Empowering the Disabled

By Richard Harris, Parliament Street Disabilities Spokesman

Margaret Thatcher once said: “I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near.”

Similarly, I do not know any disabled person who does not want a job; who does not dream of earning their own money and paying their way in life.

 In the wake of the latest unemployment figures I begin to ponder just how the left are benefiting anyone in society by forcing the fact that people are on zero hours contracts down our throats all the time.

I am unashamedly an out and proud Thatcherite and one of Lady Thatcher’s biggest achievements in government was right to buy. She was a freedom fighter; amongst other things she gave British working class people the opportunity and freedom to own their own homes. In doing so she empowered them and gave them greater control of their own lives and circumstances.

Today, I’m calling on Theresa May and Damian Green to empower the disabled. We must give disabled people in 21st Century Britain the freedom and opportunities to earn their own money and become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. It is hard enough living with a disability but it is truly demoralising to feel that you cannot contribute to the society of which you are a part.

I write this from a position of empathy as I have had my own personal struggles with disability. I am disabled; I have dyspraxia, severe dyslexia and Irlens Syndrome. I have experienced how hard it can be to find work when disabled. Hopefully, by telling my story, I can create a deeper understanding of how difficult it is for the disabled to find work and rewarding it is for them to do work.

When I was unemployed myself; I was limited somewhat by the amount of job opportunities that were available. When I did manage to get a job it was a 37.5 hour contract with an agency working for Marks and Spencer’s distribution division. I was lucky in that the employment agency at the time offered contracts at 37.5 hours. The agency on site now also offers zero hours and calls people in to meet demand. For most people this is a frustrating situation; no guaranteed hours; no guaranteed income; many people are unable to secure mortgages; many people unable to secure leases or tenancy agreements. But for many disabled people who require flexible hours or limited hours; maybe they have regular hospital appointments or maybe they can only work certain hours of the day due to medication or fatigue. For these people zero hours or fixed hours are exactly what is needed.

The Department of Work and Pensions; employers; the media; the written press and the public need to stop wrapping the world up in cotton wool and start empowering people.

I have been unemployed, as I mentioned and being on Job Seekers allowance is demoralising enough, but as soon as you walk in to a Jobs Centre, you are penned into queues and treated like a statistic. I have never been a statistic, I have always been an individual but this is something a faceless bureaucracy was always unable to see.

It is short sighted and narrow minded to keep protest against zero hours; fixed hours or limited hours contracts. In fact, some might say that by lambasting the government over these kinds of contracts the protestors of the left are being unwittingly discriminatory.

The Equalities Act 2010 is written around the use of the social model of disability. I will refer to this as the social model from here on in. Now the social model tells us that it is the way that society treats us that makes us disabled. In the purest form of the word we are dis-able-d. i.e, the ability is being detached. So in effect, the job centre could easily suggest suitable work to fit the needs of each and every person who is fit to work and therefore nobody is disabled in terms of the social model, and only those deemed unfit for work would be truly disabled and therefore in receipt of Disability Living Allowance; incapacity benefit and attendance allowance etc.

As a Conservative, I instinctively believe in everybody paying their way; I believe that the best social policy is work, unless you really cannot work. Therefore, the welfare system would be there for those people who really cannot work.

There are people with disabilities so severe that they will never be able to work and we must provide them with the greatest level of care, love and support. However, many disabled people can work and this number is consistently increasing with the further digitalisation of our economy.

We should do more to encourage companies to actively promote computer based jobs within the disabled community, especially to those with mobility issues.

Corporate Social Responsibility must play a large role in empowering the disabled. Many with disabilities find the stigma that might be attached with their particular disability to be a barrier to entry within the job market. It is the responsibility of responsible companies to attack this discrimination and to help create open and nurturing environments for the disabled with their companies.

Another barrier to entry disabled people find in looking for work is the limited availability of job training that caters to those with disabilities.  I was fortunate enough to find one of the programs that did and it kick started my professional life.

Marks and Spencer operate one of the biggest and most successful access to work programs in the country called Marks and Start. This scheme is run in conjunction with Remploy, a fantastic organisation which provides employment placement services for disabled people in the UK.

Participants in Marks and Start receive 6 weeks of intensive training with all expenses paid. Upon successful completion of the training, they then receive a full-time contract working for M&S.

My story is not unique. I spent two years as Disabled Students’ Officer at the University of Derby and many more as a disability rights campaigner. In that time I have come across many people with many different disabilities. They all faced their own unique struggles and all had their own stories to tell.

Despite their differences there is one common thread that runs through every personal story I have been told – the need to feel empowered and to have self-esteem.

I do not know a single disabled person who does not want a job. It is the job centre staff in the most part blocking them from gaining work.

We must change the way that the Department of Work and Pensions staff see disabled people; help them to find sustainable and lasting employment and they will earn their own money; they will in turn pay their taxes and from there the welfare system will in turn become less burdened and more focused on those who need the support the most.

I am calling on Theresa May and Damian Green to give disabled people in 21st Century Britain the freedom to earn their own money and become as independent and self-sufficient as possible.

We need to recognise that zero hours; flexible hours and limited hours contract can actually work for disabled people; creating employment opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

It is also vital that we encourage more big business to invest in Marks & Start style programs to support disabled people to realise their own ability and to find sustainable and lasting employment.