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What role can technology play in helping get more disabled people into work?

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett November 25, 2019
The UK government pledged to help get one million more disabled people into work by 2027. But two years into its 10-year plan, how is it doing, and can technology help?

Image of less able bodied people at work

Whichever reports you look at or statistics you pour over, the employment situation for people with disabilities in the UK is not good.

Even though a huge 19% of working age adults, the equivalent of 7.7 million, have a disability, according to the latest government figures they are significantly less likely to have a job than people without disabilities. In fact, there is an employment gap of just under 30% between the disabled and non-disabled, with only 52.6% of the former group in work compared to 81.5% of the latter.

Put another way, in the April to June quarter of this year, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was more than twice that of those without a disability at 7.3% and 3.4% respectively.

To make matters worse, a study by disability charity Leonard Cheshire revealed that 73% of the 1,647 disabled adults questioned had stopped working as a result of their disability or health condition. Moreover, some 17% of those who had applied for work over the last five years said their potential employer had withdrawn a job offer after learning of their disability, while just under a quarter of managers admitted to being less likely to employ a disabled person.

Camilla Marcus-Drew, head of sustainable growth at Clarity & Co, a social enterprise that manufactures and sells toiletries and 80% of whose workforce consists of people with disabilities, believes that fear has a large part to play here. She says:

Even though disability covers a broad spectrum, the stereotypical view is of someone being in a wheelchair, and there’s often fear and a lack of awareness about how to accommodate people with certain needs. There’s also a lack of confidence over how to ask or say things and a fear that if you get it wrong, you’ll be in trouble, which leads to an attitude of ‘best not do it then’.

Another key barrier is the perceived cost of (legally-required) workplace adjustments to accommodate disabled people’s specific needs, with two thirds of managers citing it as an issue, up from three in five in 2017. This is despite the long-term availability of the government’s Access to Work scheme, which provides practical and financial employment support to make such adjustments – an initiative that 59% of managers said they were aware of compared with 41% two years ago. To underscore the point that expense should not be a concern though, Diane Lightfoot, chief executive of the not-for-profit membership organisation the Business Disability Forum, also revealed that the average cost per adjustment was a mere £180 per person.

Realistic government target?

But with such obstacles in place, just how realistic is the government’s apparently ambitious aim of getting one million more disabled people in work by 2027 - and can technology help here?

According to government watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO), two years after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) first announced its 10-year target, things do not look good.

While the number of disabled people in work may have increased by 31% (or 930,000 people) over the last five years, the figure has not been matched by a concomitant dent in unemployment due to a number of factors, such as more people in work reporting they have a disability and rising overall employment rates. This status quo is being maintained even though at least 600,000 disabled people are classified by DWP as being fit for work or work-related activity.

But the NAO also pointed out that, despite having decades of experience in supporting disabled people, the DWP still does not yet know enough about what is effective in helping them find and keep jobs. It has also consistently missed opportunities to assess the impact and cost-effectiveness of its programmes, which means limited evidence is currently available to support its current efforts.

Moreover, even though the DWP is two years into its current strategy, it has so far failed to either develop detailed proposals in key areas of activity or to create an implementation plan to cover the full 10 years.

So far so unimpressive. So what role might technology play to help improve the situation and make life easier for both employers and disabled workers?

According to Clarity’s Marcus-Dew, “technology - and not just computers - is absolutely vital”, not only to support people in simply doing their job but also in ensuring they are in a position to do it as well as possible, thereby guarding against the scourge of underemployment. For example, Stephen, the organisation’s receptionist who is visually impaired, benefits from access to a screen reader and Amazon Echo smart speakers, while vital braille buttons have been added to its soap milling machines to help workers on the shop floor.

Technology challenges

One challenge though, Marcus-Dew says, is that:

Although mobile technology has got really good in an accessibility sense, desktop technology hasn’t improved much, while tannoys and desktop phones haven’t changed much in 20 years. So if someone with a sight impairment is looking at an ERP system, for example, it’s difficult to navigate and isn’t really accessible if you’re trying to read fields. Some pages may have as many as 50 different ones, which makes toggling between them very difficult or even impossible, especially as the screen reader isn’t great.

The Business Disability Forum’s Lightfoot likewise points out that “even though technology can be fantastic”, all too often there are compatibility issues between newer assistive technologies and existing systems. Another problem is that many line managers, and even IT departments, are simply unaware of what suitable products are available to help.

Unsurprisingly then, a survey undertaken by virtualisation software vendor Citrix revealed that 72% of disabled knowledge workers did not believe their employer had the right technology in place to support them, while 77% felt that ‘outdated’ workplace kit was limiting their career opportunities – with a similar number of IT decision-makers agreeing with them, even though 92% acknowledged that suitable technology did exist. But, as Lightfoot says:

If people are sitting around being underemployed, it’s not good for your morale, for the wider team or for the business. But there’s also the issue of whether adjustments when they arrive actually meet your needs if you have a progressive or fluctuating condition, such as multiple sclerosis. So it’s important for line managers, and IT professionals, to ensure they know what up-to-date technology is available and to regularly review whether the investment is working or not.

Another key consideration, says Russell Gundry, head of social inclusion at East London’s Plexal co-working space, is to proactively listen to, and engage with, disabled people about what it is they want and need to be able to participate fully in working life, which is all too often not the case. A further thought relates to the growing importance of taking accessibility issues into consideration, not least in in product design terms, as the population continues to age. As Gundry concludes:

The population is ageing and levels of disability tend to increase with age, so by virtue of that, many of us will become disabled at some point. So it’s important for employers to understand that not only do they have an obligation to their employees, but also to their customers too, and they’re going to be cutting out a significant proportion of both bases if they don’t engage with disabled people. In other words, beyond the moral imperative, there’s also the idea that accessibility technology can be useful for everyone. For instance, touchscreen software was a disability-led innovation, so if you design products with acute needs in mind, there are lots of examples where it’s proven to be hugely valuable to a wider audience.

My take

Employment prospects for people with disabilities in the UK continue to look bleak. While there are some worthwhile initiatives taking place in pockets, such as the Valuable 500 scheme, which is asking 500 global business leaders to put disability on their board agendas, the government is patently not doing enough – and neither is the IT industry, despite the benefits it could undoubtedly bring if it chose to prioritise the issue.

An ongoing skills crisis and the growing lip service being paid to diversity and inclusion mean it is vital to look beyond traditional talent pools for potential new staff, but disabled people still appear to be low down on the priority list – a situation not helped by existing workplace technology, both assistive and otherwise, which if adequate, is rarely supported by a suitable third party services ecosystem to help with customisation for individual needs. But sadly until such issues are addressed, it would seem that little is likely to change.

Image credit - Image sourced via NAO

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