IntoWork17 blog: Shifting direction to reduce the disability employment – and pay gaps

5 July 2017

By  Liz Sayce, from former CEO of Disability Rights UK

It’s vital to reduce not only the disability employment gap – important as that is – but also the disability PAY gap. Disabled people in work are paid about £1.50 an hour less than non-disabled people – a pay gap of 14%[1]. Why is this not as great a concern as the gender pay gap?  Poverty is deeply associated with disability, among those in work as well as out of work. Research finds half of all households using food banks have at least 1 disabled member[2], as do almost half of all households in poverty[3].

So, what to do?

The Government’s 2016 Green Paper on Work, health and disability included some useful specifics, like scaling up peer support for employment: this can offer hope and encouragement, and results are promising. But the overall system to encourage disabled people to work needs a radical overhaul. At present employers are softly encouraged to change their attitudes whilst disabled people are assessed to distraction and subject to sanctions (and greater poverty) if they don’t change their behaviour. There is a need to restore some balance, firstly by using much stronger levers on the ‘demand’ side of the economy. This could include:

  • A high level initiative to improve employment of disabled people at all levels, led by business and Government and modeled on the Davies Review, which more than doubled the proportion of women on Boards of large companies (from 12.5% to 26%[4]). Large companies should be expected to publish figures on the proportion of their workforce at every level who report a disability, and to deliver action plans where the figures reveal inequalities
  • National and local government using the power of procurement to drive up employment rates of disabled people. Disability Rights UK has model clauses that can be used
  • Government and the public sector sharing their own learning from working to reduce gaps between the experience of disabled and non-disabled employees – for instance, in perceived ‘fairness’ of promotion opportunities and in staff engagement
  • Improved enforcement of equalities law, with removal of the barriers disabled people face in taking cases of discrimination to Tribunal.

But if demand side barriers are one major challenge faced by disabled people, the other is fragmented policy across Departments and agencies. Here solutions could include:

  • Concerted efforts to increase inclusive ‘good work experience’, traineeships and apprenticeships. This would include better school-age work experience open to all and extending the recent flexibility in apprenticeship entry criteria for people with learning disabilities to all disabled people for whom specific qualifications may prove a barrier. The key is to recruit on strengths and potential, as some companies already do
  • Ensuring effective support for disabled entrepreneurs, for instance from business grants and loans
  • Social care that enables disabled people not just to be safe – but to participate in life, to have networks and community connections
  • A rethink of the whole basis of the Work Capability Assessment – which even Iain Duncan Smith has recently criticised as too harsh – and the sanctions regime. Rather than assess people’s functional limitations, which tell us little or nothing about their employment chances, the system could ask ‘what would it take’ for someone to work and to overcome barriers, ie adopt a social model approach, followed by delivery of services that offer encouragement, build trust and link people to real opportunities in the current and future economy. This takes the onus off the individual to ‘fit in’ and on to the state to remove barriers to participation.

All this is simply about national and local Government – and all partners – being serious about halving the disability employment and pay gaps. It is no good just tinkering with support systems if more fundamental issues are not tackled. Devolution offers some opportunities to test new systemic approaches, track progress year on year and share learning.






[1] Based on median earnings in 2015-16. See EHRC (2017) Being Disabled in Britain

[2] Loopstra and Lalor (2017) Financial Insecurity, Food Insecurity and Disability. Oxford University, Trussell Trust, ESRC and Kings College London

[3] JRF (2016) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion. JRF