home Commentary, Europe, Human Rights, Politics, Society Are disabled people wrecking the UK’s productivity?

Are disabled people wrecking the UK’s productivity?

Sometimes, you just can’t bloody win. You are disabled and you face abuse and hatred because you are on benefits when you are not well enough to work. At some point, you come off benefits and get a job.

You work doubly hard to prove yourself, because everybody is expecting you to fail, and because you are facing discrimination and a lack of accessibility at every turn. People start to respect you and the work you do, and you feel proud of yourself. Just a teeny bit of pride, but enough.

Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer blames everything on you.

Philip Hammond, the British Chancellor, apparently told a meeting of the Treasury Select Committee that the lack of productivity in the UK is down to disabled people in the workforce. When Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green Party, asked Prime Minister Theresa May a question about it in the weekly Prime Ministers Questions debate in Parliament, Theresa May denied that it had ever been said. (This video goes on to show him saying exactly what she suggested he had said.)

Theresa May went on to explain that her government was actively working to get more disabled people into the workplace, and this is where the really painful element of this drama comes into play, because this Conservative government has been targeting disabled people for years with brutal cuts to benefits.

So many people have lost their financial support altogether and have been forced to either starve or get a job they are not capable of doing. If they can get anyone to hire them in the first place.

When somebody is forced into a job that is beyond their ability, they are not going to do well. When they have no choice but to do a job poorly or to have no income, they will do what they have to do, if they are able to do it. They will work harder than their co-workers, because they are dealing with their health condition or impairment as well as their occupation.

They work so hard that they become ill, far more ill than they were when they had started out, and end up costing the public purse far more in hospital admissions, additional social care, and frequently poor mental health that results from the workplace stress. If we put cost aside (though this is all based on cost-cutting measures), it blasts people’s confidence and makes them fear future work prospects.

People who are currently on disability benefits live in abject terror at the prospect of losing their payments, because they know they are not equipped to carry out a full-time job and have no idea what they could do instead. The government boasts that they have got 600,000 disabled people into work in the last four years, but how many of these did so willingly and ably?

And then there are those who are disabled but able to work. We put effort into being productive every single day and we work really, really hard to prove ourselves, so it is offensive to hear that we are somehow letting the side down, when we are in fact working harder than most to achieve the same results while facing prejudice and discrimination at every turn. I am self-employed because that is probably the only way I could manage employment, and I am making a success of it. I’ve been running my business for seven years, and every day can pose a new challenge. I love what I do, but I hate some of the challenges I have to face to do it.

I do not appreciate an implication, never mind an outright statement, that I am half-heartedly doing bits of work here and there, letting non-disabled people pick up the slack. There is no slack.

Disability charity Scope said in response to Philip Hammond’s comments, “We have been […] pushing hard to tackle outdated negative attitudes towards disabled people, whether in the workplace or in wider society. It’s vital that Government and employers recognise disabled people’s potential and the value they bring to the workplace.

“Statistically and historically the correlation between increases in productivity and disability employment have gone hand-in-hand. It has never been the case that increasing the number of disabled people in work has had a harmful effect on productivity levels.

“Our analysis of the ONS (Office of National Statistics) National Accounts and Labour Force Survey shows the rate of productivity in the UK has been unaffected by an increase of the proportion of disabled people in work. For instance, between 1998 and 2007 productivity increased by 22 percent, while the proportion of the workforce who are disabled increased from 7.6 percent to 10.4 percent.”

Even with this data at hand, these comments by the Chancellor leave disabled people feeling targeted with misinformation and prejudicial attitudes, combined with the material reality of disabled people’s lives in the UK today. We are criticised when we are unable to work, we are criticised when we are forced into work we can’t manage, and we are criticised when we work and make a success of it. Quite what we are supposed to do is a mystery.

Photo: Roger Blackwell/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.

One thought on “Are disabled people wrecking the UK’s productivity?

  1. I also run a business because that’s the only way I can manage to work with my conditions, without deteriorating them.
    I think what the full comment the Chancellor made says is that judging an economy by productivity is a poor measure, as he said he’s proud that more disabled people are in employment. UC, as poorly as it was implemented (and I would know since I was denied it despite starting the business on the NEA scheme), is designed to ensure people have a constant stream of income whether they managed to work or they couldn’t, recognising life isn’t black and white especially when you have a disability or a condition that changes over time and assessment days are random. And what he said about productivity is just a reality, we don’t live in a world that is making it easy for us, you recognised that yourself. Productivity is a cut throat measure, and the workplace for far too long has been Darwinian. More can be done to make work accessible when you value the fulfillment people find in being able to earn a living. Contrary to what you say, the only party that seems to believe in our dignity as human beings is the Conservatives. Things haven’t been perfect, but there are many of us who are working really hard to make sure our voices are heard. Some, like Robert Halfon, up to holding ministerial posts themselves. We’re very much valued and respected, and the full statement shows me just that.

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