Recent research by Scope showed that disabled people pay a financial penalty of £570 monthly. But in Scotland, it was significantly higher: disabled people in Scotland pay £632 extra a month. The welfare cuts implemented by Westminster disproportionately affected people with disabilities and it’s something that Holyrood is aware of and trying to change.
“I think it’s time for us to support disabled people and not penalise them,” says Nicola Sturgeon. “Reducing costs and helping disabled people to reach their potential drives the thinking behind the Social Security Bill, but also much of the thinking behind our work to reduce the disability employment gap,” she says. “Getting more disabled people able to be in employment, earning and being independent is important as are policies like extending personal care to the under-65s. So there is a whole package of policies that are designed to make the lives easier for people with disabilities.”
The government launched the Social Security Bill earlier this year, which devolved powers to Scotland regarding social benefits. Holyrood now has control over 11 benefits, including disability living allowance, personal independence payments and carer’s allowance.
Currently, the number of disabled people in employment in Scotland is around 42% according to the Scottish Government, as opposed to over 80% for non-disabled people. It’s a statistic that needs improving, and part of the problem lies with employers.
“Often employers will say that they would like to employ people with disabilities but perhaps don’t know what responsibilities that puts on them and how to go about that,” explains Nicola, who points out that employers have specifically asked for extra support. “This is very much a practical fund that’s designed to give the employers the advice and support that they need.”
It’s important to focus on the fact that the reason that disabled people aren’t in employment is not necessarily their fault. Not only are many disabled people keen to get into the workplace, they are work-ready and have the necessary skills – it’s the employers who aren’t ready.
“Often, the reasons why people with disabilities don’t get into employment isn’t to do with the abilities of the disabled person. It can often be to do with the attitudes and perhaps misplaced fears that employers have. If we can take down those barriers we’ll go a long way to meeting our ambition,” Nicola says. Many stereotypes unfortunately still persist about workshy disabled people, and it’s something that needs to be eradicated.
One of the groups with the lowest employment rate is autistic people, who have difficulties in the recruitment process and finding sustainable opportunities, but have skills and talents that employers desperately need. “As we take forward our policies, we want to make sure that they benefit all people with disabilities, but also understand where there are particular barriers, and for people with autism that can often be the case,” says Nicola. “It’s important that we have general policies in place but they are very targeted to particular conditions as well, if those conditions present a particular barrier for people.”
It’s a high target: the Scottish Government aims to halve the disability employment gap. As 20% of Scotland’s population is disabled, it’s a significant part of the populace. While it’s important for disabled people to gain meaningful and sustainable employment, the Scottish Government is also cognisant of the huge opportunities organisations are missing by ignoring the disabled workforce.
“It’s ambitious, it’s challenging and it won’t happen overnight,” admits Nicola. “Nobody is pretending that it will be an easy target to meet, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do for two reasons: because it helps people with disabilities benefit from employment and all that it brings and the way the rest of us take for granted. The self-esteem, the additional income, the independence that comes from being in meaningfulemployment, but it’s also good for society and our economy as a whole.”
As Brexit looms on the horizon, the shape of Scotland is set to change. We may lose workers from the EU indefinitely, and it only makes sense that we use theresources that we have.
“If we under-use the talents of a significant proportion of our population, then that impacts on all of us. We don’t do as well as we otherwise could,” says Nicola. “While this is first and foremost about helping people with disabilities, I think it’s important to underline the fact that it’s good for all of us if we support people with disabilities to make the most of their own potential.”
Words by Laura Hamilton, Enable Editor