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Why the UK needs a joined-up disability, health and work strategy

The UK needs a disability, health and work strategy that creates the necessary infrastructure and removes barriers, says Business Disability Forum's CEO

To create truly inclusive workplaces, it’s time to revisit how we create and implement employment policy.

The UK has long needed a strategic and holistic approach to creating an inclusive labour market, one which makes businesses productive and positions the UK as an economic leader on the world stage. 

The difficulty for employers and HR teams is that they are often left trying to piece together policies that have come out at different times from different policy areas, often with competing agendas.

Read more: When will we get serious about attracting disabled talent?

A general election offers the opportunity for us to revisit how we create and implement employment policy and what we prioritise. 

Business Disability Forum consults regularly with employers via its membership. Based on this feedback, we are calling for the implementation of a joined-up strategy for disability, health and work. Such a strategy would offer a clear direction on workplace disability inclusion policy based on experiences from employers and disabled people of what works. It would also make it easier for government and employers to work together to create truly inclusive workplaces.  

Start with an inclusive education system

Employers often ask us: “Where are the disabled candidates? How do we find them?” But look at it this way, unless access to inclusive and accessible learning and adjustments is guaranteed during primary and secondary education, how can disabled candidates exist? What support system was in place, to help them get to that point?

Read more: Making UK workplaces a level playing field for disabled people

We need an inclusive transition process into employment. At the moment, people who leave education, having had support, are surprised to find that the adjustments they relied on previously may not be 'reasonable' or even possible in their chosen occupation. We need to see much better careers advice, so that all education leavers can make informed choices and thrive in their working lives. 

Reform Access to Work 

So often, workplace adjustments are the difference that make work possible. Without reform of the Access to Work scheme, however, many disabled people cannot get the adjustments they need. We are calling for an ‘agreement in principle’ award offer before someone starts a job, so that they can job search and meet employers confidently. We are also calling for the removal of the support cap which disadvantages those with the most high-cost adjustments.

Access to Work needs to be invested in as the single, go-to health and adjustments service for anyone looking for work, in work, starting their own business, or taking up volunteer or unpaid work across all sectors and roles.  

Support people to stay in work

Many of us will need time off in our working lives due to sickness. Hopefully, we will recover and make a full return. But what if we are ready to return to work ‘a little bit’ before returning fully? At the moment, workers in that situation lose out financially. This is because statutory sick pay cannot be used alongside a phased return to work. We need a strategy that looks at fit note reform alongside sick pay reform in order to remove this disadvantage. 

Measure inclusion

The saying goes: 'We manage what we measure'. We cannot know if our workplaces are becoming more inclusive unless we measure inclusion. The problem, however, is that measuring inclusion is difficult. 

In recent years, the focus has been on producing singular figures, whether around pay or employment gaps. These provide us with a snapshot of what is going on but do not provide the whole the picture. Instead, we need a disability and employment data strategy that helps us to understand the experiences of disabled people in work.

Read more: A different slant: Reasonable adjustments alone won't cut it

We need to know what helps people to stay in work, including progression routes. Equally, we need to know what causes people to leave employment or stops them from ever entering in the first place. 

Employers are key

The answer to these issues cannot be solved by government alone. Employers have a critical role to play in building inclusive workplaces. But they need support and an effective structure to do so.

A UK-wide disability, health and work strategy that creates that infrastructure and removes barriers is needed to make urgent transformative changes. 

By Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum