Closing the disability employment gap in the time of Covid

By Janet Morrison


27 05 2021

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In 2020 much was said about the increasing numbers of people working from home during the pandemic and the flexibility that gave people working in those sectors where it happened. This has driven speculation about what impact these new ways of working will have on future working patterns and whether this might result in more beneficial and flexible working practices for disabled people.

Only 17 percent of people who have a disability were born with it. As a charity focused on excellence in rehabilitation, we are concerned that people who acquire disability through major trauma, illness or long-term conditions are supported to return to work and that it is one of the explicit goals for their recovery.

Whether disability is something you are born with or the result of a sudden trauma or a long-term degenerative condition, meaningful work is an essential element of independence, purpose and wellbeing and a key ingredient of financial health. To do so people need to have the accessible employment opportunities that they need available to them and employers willing to make suitable adaptations to support them. So, in partnership with the Learning and Work Institute we wanted to explore the potential impact the pandemic might have on disabled people and on the disability employment gap.

Research shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected disabled people with six out of ten people who have died due to Covid-19 being disabled. Many disabled people who participated in our research said their physical and mental health deteriorated due to the pandemic and few got access to the ongoing medical and rehabilitation care they need. And disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.

We found that employment fell among disabled people during 2020, and the disability employment gap widened. Unemployment rates have increased in line with non-disabled people while rates of economic inactivity have increased much more sharply. Disabled people were nearly twice as likely to be long term unemployed compared to non-disabled by the end of 2020 and estimates suggest that the disabled pay gap has also grown during 2020.

Data on hours worked shows that disabled people were more likely to be temporarily away from paid work than those defined as not disabled. And this strongly suggests disabled people were being furloughed – often for their own safety and wellbeing. But when the furlough scheme comes to an end this could mean that disabled workers are more vulnerable to redundancy. Research shows that generally disabled people are more vulnerable to discrimination in work and to redundancy, and are less well represented in well paid, quality work and more senior positions.

We will have to wait and see what impact the end of the furlough scheme will have on employment rates and how many disabled people will stay in work and what impact increasing competition in the jobs market will have on those that don’t. Extended periods of inactivity could impact upon disabled people’s confidence and feelings of self-worth when applying for work. Whilst many disabled people may have needed to shield there is a risk that employers’ perceptions of disabled candidates as more vulnerable and difficult to support will reinforce barriers to their entry to work and retention of employment. Increased stigmatisation of disabled workers could be an unintended consequence of shielding and self-protection.

It will of course take time to see how the economy recovers, which sectors of the labour market bounce back fastest and how more competition for jobs impacts on diversity and equality.

What’s clear is that if the Government is serious about its commitment to ensuring one million more disabled people in work by 2027 and addressing the health inequalities laid bare by the pandemic it will need to actively enhance the routes back to work for people with acquired disabilities, the quality of support given to disabled job seekers and promote accessible employment practices that enable an inclusive workforce. If we are to build back better and level up, disability employment is a prime opportunity to change the face of employment equality in the UK. It should not be missed.

Janet Morrison is the CEO of The Black Stork Charity, who Learning and Work Institute partnered with to research the impact of the pandemic on disabled people. 


Disability Employment: from pandemic to recovery

Our research with The Black Stork Charity looks at the impact of the pandemic on the employment, pay and finances of disabled people.