Angela Matthews - Business Disability Forum

Angela came to speak with the ERSA Employer Engagement Forum on 1 December and you can watch her session again here

Not all job losses are the same. Add being disabled and losing your job during a global pandemic, and there are often not only complexities that contributed to losing a job, but there are also additional barriers when searching for another job. It’s a stressful situation.

I have heard of two main circumstances in which disabled people have lost their jobs related to the pandemic: either the role has been made redundant and the postholder happens to have a disability (i.e. the job loss is not for disability related reasons); or the employee is disabled and was furloughed because adjustments could not be made to their role. Our research shows the latter has happened in some 11 per cent of organisations.

Disabled people in the latter situation have different and additional barriers when thinking how to re-enter employment. The type of adjustments needed and the reasons someone could not continue in their previous role need to be identified by those supporting disabled people back into work to ensure the same scenarios are not replicated when supporting a disabled individual to find a new job. Needless to say, people re-entering the job market soon may be working remotely to start with but may be asked to return to the “usual” working environment and resume commuting months down the line. These are huge considerations (and worries) for many disabled people, which led to a disabled employee saying to me recently, “Keep your head down, and make yourself indispensable, because talking about adjustments and applying for a new job when you have a disability is hell”.

The launch of the Kickstart scheme was met by many with excitement. However, employers are wondering how Kickstart fits in with the Government’s disability employment agenda. We are awaiting a publication of a National Disability Strategy, plus a response to the Government’s ‘Health is Everyone’s Business’ health and work consultation, and the Government is still working towards getting a million disabled people into employment by 2027. The announcement of the Kickstart Scheme, with no mention of disability, disabled people, disability related support left many feeling deflated and thinking the Government has missed a great opportunity for ‘raising the game’ on increasing the number of disabled people re-entering the job market.

The potentially missed opportunity with Kickstart is how Access to Work could formally link in at and prior to the recruitment stage to support disabled people’s participation and success in this scheme. While Access to Work will be available to Kickstart employees, Kickstart communications suggest Access to Work is available to help employees “stay in work”. This is not enough. Access to Work could be immensely beneficial and effective to disabled people if it was available at the beginning of the programme with earlier adjustments-based interventions for disabled candidates.

Many employers tell us Access to Work is pivotal in enabling them to support disabled employees – the process just needs to speed up. During Business Disability Forum’s recent research on employees getting adjustments provided and/or funded by Access to Work, individuals told us the period of time between first contacting Access to Work and getting everything they needed was “often” between three and six months (with people who are Deaf typically waiting the longest). This same research revealed that too many people who were on placements in industry or in contracted roles said their role ended before Access to Work support was put in place – and to illustrate the point, the minimum period of placements required by Kickstart is six months. In this scenario, Access to Work is a potentially effective scheme engaged at an ineffective stage in the employment journey.

If candidates approaching Kickstart are work-ready and Job Centres are working with employers to link candidates to jobs, it seems logical to ensure Access to Work is part of the conversation between the Job Centre and the candidate at that stage. Contacting Access to Work on day one of someone starting a job is too late. We often hear disabled people have missed employment opportunities because Access to Work support has not been provided in time. It would be a greatly missed opportunity if candidates had to turn down places on Kickstart placements because adjustments are not in place when they are needed.

Leaving contacting Access to Work until someone starts a job under the Kickstart scheme sets disabled candidates up for failure from the outset. This is too common a situation we hear of: non-disabled candidates will be able to work effectively as soon as they start, but people getting adjustments via Access to Work will not. Both Access to Work and the Kickstart schemes are led by the same department (Department for Work and Pensions), so it seems an opportunity within reach to pilot how to streamline and speed up Access to Work’s application and provision process with Kickstart candidates, based on Access to Work intervening at stage of recruitment, not on day one of employment.

Ultimately, if Access to Work cannot provide adjustments for an employee’s interview or start date, it begs two questions: (1) Is Kickstart a realistic and inclusive initiative for people with disabilities and long term conditions, or (2) is Access to Work no longer fit for purpose, even for the job schemes its very same department is designing?