The first time in the parliamentary dispatch box must be a daunting occasion for any new Minister.  For Justin Tomlinson, the new Minister for Disabled People, the prospect must have been especially formidable.  The first few days of his Ministry have been eventful to say the least.  Before even having had the chance to answer his first oral question, the Minister was called to respond to a ruling by a High Court judge that delays in the processing of applications for the Disability Benefit, PIP, were so severe as to be unlawful.  What scrutiny might he now face from his parliamentary colleagues?

PIP and other disability benefits were referred to, but throughout the question session there was also a strong focus on the progress of the Government’s ‘Disability Confident’ campaign.   Established in response to a DWP survey which showed that 42% of disabled jobseekers felt ‘employer attitude’ was the biggest barrier to them obtaining employment, the campaign aims to quash prejudice, teach employers the benefits of a diverse workforce, and provide support for them in their efforts to recruit and retain disabled employees.  The campaign is now nearing its two year anniversary, and it is surely planned that it will have a role to play in the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge to halve the disability employment gap.  Currently, the disability employment gap stands at around 30%.

Aspire knows from our work with people who sustain spinal cord injuries that returning to work can be difficult. Working a 9 to 5, for instance, is impossible when the care workers who help you to wash and dress do not arrive until 10 am.  Our experience is that district nurses in particular work to incredibly severe schedules in providing bowel and bladder care for people with SCI.   In these cases, more flexible care provision could present a solution.   

Another problem can be caused by those with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) having to live in accommodation that is unsuitable for them.  Aspire’s research, for example, shows that it is almost impossible for those discharged to nursing homes (around 20% of people with SCI) to obtain or keep a job.  Similar problems are faced by those in other kinds of unsuitable housing; how can a person easily return to work when they might only be able to enter or exit their property if somebody is there to help them?

All these reasons and more will have contributed to a statistic produced by Brunel University that a third of people with Spinal Cord Injury were vocationally active at one year post discharge, compared to two-thirds at the point of injury.

Does Disability Confident offer a solution to such difficulties?  Certainly, a change in employer attitudes might lead to better adjustments for those with SCI.  For instance, our research shows that a wheelchair user is nearly three times more likely to receive an outright rejection for a role as a fitness instructor than a non-wheelchair user.  However, tracking whether the campaign is having its intended effect is complex.  In his first time at the dispatch box, Justin Tomlinson has been keen to highlight the successes of the campaign, such as that it has “secured support from 360 employers and pledges from 98 organisations to positively change employment practices towards disabled staff.”  He also attributes a rise in the number of disabled people in employment of 238,000 over the last 12 months to Disability Confident.  This progress is welcome.  Nevertheless, there are indications that there is still a long way to go.  For instance, a real-time electronic poll of delegates at the NASUWT’s annual Disabled Teachers’ Consultation Conference on Monday found that 81% had faced discrimination at work.  Perhaps, then, there are greater challenges in some sectors than in others.

There are also barriers to work for people with SCI which cannot be solved by a change in employer attitudes.  In order for many people with SCI to find work, the Department of Communities and Local Government will need to work to address the shocking shortage of accessible housing in the UK.  And indeed, the DWP itself may have to examine its own house.  Although the DWP’s Work Programme has had successes in some areas, Justin Tomlinson and others championing Disability Confident will have been dismayed to learn that only 9% of disabled and long-term sick people have found a job after a year on the scheme.  Though there has been an improvement in outcomes for this group since the Programme started, clearly there is still some distance to go.

Aspire welcomes the work the Government is doing to try to change employer attitudes, and looks forward to further progress reports over the coming year.  We hope to be able to see a real change in prospects for people with SCI in particular.  Part of that, no doubt, could come through a greater number of employers becoming ‘disability confident.’  However, for there to be a sea change in this area, departments such as DCLG and the Department of Health (which provides the district nurses referred to earlier) will have to become ‘disability confident’ too.