A year ago Leigh Day established the Purple Workforce project, a year on and Emma Satyamurti looks back at the progress that has taken place since its publication

The annual UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities has come round again, with its invitation to pause and reflect on disability issues around the world.

My ambition in this blog is somewhat more modest; it is to look back at the some of the disability-related work I have been involved in over the past year, and forward at what we’ll be looking for on the horizon as the new year approaches.

The Purple Workforce project

There is a persistent 30 percentage point difference in the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people, by any measure a stark disparity.

As employment law practitioners specialising in disability (as well as other types of) discrimination, I and my colleagues come across the same issues time and again.

While it is satisfying helping individual clients with these common difficulties, we wanted to get a sense of the bigger picture and of whether the problems our disabled clients bring to us reflect barriers faced by disabled people in work, or looking for work, more generally.

A year ago we published the findings of original research commissioned by Leigh Day exploring the experiences of disabled people in relation to work; our Purple Workforce Report (a nod towards the ‘purple pound,’ referring to the spending power of disabled people) .

Mixed picture

We were pleasantly surprised by some of our research findings. Highlights included that 65% of people asking for adjustments in the workplace got all or some of the help they requested.

Well over half of respondents felt supported by their colleagues and managers. However some of the other results were less encouraging; particularly striking were the findings that nearly half of job applicants did not feel comfortable disclosing their disability (particularly where this was a mental health condition), and that 20% felt that they had suffered discrimination at work with a significant number of those saying this had impacted on their health.

Gathering round the table

As lawyers our perspective is inevitably limited; we act at an individual level and on a case by case basis, and are generally only deployed after things have gone wrong.

We wanted to hear from disability organisations working at the frontline to see if our research findings resonated with what they see on the ground, and to draw together different perspectives and experiences from which new ideas for achieving progress might emerge.

The Purple Workforce Roundtable took place in late February this year chaired by Lord Low of Dalston, a prominent disability rights campaigner.

We brought together a variety of organisations interested in supporting and promoting the successful employment of people with disabilities, including a broad spectrum of leading disability NGOs.

There was lively discussion which benefitted greatly from the range of perspectives and experience represented around the table. A summary of the discussions is available to download here

From grassroots to government

No doubt influenced by the campaigning and policy work of disability organisations such as Scope, the government has made a welcome manifesto commitment to halving the disability employment gap.

Our research is a small but we hope valuable contribution to understanding what some of the main barriers to the successful employment of disabled people are, and therefore what action is needed to remove or lower them so that many more disabled people can enter, and flourish at, work.

I was delighted to be invited to participate in a discussion about how this might be achieved at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event hosted by Scope and the Centre for Social Justice.

I was particularly keen to hear what Minister for Disabilities, Justin Tomlinson MP, had to say. He seemed sincere in his commitment to making a practical difference to disabled people’s lives.

I and my colleague Sean Humber were invited to meet with him earlier this week to follow up on some of the ideas discussed at the fringe and disability issues more generally. It was a great opportunity to hear about the government’s Disability Confident and Fit For Work initiatives ‘from the horse’s mouth’ as it were.

I was impressed by the Minister’s pragmatic approach, for example recognising the limited resources of small and medium sized businesses and tailoring support accordingly so that it actually works and leads to the successful employment of disabled people.

As SMEs are a key area of growth in the labour market, this is a key priority in tackling the employment gap. I was also interested to hear about the pairing of small businesses with expert disability organisations who can provide them with practical support in employing disabled people at local level.

The encouragement of large companies to take more of a training role, sharing know-how and good practice with smaller companies in their supply and distribution chains, was also welcome.

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it will be important to see significantly more disabled people not just in work, but in meaningful, properly paid and secure employment.

Certainly I came away from the meeting with the clear impression that the Minister is committed to improving disabled people’s experience in relation work, and to working with disability organisations to foster greater understanding amongst employers of the benefits of employing people with disabilities and of how any potential difficulties can be managed.

It would be fantastic if, by the next time the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities rolls around, the combined efforts of disability organisations and government have made a significant dent in the under-representation of disabled people in work.