Able and willing

Published in the New Statesman (April 19, 2012) 

Mark Cooper is struggling to find work. He had a good offer from Lehman Brothers but on the day he was due to start, the bank went bust. Since then, he has sent off 200 job applications but in four years has had just a one-year contract in a post designed to springboard him into employment that only led back to the dole. ‘I am finding it harder and harder to keep going,’ he said.

With one in five young people unemployed, his story is all too typical. But Mark has an extra problem finding work – he has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mind you, he has never let this hold him back: by the age of 27 he has already earned a degree, climbed Ben Nevis, stood for parliament and even led a successful campaign for a change in the law on pub access. But job centre officials took one look at him and suggested he sign on. ‘I did not study for four years at university to be stuck on incapacity benefits,’ he told them angrily. 

The incident reflects deep-rooted prejudice facing people with disabilities seeking work. Even before the downturn, the statistics were horrible. Fewer than half had jobs, compared with more than three-quarters of the rest of working age Britons – and many in work were paid less than others in similar posts. It is even worse for people with learning difficulties: fewer than one in twelve are in paid employment.

It is easy to accept this as a harsh fact of life – but wrong. Employers who hire disabled people are rewarded with higher productivity and more loyalty. Now comes evidence that with a little extra effort, firms can make a huge difference. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Locog) actively looked for disabled people they could offer jobs to: one in eight workers hired in February had disabilities. The numbers are not huge – 400 people hired, of whom some 50 were disabled – but the significance outweighs the bare statistics.

Locog also hired a company run by visually-impaired people to provide cleaning products and insisted car-makers deliver adapted vehicles. ‘It’s going to be nice to see VIPs being driven around by disabled folks,’ Stephen Frost, the head of inclusion, told a conference recently.

High unemployment levels underline how those with disabilities are still forced to the fringes of society. One survey found more than half of Britons believe most people see the disabled as inferior. As the media seizes on stories of scroungers and welfare reforms pile on pressure to work, hostility is growing. One solution is more mixing in the workplace; then perhaps, everyone will appreciate those in wheelchairs are no different to the rest of us.

Paul Deighton, Locog’s chief executive officer and a former Goldman Sachs partner, was so inspired by the experiment that he believes all bosses should be held as accountable for numbers of disabled staff as they are for hitting revenue targets. He is right – responsibility rests with those in charge, although the government could force the pace by insisting firms publish statistics on staff with disabilities.

‘If they [disabled people] are constantly applying for jobs they can consistently come second and third and that is dispiriting. Instead, we have gone out and said to 50 people, you are all going to be working for us,’ Deighton told one newspaper. ‘It means everyone will have the experience of working alongside people who are disabled.’

It would be wonderful if the unexpected legacy of the London Olympics was to change the corporate culture and give people with disabilities a chance to take their rightful role in society. As Cooper says, all he wants is the same as the rest of us: a job, some independence, a decent life. Is that too much to ask?

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