I have worked for social justice all my adult life, whether as a politician or an activist, and it breaks my heart that there are still so many people in this country and around the world who cannot take equality of opportunity for granted. It is simply not acceptable that deafblind people who have the skills and commitment to do a good job are not given the opportunity to do so. This is bad for individuals, bad for business, and bad for the economy.
There are over 100,000 people of working age who are deafblind and living in the UK. However, a new report from the disability charity Sense, has revealed that, although many of them are keen to enter the workforce, only a shocking 4% of 18 to 24-year-olds who are deafblind are actually in employment – a rate almost ten times lower than the employment rate of non-disabled young people – and the employment rate of deafblind people over the age of 24 is just 20% – almost four times lower than the national average.
More broadly, with 46% of disabled people out of work, the rate of employment of disabled people is 30% lower than that of non-disabled people. Too many disabled people have to face prejudice, stereotyping and ignorance in their search for work.
Before entering into politics, I spent 23 years working as an engineer. I often say that Parliament is the most diverse place I’ve ever worked in – which says a lot considering our representative body is notorious for its lack of representativeness.
We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to employment equality. Women, minorities, young people and disabled people all face challenges in the work place. It is important for individuals’ self-esteem and standard of living to know that if they want to work, they can. Not only this, but it is also important for business.
Studies show that diverse companies are more successful and resilient. It seems quite obvious that monocultures limit a company’s creativity and prevents them from connecting with customers. Disabled people spend £80 billion a year in the UK – this is not a section of society we want to ignore. Getting more disabled people into work isn’t just a nice thing for individuals – it is good for businesses and it is essential for building a better economy. This is why diversity and inclusion will be at the heart of Labour’s industrial strategy.
In their report, Sense undertook research with people who are deafblind of all ages and in differing employment situations, from actively seeking work to running their own business. The final report, Realising Aspirations For All, revealed the multitude of barriers faced by people who are deafblind, both to enter employment and to progress when in the work place.
That matches the experience of too many of my constituents. I’ve met with the Newcastle Society for the Blind, Deaflink and Becoming Visible amongst other groups, and they’ve shared the frustration, disappointment and downright anger they too often experience when searching for employment. I share Sense’s belief that disabled people who want to work, fulfil their ambitions, and play active roles in their communities, should be supported to do so. That’s one of the reasons I’ve encouraged Newcastle employers to participate in the Disability Confident scheme which aims to help employers make the most of the opportunities provided by employing disabled people.
The report highlighted the appalling situation that currently prevails, where support programmes and employment support providers are failing to provide the right level and type of support for disabled people to enter, and maintain, employment. The situation is exacerbated by some employers, who lack awareness of existing support schemes, run inaccessible recruitment processes, and harbour negative views about the abilities of disabled people in the work place.
Action on Hearing Loss’s recent report, Working for Change, aims to bust some of the myths about employing people with hearing loss, advising companies on what they can do. They found that a great number of employers have not been adequately advised of the benefits of hiring disabled people, with over one in three businesses saying that they would not feel confident employing somebody with hearing loss.
To address these failures Sense is calling on the Government, employment support providers, and employers, to make targeted support available, to increase the accessibility of employment, and to give disabled people equal opportunities to realise their aspirations.
An important first step is for the introduction of specialist support models targeted at people who have more complex support needs and are not likely to benefit from the Work and Health Programme, and trials of innovative specialist support models using the Innovation Fund from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health (DH).
These efforts should be complemented at a local level by a better understanding of the demands of the local labour market so employment support providers can proactively reach out to employers, encouraging applications from disabled people.
There has always been a huge gap between the number of disabled people employed compared with non-disabled people. Workplace diversity is an essential part of building the new kind of economy this country needs – a new, innovative economy where nobody is left behind. As Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy I want to explore the ways in which we can help ensure the economy works well for everyone – and the consultation we have launched is the opportunity for everyone who cares about this subject to give their views.
In the meantime, I join Sense in calling on the Government to do all it can to build a more inclusive, diverse and meaningful society that enables everyone to contribute.