Opinion Articles

Are employment rates of disabled people “at the highest level since records began”?

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On 6 December 2017, the Treasury Select Committee asked the Chancellor Philip Hammond why Britain’s productivity rates were so low. Committee members may have been expecting the first answer, which was youth unemployment. But Hammond’s second answer was not what anyone might have anticipated. Controversially, he speculated that it was the greater inclusion of disabled workers that explained low productivity. Disabled activists and charities have responded with outrage.

The rates of inclusion of disabled workers in the current British labour market are actually rather low. The 2016 Green Paper Work, health and disability Green Paper: Improving Lives showed that while 80.1% of non-disabled people of working age were in employment, for the disabled it was only 47.9%. The Green Paper claims that these employment rates of disabled people are ‘at the highest level since records began’. But what does this mean?

Assessments of past rates of labour market inclusion are notoriously skewed by the difficulties of defining who is disabled, and tracking their labour. The government’s own quota system instituted in 1944, whereby employers with more than 20 workers were required to have 3% of their posts reserved for people on a disabled register, was a non-starter. Disabled people did not want to join the register, believing that it would disadvantage them in getting jobs. The quota was never rigorously enforced and was abandoned in 1995. Moreover, many disabled people were employed in sectors where informal or casual work predominated, such as domestic service and agriculture. The status of people with mental disabilities was particularly unclear. The Manpower Services Commission estimated in 1976 that mental handicap was currently underestimated and unrecorded: ‘possibly as many as a million people are in this category but the majority are not known to medical or social work agencies.’  Given this lack of clarity in relation to disabled status for most of the twentieth century, talk of the rates of employment ‘since records began’ must be regarded with some scepticism.

Nonetheless, other sources that did not rely on official designations of disability status suggest higher rates of employment of the disabled in the past. The car manufacturer Vauxhall, for example, claimed in the early 1960s that it employed ‘many more than its "quota" of disabled people as called for under the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, 1944.’ The welfare officers at this firm pressured workers to apply for disabled status only if they were not succeeding in their current role. ‘Disabled’ was therefore a strategic and, at times, manipulated category.

The Aftercare Committees that tracked the labour market experiences of children who had been to Special Schools are another source that indicates higher rates of inclusion for the disabled historically than today.  They kept detailed records of wages and employment for what they termed ‘subnormal workers’. The records from Birmingham show former pupils working at a very wide range of mostly industrial jobs – as bricklayers, carters, confectioners, drivers, house painters, and French polishers. A 1926 study in the city showed that 72% of former special school boys were remuneratively employed, and follow-up studies suggested that these numbers stayed at this level despite the economic recession from 1929.

The records from Birmingham and other equivalent industrial cities reveal workers earning rates equivalent to the rates for general labourers. They were paid these rates because employers regarded them as productive and effective. Most were not employed on sheltered or ‘compassionate’ schemes, but were able to compete on the open labour market. This is not to idealise the past – these workers often encountered harassment and ridicule, and sometimes occupied a very precarious position in the labour market. But the evidence from the past also shows that employers were persistently aware of how much they gained from the labour of the disabled. They were often loyal and efficient workers; those who were, in the language of the day, ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘mentally handicapped’ were particularly valued for their willingness to undertake repetitive industrial work. Their labour helped to fill essential roles that were otherwise hard to fill, and given the right training, they could undertake skilled work. One former worker at a Sheffield cutlery factory recalled: ‘There were some good characters, and strangely enough you’d see people, pardon the expression, who weren’t a full shilling, but as soon as they started work, honestly, it was just beautiful.’

Policy makers should not be complacent about today’s rates of employment of disabled people relative to those of the past. Those with learning difficulties, in particular, have found it increasingly hard to join the labour market of the twenty-first century, as academic credentials and computer skills become increasingly expected. The rates of inclusion for people with learning disabilities hover at 6-10% in recent years, though many more want to take up employment. The government is committed to raising these levels, but has not yet put sufficient resources behind this commitment. This comes at some cost; Improving Lives estimates that the economic inactivity of disabled people costs the economy £50bn annually.

Hammond’s assumption that disabled workers are less productive reflects some widely prevalent stereotypes. Yet historical research offers quite a different picture. Claims made that today’s employment rates are the most inclusive when compared with the past must be taken with a pinch of salt. Hammond must rethink his own priorities, and might take note of the final conclusion of Improving Lives, published on 30 November 2017, a week before his own statement:

Our vision is of a society where everyone is ambitious for disabled people, and where people understand and act positively upon the important relationship between health, work and disability.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Work, health and disability Green Paper: Improving Lives (Oct 2016 and response to consultation, Nov 2017)

Keith Bates, Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole (2017) ‘Precarious lives and resistant possibilities: the labour of people with learning disabilities in times of austerity’, Disability & Society, 32:2, 160-175

Vicky Long, ‘A satisfactory job is the best psychotherapist’: Employment and Mental Health, 1936-60 in Dale and Melling, Mental Illness and Learning Disability since 1850 (2006)

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