We need to start talking about the disability wage gap

Often when we speak of a wage or pay gap, the topic concerns the gender pay gap between men and women.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), it currently stands at 8.9% between the genders (full-time male and female workers) falling only slightly, by 0.6% since 2012.

Though, thankfully, a lot of attention has been focussed on this topic, with over 196 million results when searched online, there are other pay gaps which also warrant our attention. One of them is the disability wage gap (DWG).

Disability is one of the nine protected characteristics included in the Equality Act 2010 yet it has often received less attention than gender and sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation. However, a gap and some evidence of clear illegal discrimination do exist for disabled people. The ONS puts the DWG at 12.2% across the UK when considering the median pay of workers.

Firstly, it’s important to define the terms. “Disability” by the Equality Act’s definition is a “physical or mental impairment... [with] … substantial and long-term adverse effects on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

An “impairment” might be viewed as the “category of a person’s ‘main health problem, whether mental, physical or other”. However, there is no uniformity in how people suffer as a result of the DWG.

It is important to note that many may view the use of the word ‘problem’ as part of ableist language - essentially a means of devaluing disabled people or implying they need to be ‘fixed’. That is not the intention of the article, it merely adopts a definition used by the ONS.

For instance, the DWG is wider for women than it is for men. Similarly, those with mental impairment (e.g. depression, anxiety or learning difficulties) reported the widest pay gaps of 18.6%, with the narrowest (7.4%) for those classified as having other impairments.

Geographically, London had the largest DWG with Scotland reporting the lowest, at 15.3% and 8.3% respectively. Most concerning of all is that unlike the gender wage gap, the DWG has shown little improvement over the past few years, remaining broadly flat since 2014.

There are several reasons why many people believe the DWG exists. Research by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), highlighted in its report Disability employment and pay gaps 2019, proposes three reasons for the DWG.

It argues there are proportionally more disabled people being hired in part-time roles, more disabled people in lower-paid occupations and lower educational attainment among disabled individuals. All these factors generally correlate to lower wages as has been noted by researchers of the pay gap between men and women.

Some of the barriers mentioned by the TUC, particularly those concerning the lack of higher-paid part-time roles and the siphoning off of disabled individuals into lower-paid occupations, mirror the same issues faced by women and often attributed to the gender pay gap.

This presents a great starting point for how to reduce the DWG. Perhaps some of the successful techniques being used to recruit more women may be adopted to recruit more talented disabled people.

Another factor limiting the chances of disabled candidates is the lack of reasonable adjustments during the recruitment stages. Too often employers use the same methods of recruitment for all candidates.

They fail to ask candidates about their needs effectively denying them the opportunity to make reasonable adjustments to the process or even the candidates’ access to the assessment’s physical location.

This might be tackled by diversity task forces or disability champions. They can help raise awareness of these matters and monitor how the HR systems and processes are performing.

The issue of disability and discrimination cannot be viewed from a seperatist viewpoint. Disabled women face additional hurdles in the workplace and so to tackle their barriers, we need to take an intersectional approach.

As employers, we can do more to tackle this issue by reaching out to the wider community, for example by launching or supporting public campaigns to combat negative stereotypes of disabled people and by engaging with younger disabled girls and women to broaden their career ambitions.

As employers, we need to look more closely at our practices and policies, evaluate and monitor them to ensure they don’t unfairly discriminate - ideally through task forces or individual diversity champions.

We also need to reach out into the community to support the next generation of disabled people, particularly those that are likely to suffer from problems of dual discrimination. Hopefully, this will lead to a narrowing of the DWG which exists today.

Yinka Opaneye is group HR director at GameAnalytics