On Tuesday I rang the bell to open the London Stock Exchange and launchPurple, a not-for-profit organisation, determined to tackle the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people in new ways.
At last week’s work and pension select committee looking at the issue of employment and disabled people, I was asked, “Is halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people achievable?” My answer: potentially, but not if we continue with the current approach. As a disabled person, I have lived with impairment since birth. I have seen the changes society has made, and recognise that the world is a different place to 20 years ago. I also still see and feel the inequality that exists.
As a business leader, I see the commercial opportunities from explo
iting the disability consumer market, and can’t fathom why no one has really cracked it. We know the “purple pound” is worth an estimated £212bn a year but I see few strategies by business to lever this market. Conventional textbooks tell you the most successful businesses reflect their consumer base in their workforce. The fact that disabled people are under-represented in most workforces is probably the strongest indicator of a lost commercial opportunity. As chair of the national Access to Work advisory panel that reported to the government more than two years ago, it is really frustrating that so many of its (agreed) recommendations have not been fully implemented to support disabled people into work.
It also seems perverse that, by stealth, the funding for Access to Work is being eroded. This includes a specific pledge to ringfence the funding saved from the Remploy closures. There is clearly a disconnect between government intent and action on the ground. But if you look very closely there is a worrying disconnect between the two groups that have the best chance of fixing this problem – businesses and disabled people.
Businesses need to feel they are not being lectured about what is right (or wrong) around disability and to start to see disabled people as a way to develop and expand their business. Disabled people are frustrated by perceptions of them as recipients of benefits by the government, a target for subsidised employment and forgotten consumers.
Last summer, I undertook some disability awareness training sessions for Essex and Kent police. I soon realised there was a fundamental issue – “a need for conversations without fear” – employers so concerned about saying the wrong thing, and using appropriate language, that this led them to “opt out” of the disability conversation. A recent survey we undertook of 1,000 businesses found almost half are apprehensive about employing a disabled person because of fears they won’t be able to do the job and concerns about inappropriate comments or actions.
For disabled people, a different conversation without fear is needed. Disabled people’s user-led organisation ECDP, from which Purple is emerging, runs a disability employment programme, sponsored by business bursaries, which one participant described as a “boot camp”. I suspect they meant we didn’t (and don’t) accept excuses around disability as a reason for not getting a job. Once people got over the initial shock, they warmed to the approach that, first and foremost, they were seen as an individual who happened to have a disability. Our success rate in getting people into work is over 50%, which rates highly compared with current government-financed programmes. It is no coincidence that part of our approach was to work with the line managers of employers who hired the disabled person and acknowledge their support needs to make it a success. This has been key in making it work for the business and disabled person.Purple is an online disability recruitment agency that makes a comprehensive offer to business to support them to become “disability confident”.
For disabled people, it will access the labour market and help in career progression, and a range of pre-job programmes will develop the necessary work-related skills and foster greater aspirations. We also intend to launch later this year a personal assistant recruitment agency to support disabled employers (using direct payments and/or their own funding) to access quality carers.
Funded through public sector contracts and commercial sales, Purple will be changing the conversation, marrying businesses and disabled people in an equal partnership to determine whether or not the disability employment landscape can be transformed.