Why haven’t we closed the disability employment gap?

Why haven’t we closed the disability employment gap?

Despite reforms to disability legislation, there has been little progress towards the Government's aim of halving the disability employment gap. The gap has increased slightly since 2012, and, even on longer-term trends, progress has been very slow. In 1998, the gap stood at 35.9%. In the 18 years which followed, it reduced by just 2.8 percentage points, to 33.1%. This painstakingly slow progress is the result of a number of significant barriers which have proved difficult to overcome.

Making social reform work for disabled people

In her first speech as Prime Minister Theresa May set out her “mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone”. She spoke of helping those who are “just about managing” and promised that her Government will do “everything they can” to give people more control over their lives.

Here at Scope, we recognise the image of people who are “just about managing”. We know many people who want more control over their lives.

Life costs more if you’re disabled. On average disabled people spend £550 a month on disability-related outgoings. It makes making ends meet much harder.

Only around half of disabled people work, despite the vast majority wanting to work and hundreds of thousands of disabled people being ready to work and looking for a job right now.

There are still too many societal barriers getting in the way of disabled people living independent lives.

So we were pleased to partner with Bright Blue at Conservative Party Conference to host a discussion about how government can make the social reform the Prime Minister promises work for disabled people.

Action is needed in three key areas if we are to see greater opportunities for the 12.9 million disabled people in the UK:

Tackling the disability employment gap

The 2015 Conservative Manifesto included a welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap, which has remained at around 30% for the last decade.  The upcoming Green Paper on disability, health and employment provides the Government with an opportunity to make this goal a reality. For a reduction in the disability employment gap to be sustainable, and meaningful, we need to ensure disabled people are not just getting into work, but that disabled people are able to stay in work too.

Disabled people tell us how important schemes such as Access to Work are for helping them maintain employment and stay in the workplace, but there is also a significant role for employers to play. Employers need to be flexible in their approach to supporting disabled employees and must work more closely with local health and care services, local disability organisations and skills providers to find and support the right disabled people for the jobs they create. Of course, many employers are doing great work already to recruit, retain and develop disabled staff but we still have a way to go until this becomes the norm.

Investing in care services that enable people to live independently

Many disabled people rely on social care to support them to live independently, yet according to recent NHS statistics only 34% of social care users have as much choice and control as they want over their lives. As the Government moves to further integrate health and social care systems to drive efficiencies particularly in the support provided to older people, it should also consider how public services for disabled people might be integrated to support working age disabled adults to participate in their communities, study or enter employment.

Tackling the extra costs that disabled people face

Many disabled people worry about the costs of living, and have to fork out for specialised equipment higher heating bills and replacing worn-out clothes that non-disabled people don’t have to afford. These extra costs undermine disabled people’s financial security, make it hard to save or build financial resilience. Disabled people have an average of £108,000 fewer savings and assets than non-disabled people.

Some businesses are already recognising that disabled people are consumers who are under-provided for in the market, and have developed tailored products that have the potential to drive down costs. We hope that many others will follow suit, and would like to see the Government intervening to encourage businesses to innovate.

Improving opportunity for disabled people is about social justice – and we are delighted that the Prime Minister recognises the important role government can play here. It’s also about creating a country equipped for 21st century challenges. Scope economic research has found that increasing disability employment will add billions to GDP by 2030. The Government has an opportunity to improve the lives of disabled people, make her social justice agenda a reality and boost the UK economy at the same time. We hope she takes it.

Anna Bird is Director of Policy and Research at Scope



The disability employment gap: trends and barriers

Getting more disabled people into employment is one of the central aims of this Government. This piece reviews the trends in the employment rates of disabled people and the barriers, which they face when attempting to find work.


There is a significant employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people. In 2015, 48% of disabled people were in employment. This compares to a 79% employment rate for the rest of the population.

Yet, this gap between disabled people and the rest of the population has decreased by around 12 percentage points since 2000. Though it seems progress has been made, it is worth highlighting that the gap between disabled people and the rest of the population’s employment rate has remained largely static since 2006.

The current Government has a stated ambition to halve the gap in employment between disabled and non-disabled people. To do this, the Government have to understand and mitigate the barriers to employment that disabled people face.


There are a wide variety of barriers to employment for disabled people. These barriers will vary significantly for each individual. However, there are two broad types of barriers that emerge: physical and attitudinal.

Physical barriers

Physical barriers denote when an individual’s disability prevents them from applying for or undertaking a particular job. This could be because:

Attitudinal barriers

Attitudinal barriers relate to the attitudes of prospective or current employers, or the attitudes of disabled people themselves.

On prospective or current employers:

  • Employers may believe that disabled employees are not as productive as other employees. This may be because employers, wrongly, believe that disabled employees are more likely to have days-off or are more likely to not stay in the job;
  • Employers may also believe that the associated costs of hiring a disabled person, such as the adjustments required, are too high;
  • Employers may be unaware of the assistive technology that is available.

On disabled people themselves:

  • Lack the confidence when applying for jobs because they may have been rejected many times before
  • Lack confidence in their own abilities to meet the requirements of a job or lack the skills by which to ‘sell themselves’ on paper or at interviews
  • Fear that employers will not offer them the required support, or might discriminate against them

If the Government is to meet its ambition of halving the gap in employment between disabled and non-disabled people, then it must do more to reduce these two broad types of barriers.

James Dobson is a Researcher for Bright Blue.

Image: Anjan Chatterjee