Does the UK want a disability employment quota?

Diversity and inclusion have received a lot of attention in recent years. While there is still much to be done, progress has been made, particularly on the number of women in boardrooms and companies who are now being forced to uncover their gender pay gap.

However, when it comes to disability, the UK is way behind the curve.

The disability employment gap – which refers to the difference in employment rates between disabled and non-disabled people – has stagnated at around 32% over the past decade and is much higher compared to most European countries.

According to the Resolution Foundation’s Retention Deficit Report – based on the 2011 Labor Force Survey, which measures the disability employment gap using a slightly different measurement than the ONS – the UK is almost 8% behind the EU average and is 22nd Place position in the total size of the employment gap.

The UK is relatively unique in that, unlike most EU countries, it does not have sanction-supported quotas to encourage employers to hire disabled people. On the surface, the evidence suggests these systems work. So should the UK adopt one?

How do quotas work?

For example, under the French system, a company with more than 20 employees must ensure that 6% of its workforce is officially classified as disabled under the L’Obligation d’Emploi.

The company can meet this obligation in two ways, either by employing disabled people directly, or by indirectly purchasing goods or services from a supplier who provides sheltered employment for disabled people.

Any company that does not meet this quota must pay Agefiph – the association for the administration of funds for the integration of people with disabilities – a fine of 400 times the minimum wage of each person missing in the quota.

So should Britain get one?

At first it sounds like a good option. Disabled people get jobs, money and stability that they were previously denied, and companies pay into a system that helps improve the job prospects of unemployed people with disabilities if the quota is not met. That can only be good, right?

The general consensus is no. In fact, the UK had its own quota system until it was abolished in the mid-1990s after disabled charities feared they would not really address the problem.

Yasmin Sheikh, founder of Diverse Matters, a diversity and disability training consultancy, says quotas provide an advantage in dealing with people’s short-term employment problem, but they don’t help disabled people find truly fulfilling employment – or what More importantly, change the cultural stigma associated with disabled people in the workplace.

“Change may be slower in the long run, but real change only comes when people understand what the benefits are and the value of employing disabled people,” says Sheikh.

She also highlights how in some situations it can be easier for a company to simply pay the fine than to go to the trouble of making appropriate adjustments to its organization – which is common in countries with quota systems.

“We always think,” the person can fit into the organization, “but we never adjust the way we rate people in order to see the best talent and recruit from the largest possible talent pool,” says Sheikh. “Society still sees disability as a weakness, a vulnerability, because” something is wrong with you “and you don’t fit in with it.

“People want to be judged on what they can and not on what they can’t.”

Graeme Whippy, a disability advisor and disability specialist at Channel 4, agrees, and believes that quotas are merely encouraging companies to create “token” positions for disabled people so that the quota is met, rather than disabled people in real, rewarding careers to deal with.

He says quotas also pose challenges for disabled people on an intrusive individual level.

“Quota systems are based on the fact that a disabled person is registered as disabled or has to be declared disabled,” says Whippy, referring to the fact that in Germany a person must be regarded as 50% less capable than a non-person – to consider disabled person as incapable of work.

Likewise, the French system is dependent on a system involving the doctor of the person with whom they must be registered as disabled. “Why on earth would a person want to go through this process?” Asks Whippy.

The UK has a much broader definition of disability compared to other countries – the 2010 Equal Opportunities Act states that a person will be classified as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that is “significant” and “long-term” negative affects them ability to perform normal daily activities.

Hence, the quota system could help get the most severely disabled into employment, but it does little to change the generally negative perception of disabled people in the workplace or to encourage employers to create a truly inclusive workplace.

Change can only come through culture

To close the gap in the employment of people with disabilities, the government revised its system for disabled people with disabilities in 2016. The aim is to help companies recruit and retain people with disabilities by providing advice and guidance on how companies can become employers with disabilities.

But it seems to have had no effect. Just over 5,000 companies signed up for the program in a year, and up to 3,000 of those are disabled charities, government departments, and social organizations. Critics also point out that it is possible to qualify as a disability awareness leader without actually employing a single disabled person.

Likewise, the government’s “Access to Work” program – a grant that helps disabled people offset the costs of their employment – has traditionally been “under-marketed” and is suffering from “bureaucracy” according to Philip Connolly, Policy and Development manager by Disability Rights UK, a disability rights charity – which means it is often underused.

Programs like this help set the framework for change, but real progress can only be made through cultural change if employers learn to start businesses that suit disabilities and fail to find disabilities that fit businesses.

Real cultural change only comes from above, and more companies need to show a desire to address the subconscious tendency that is keeping disabled people from real employment.

“We have to change society, not the law,” says Whippy. “When it comes to employment, the solution is to work hard to demonstrate the value disabled people can bring to employers.”

Photo credit: Bill45 / Shutterstock

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