DISABILITY AND EMPLOYMENT PARADOX
Prof. Dr. Nasir Sulman
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
The weight of historical disadvantage experienced by disabled job seekers and workers is now well documented in literature. The principal policy response has been an increased governmental emphasis on ‘welfare through work’ and ‘work-based welfare’. However, an essential paradox remains: how is it that, despite much policy effort to enhance the employment activity of disabled people, these efforts have not been reflected in significantly enhanced employment outcomes.
A number of possible explanations can be posited for the continued difficulty in increasing disabled people’s employment. First, policy solutions are essentially sound, but not fully or widely implemented. A related position might be that the coverage of a given policy, benefit or program is uneven and a lottery of provision has prevailed. Alternatively, one could view the policy framework at a macro-level as essentially sound, but observe factors that severely militated against the effective application of a policy, for example labor market conditions, structural benefit traps and perceptions and suspicion of state interventions. Perhaps more fundamentally, the view might be taken that disability and employment policy is premised on an inappropriate model of disability; that policy details and employment programs may have failed or been severely weakened due to a misunderstanding of the ‘disability problem’. Indeed, the historical predominance of a medical model in disability policy more widely is hard to dispute. All of these explanations may of course hold clues as the disability and employment paradox.
Attempted discursive solutions to this paradox have been framed in diverse ways that include: social inclusion; formal legal equality; civil rights; the business case and human rights discourses. Of note, a critical appraisal of the value of these competing discourses has yet to be undertaken in the field of disability and employment policy. The ‘confusion’ as to the nature of the ‘disability employment problem’ is manifest in recent discussions of disabled people as ‘customers’ rather than claimants. Here, it is conceivable where labor-market conditions are poor that disabled people may be ‘customers’ who may not want to ‘buy’ that which is ‘not available’. An honest and critical analysis of a disabling society, prevailing levels of human capital among disabled people, labor market characteristics and the interplay of state and the market are all prerequisites of a radical disability employment policy.
Although not offering a single framework or solution to the complex issues at stake, working futures pulls together in a new way the many valuable contributions that are being made to our understanding of the efficacy, limitations and challenges for disability and employment policy. This article aims both to engage with detailed policy evaluations, but also aims to catalyze more theoretical debate about the nature of disability, employment and policy. To draw on the formative ideas of Kurt Lewin, there is nothing “more practical than a theory” (Lewin,
1935). Here, the explicit attempt to locate disability and employment policy into an ideological and political context is made. This reflects the view that policy is not inherently linear or progressive, and that power is not marginal to social policy decisions. For example, within disability employment policy, paid work is largely presented a priori as a homogeneous and self-evident social phenomenon. Yet, the research evidence suggests that paid employment is the area of social life most susceptible to and reinforcing of major social inequalities and divisions. Indeed, the employment contract might well be viewed as the power relation par excellence to which few other social relations compare. There is authoritative evidence that poor employee training and skills investment characterizes the part-time and peripheral labor market segment.
Arguably, the shift towards social inclusion discourses has taken critical analysis ever further away from the core issues of social inequality, class divisions and engrained poverty. Distinctions between types of work, entry-level work versus professional work, manual versus non-manual work, seem to feature less in the mainstream social sciences than prior to the social inclusion policy being mooted.
Social constructions of meaningful work and citizenship are rarely debated within disability and employment policy writings. The idea that disabled people may contribute economically and socially outside of paid work has not yet impacted much policy analysis, arguably due to the ablest cultural hegemony that attaches to disability in linking disability with inability.
Rather than argue, however, that social inclusion discourses have no inherent value, it could be argued that some approaches have begun to comprehend the multi-factorial influences that lead to social and economic marginalization. A key message in working futures is that both policy frameworks and programme detail are unlikely to enhance disabled people’s social inclusion if they fail to engage disabled people themselves in the policy solutions. Arguably, disability employment policy (compared, say, to independent living) has been almost hermetically closed to disabled people’s influence. The paradox of social inclusion policy for disabled people of working-age being premised on almost complete exclusion from policy involvement itself has only recently been addressed.
There is still a long road to travel in raising awareness of the above paradoxes and the need for example to ask more searching questions as to why most disability employment services have been provided by predominantly non-disabled people and premised on often disablist assumptions about the disability problem. We only need to look for parallels in the women’s rights movement to begin to question whether it is acceptable for most policy and programme research, design and review to have been the province of largely nondisabled people and whether the equivalent would be acceptable in terms of gender policy.
Alongside an appraisal of disability and employment policy to date, an enabling evaluation of the nature of paid work is also required. The increasing assumption that work and welfare are synonymous and that work provides social inclusion while supportable in principle, needs to be researched more fully. The relationship between the rigidities and intensification of industrialized production and attempts to adjust and make more flexible working life are also central to our understanding of disabled people’s access to the labor market.
The last ten years have witnessed many positive developments in disability employment policy and great promise inheres in current plans to revise policy further. However, for every positive development there have been policies that have set back the trust between disabled people and the ‘employment system’. Disabled people, their bodies and very identity continue to be argued over in a way that makes many fear an increase in surveillance and harsher return to work policies. The role of enhanced trust, alongside involving disabled people in reshaping their life chances, seems the sine qua non of enabling disability employment policy worthy of the 21st century.
According to Floyd and Curtis (2000), it should be the aim of all governments to increase the economic activity of disabled people. From the government’s point of view, there is a perception that the cost of the growth in the number of disabled people claiming long-term disability benefits is unsustainable, but also that non-employment brings financial and health risks to disabled people and their families. From the perspective of the disability movement, exclusion from employment is one of the principal barriers to social inclusion. However, the disability movement is also committed to preserving benefits levels of those who cannot work as a result of their impairment, and wishes to see the emphasis on tackling barriers in the workplace rather than on pressurizing disabled people to work.
It is one of the well-established features of a comprehensive approach to equality management that organizations should have a monitoring procedure in place to analyze their workforce for group representation. As part of a broader workforce audit, that includes perceptions of equality, employee satisfaction, and so on. An analysis of internal employee monitoring data might include a breakdown of job, grade, site, length of service, qualifications, skills levels, promotion history, type of contract, turnover, take up of training courses, appraisals, sickness records, and so on, which are then cross-tabulated by employee profile characteristics (sex, age, disability, and so on). In reality, only the most simplistic analysis of the data is performed and is not uniformly executed for all disadvantaged groups. Unlike other disadvantaged groups, monitoring for disabled representation, requires that the feature of group membership is first described, a task that is complicated by a number of variables.
First, the group is notoriously unstable in membership. Many employees will pass in or out of this group during their working lives. This implies that monitoring for this group will need to be carried out at regular intervals for changes in status. Second impairments are frequently hidden and thus perceived to be personal ‘property’. The more personal and invisible characteristics become, the less easy it is to gather data on. This is problematic because it complicates the process and weakens the motivation to monitor. Third, there is no necessary link between impairment and disability. In other words, while someone may have impairment, they may not be seeing themselves as disabled. Employees with impairments can find their disability status shaped by the accessibility of their environment, the impact it has on their choice of occupation, their age, even their sex. The implication here is that unless the context of job, workplace, building, the perceptions of others, environment, and so on, is constant, monitoring becomes meaningless. This introduces a significant, and as yet largely unexplored, area of the complications of monitoring disability, which focuses on the different ways that disability is defined.
Broadly speaking, there are three methods used in the employment context to define disability. The most frequently used method of disability definition relies on the use of medical criteria and is referred to as a ‘medical model’. By explicitly connecting medical impairment and their consequences –that is, limitations in functional. The appeal of this method of definition lies in its apparent objectivity; that is, evidence can be provided in the form of someone either having or not having an impairment which impacts on their abilities. As such, access to additional resources and adaptations need only be granted to those who qualify within these definitions. Within organizations, these ‘objective’ decisions are usually taken by doctors or occupational health specialists who provide ‘evidence’ that without the additional resources the disabled individual will be disadvantaged by their impairment. Each case is dealt with individually and judged on its own merits.
The second method of definition leaves classification within the control of the individual and is referred to as ‘self-classification’. Manifesting the personal nature of the category, and the individualized use of the ‘disabled’ label, definition is left entirely to the discretion of each employee. In other words, even if individuals would qualify as ‘disabled’ within a medical model, if they do not wish to classify themselves as ‘disabled’ they are allowed to make that choice. Within this definition, employers would not expect to have corroborating evidence for the claimed status as disabled and any extra resources should automatically be provided.
The third method of definition is based on the ‘social model’ of disability. From this perspective disability does not emanate from the individual and their impairment, but rather from an environment that is designed to favor those who have no impairments. As such, the experience of disability becomes collectivized and the territory of ‘correction’ becomes society and the environment, rather than the person with the impairment. Under this model, monitoring is based on an audit of physical, economic and social, suppressing enquiry relating to type, severity or duration of an individual’s impairment. Thus, the measurement indicators of a workplace-based social model audit would include aspects of workplace and job design, methods and criteria for job success, and so on.
If the social model actually informed the management of disability in the workplace, monitoring would shift from the individual to the social and environmental aspects of the organization. Any aspects of these which were found to cause people with impairments to experience their impairments as disabling and so, ultimately as discriminatory, would need to be changed. This might include redesigning all jobs, ensuring that promotional criteria did not indirectly discriminate against people with impairments and ensuring that all employees understand and operate according to a social model of disability in their day-to-day activities. However, if this were to be achieved, any subsequent monitoring of individuals would reveal very few if any disabled people employed. In other words, the organization would become a victim of its own success. For reporting purposes, both internal and external, local authorities need to demonstrate that they employ disabled people and are increasing their proportions within the workforce but the model of disability they wish to be seen to be supporting does not enable them to be seen to be achieving this.
Quite clearly, the evidence-base for designing policies has been incomplete. Viewed from a ‘social barriers’ approach, impairment was not a necessary or sufficient reason for leaving work. Instead, attention was directed at employer attitudes and practices, workplace relationships generally, and wider obstacles to inclusion in society at large.
For their part, disabled people have remained critical of employers for their slowness to recognize the social and environmental barriers to inclusion, and the diversity of their support needs. Disabled people identified a range of discriminatory attitudes and practices, including unwillingness to make workplace adaptations, lack of sympathy to requests for more flexible hours, and being passed over for promotion. Much remains to be done to challenge prevailing analyses of work, welfare and disability and develop policies to support disabled people into getting job, sustained employment, with realistic prospects of career advancement the next policy goal.