time employee Andrew Tomlinson has worked for Penilee Credit Union despite having cerebral palsy and learning challenges. He agrees with Jill. “It is still sketchy at best. A high proportion of people with a disability are underemployed if you are lucky to work. Depending on your disability then, thinking about my visually impaired friends who work for third sector or organisations around their disability,” he says.

Inclusive recruitment process

Joy Lewis, CEO of Adopt an Intern (AAI), a not-for-profit organisation believes creating an inclusive recruitment process is key to ensuring businesses develop a diverse workforce. AAI has been established for eleven years. They ensure employers are equipped to recruit people with disabilities with their talent, skills and expertise. They help the government meet its disability employment target in retaining people with disabilities in employment. She says: ’There are still many barriers for underrepresented groups which stop them from progressing their career opportunities. It about focusing on diversity, disability, race, gender within the recruitment processes and the workforce.’
Malaika thinks progress has been made: ’I definitely think there has been an increase in the employment of disabled people. The original ‘two ticks’ now ‘disability confident’ initiative means people are actively seeking those who support and promote inclusive practices to employ disabled people. ’Inclusion of digital technology has opened up access for people who maybe have mobility and social issues and therefore enables them to work at home in an environment they’re comfortable with.’ she said.

The Herald & GenAnalytics Diversity Awards 2022, Radisson Blu hotel, Glasgow. Diversity in the third sector award. Presented by judging panel member Dr Julie McElroy, left. Winner is AAI EmployAbility. Event host Eilidh Barbour at right. Photograph by Colin Mearns 13 October 2022

Meanwhile, Leo says: “There are initiatives there and more in development but it remains to be seen if these will be successfully implemented.”

Andrew agrees: “I don’t think it’s translated necessarily into more opportunities.’ He adds: “New barriers seem to arise all the time, maybe some to do with language context and culture to some extent has a lot to do with it.” he said.

Employment initiatives

There has been plenty of work undertaken by various organisations throughout the UK to ensure people with disabilities gain valuable internship work experience. Inclusion Scotland runs the internship scheme ‘We Can Work Internship’ Programme designed to make work more accessible to disabled people. The Scottish Government funds the majority of the work in this area as an essential component of their Disability Delivery Plan, which aims to close the disability employment gap. Another disability charity undertaking a similar initiative is Leonard Cheshire who have a flagship programme called ‘Change 100’ which offers summer internships for undergraduates and postgraduates with disability and long-term health condition.

Leonard Cheshire: Change 100

Innovative solutions

We must continue to question preconceived notions; the emphasis must be on the contribution that people with disabilities can make. Focusing on this makes dealing with negative attitudes much easier.

Building an inclusive and diverse workforce where employers are willing to engage and harness the talents amongst the disabled community is fundamental to societal change. Improving access groups’ access to work-readiness possibilities through collaboration and shared expertise, as well as one-on-one mentoring, training, and assistance to develop abilities. Everyone has the power to contribute to a prosperous and successful nation.

The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions has an Access to Work programme. The number of disabled persons who begin or remain in the workforce is the goal of the publicly supported this employment support programme. If you have a disability or a long-term physical or mental health problem, it can offer both financial and practical support. An Access to Work award can help you with starting a business, moving into self-employment, staying in the workforce, or any other practical support you need. Some of the expenses associated with your claim may potentially be covered by your employer. Employers can also receive helpful information and direction from Access to Work to better understand physical and mental illness and how to support employees.

DWP Access to Work Video

Government target

The UK government is four years away from reaching its target of ensuring one million people with disabilities are actively in work. A bold ambitious target. There are some mixed reactions to whether the milestone will be achieved.

The Scottish Government statistics published in September 2021 suggest the non-disabled employment rate remains lower than the 2019 (pre-pandemic) rate of 81.6 percent. In contrast, the employment rate for impaired individuals improved from 47.2% in 2020 to 49.6% in 2021, and is now higher than the rate in 2019 (49.0%).

Above: Map of Scotland

Source: Annual Population Survey, January to December datasets, ONS

Meanwhile, in Wales, statistics suggest 32.3 percentage points the “disability employment gap” in Wales is higher when compared to Scotland. Northern Ireland has the largest disability employment gap according to data published in August 2022, with ” the employment rate for people with disabilities (38.1%)” lower than the rate for non-disabled people (80.3%), resulting in a “disability employment gap” of 44%, the highest in the UK by a significant margin.

Above: Map of Northern Ireland

Future prospects of employment

The UK government is expected to reach its target of supporting one million people with employment ahead of its expected target of four years early than planned. However, efforts should now be focussed on the long-term commitment of closing the disability employment gap. Employers should continue to harness the talents of individuals with disabilities into the organisation, embracing new identity and culture.

Leo says: ’Experiences of employment are not good; many disabled people struggle. A lack of understanding of their needs, how to accommodate them and a lack of willingness to adapt to changing circumstances.’

Jill echoed Leo’s remark, “I would say it hasn’t got any better accessing employment because of my personal needs and I always find myself searching for employment for quite a while,” she said.

Fighting equality

Despite the tremendous advances in disability employment, the UK Equality Act 2010 consolidated nearly 100 pieces of distinct legislation into a single act to create a legal framework that provides individuals with rights and a higher quality of life for all. Nonetheless, disability legislation has been established during the last forty years to combat prejudice and equality. Society is slowly turning the tide of including people with disabilities in civic life but may be not quick enough.

Malaika points out: “I think with the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Equality Act, there is more onus on getting disabled people into work and I would hope they achieve their target. At the moment, the cost-of-living crisis is hitting them the hardest so it may be difficult to do so.”

Society must adapt to the mobility of work prospects for people with disabilities. It is now easier to contact people and apply for jobs due to advances in technology and communication. With individuals living longer lives and the retirement age growing, everyone will need to consider long-term work prospects. It has been proposed that the creativity and originality of new sectors of careers would inevitably be determined by how the world adapts to and addresses new emergences of discoveries.


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