Remploy closures: Right in theory, but where does it leave disabled employees?
Indeed the announcement has caused something of an identity crisis amongst many disability organisations, as suddenly they’ve been put in the bizarre position of having to agree with the same government they’d been unanimous in condemning for the past two years.
On the one hand, I’ve always been against sheltered workplaces which feel to me like a relic from a bygone age. But on the other hand, the government’s timing of this move, coinciding with high unemployment, cuts to support funding and the erosion of employment rights feels very unfair and misjudged.
There was a sheltered workshop attached to one of the special schools I went to as a child. Once a year we would be taken ‘over the road’ to watch our older peers packing disposable nappies into bags and other mundane chores. At the end of every such visit, we would be reassured that, should we so wish, we too could have a job there for life. Each time I was told this, it sent a shudder down my spine. I guess, even as a child, I expected a bit more out of life than this.
Back then, it would have been difficult for the young me to put my finger on precisely what my problem was with this career opportunity. Indeed I remember at the time wondering whether I was being ungrateful for turning my nose up at this chance to work. With the benefit of hindsight however, I recognise my unease stemmed from the prospect of spending my life going from one institution to another and never escaping this closeted, segregated environment.
Funnily enough, my career advisor at school never suggested stand-up comedy as a potential career. Their advice was IT, as I could earn good money and never encounter access problems as a wheelchair user by working entirely from home. It seemed to me that, as far as disabled people go, computing had become the new basket weaving. So it took me quite a while to pluck up the courage to go against all the well-meaning advice I’d had and give comedy a try.
Years later, I was asked to do a gig for Remploy’s disabled workers. At the time I had to wrestle with my conscience; after all it wasn’t the disabled workers at fault but the system in which they worked. In the end though, I felt I had to turn down the gig as it felt too much like an endorsement of that same system which I opposed.
However, as much as I’m in favour of inclusion in the workplace, the inescapable, uncomfortable truth of the Remploy closures is that most of the disabled workers being made redundant will probably not find other jobs in the current climate. Furthermore, impending cuts and other changes to support systems will only make it harder for disabled people to survive and thrive in work.
I use the Access to Work scheme to pay for some of the essential support I need to work. Recent figures showed the average subsidy for each disabled worker at Remploy is £25,000 per year, compared with £2,700 per person under the Access to Work scheme. Therefore, as the Sayce review recommends, in theory a great many more disabled people could be supported into mainstream employment by diverting more funding into this scheme.
However while the principle of the scheme is excellent, I find that in practice it’s over-bureaucratic and inflexible. Access to Work is job-centred as opposed to person-centred, I have to fill out double the amount of paperwork as I’m classed as having two jobs. Indeed I reckon if I tried to claim back all of the disability-related additional costs I incur through working, the resulting paperwork would mean I’d have very little time left each week to actually work.
Furthermore, I’ve found that recently the range of assistive equipment the scheme will pay for has become more and more restricted as funds have got scarcer. Three years ago Access to Work bought the powered wheelchair I need to get around. But when I recently applied for funding for a new battery for this chair, as the old one has worn out, I was told this was something they no longer funded. To me, it seems short-sighted to pay for an expensive mobility aid but then not fund its maintenance.
Other sources of support used by disabled people to hold down their jobs are also in the firing line. Recent research found that more than half (56%) of people surveyed who received Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and were in work would have to stop or reduce work if they lost access to support such as this. I myself rely upon my Motability wheelchair-accessible vehicle to get to and from gigs, paid for by my DLA. I also use some of my social care funding to pay for additional, disability-related costs of working, such as my support worker’s travel, food and accommodation when I work away, as I cannot face dealing with the bureaucracy and paperwork from Access to Work anymore than I have to! Therefore the proposed cuts and changes to these support systems will also have a knock-on effect on disabled people in work.
Another factor seemingly forgotten about in all the talk of getting disabled people off benefits and back into work is the negative attitudes and inflexibility of many employers. For instance, about 12 years ago I applied for a job with a large, national disability charity. When I turned up for the interview, I was given a marker pen and flipchart and told to produce a ten minute presentation on inclusion. I pointed out that, as someone who cannot write with a pen, their choice of activity was not particularly inclusive. Not only did they not see the irony in this, they also didn’t give me the job! Had they been more flexible and told me beforehand about the test, I could have produced the presentation on my laptop and not been placed at a disadvantage.
Of course, in this case the charity in question was in breach the anti-discrimination legislation we have in this country. But many people don’t want the rigmarole of taking legal action, especially against their employer. In addition, legislation cannot always take account of all the subtle ways in which disability discrimination manifests itself within the workplace. If an employer doesn’t want to give you a job, they can always find a non-disability related, ‘legitimate’ reason for doing so. I fear the recent erosion of employment rights, including increasing the time before workers are protected from unfair dismissal from one year to two years, will simply make it even harder for disabled people to keep their jobs.
The government needs to seriously address the attitudes and inflexibility of employers and sort out the essential support needed for disabled people to work, before closing the Remploy factories and forcing more and more disabled people into the job market. But as an eternal optimist, I look forward to the day when tabloid headlines focus on employers dodging hiring disabled people and the government dodging supporting disabled people to work, rather than disabled scroungers dodging employment.Tagged in: Access to Work, benefits, cuts, disability, Disability Living Allowance, discrimination, Remploy, unemployment
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