Barbara Phillips, Executive Director of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) outlined ideas for improving the grant scheme at this summer’s Sight Village exhibition in Birmingham.
It is good news that young disabled jobseekers on work experience will now be able to access extra support to help them into mainstream placements via Access to Work, as was announced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in July.
According to DWP figures, over 84,000 people since 2007 have been helped through Access to Work. But is Access to Work working as well as it could do? Or are there changes in how it works – and not just more money - that are needed? Done better, might it not actually be more cost effective overall?
For a start, I still can’t quite believe that the assessment of what a disabled person’s needs are – in terms of what technological and human support they will need to do the job - comes only after they have secured a job.
Surely it makes much more sense to do, at the very start, a complete and thorough assessment, not only of the person’s basic abilities and needs, but of ways to maximise their abilities and minimise their disabilities?
And for many people, that will require the use of assistive technology, yet how many know what’s available, let alone how to select what’s best for them?
Without expert assessment and provision of the right assistive technology, how is a disabled person supposed to know what they are capable of?
Once the apparent barriers to making use of their ability that their disability presents have been lessened or removed - through technology and some basic human support - their confidence and job aspirations could be so different.
Without that knowledge of what is possible, and the confidence that gives, how is the disabled school or college leaver or graduate to know what work they could do? Those without disabilities don’t usually know either.
Add to that initial disability the corrosive effect on self-confidence and self-esteem that lack of employment – paid or unpaid – can have for anyone, and is it at all surprising that too many people with disability assume they either can’t work, or apply for jobs below their real ability level, or fail to be selected at interview?
Anyone who has never had a job really suited to their abilities, and/or has been long-term unemployed, and who has a disability of any kind as well, is highly unlikely to be able to decide what sort of work they should be applying for, or be able to ‘sell’ themselves to a prospective employer .
But if someone in that situation had the chance to be properly assessed at an early stage and, with the right expert help, was able to identify and then become used to using, the best assistive technology, how much more likely they are to be able to think clearly about what work they are genuinely capable of and would like to do.
How much more confidence they are likely to have when interviewed. How much more they will be able to convince potential employers of how well they could fill that role and add value to the organisation.
How much more likely they are to be employed because of what they can do, not just to fill the employer’s sense of social responsibility or because they are afraid of being in trouble with the law if they don’t.
How much better for society as a whole, and the economy, as well as for individuals who are disabled, if more businesses realised the potential they are missing out on by shying away from employing people with disabilities.
After all, there are around eleven million disabled people in Britain, 39 million in Europe, 650 million worldwide (according to the World Health Organisation). All these people are customers as well as employees. What a waste not to tap into this pool of potential spenders and contributors.
As part of my research into Access to Work, as well as looking at the direct.gov website and reading DWP reports, I talked to a young woman I know who has been blind from birth, has a degree and now works; and I talked to a recently retired civil servant who had worked in the Department for Work and Pensions, specifically on Access to Work and its predecessors; and to an employer of visually impaired staff.
While my young friend demonstrated that Access to Work can, indeed, work – she has a personal assistant and Jaws software provided – she also told me of some of the problems she had had to overcome to find the job for which she was qualified.
I was surprised to learn the Jaws software she uses, paid for by Access to Work, is job specific, so if she moved to another job, she could not take it with her and – even worse – it is only for use at work, not in her life generally. That doesn’t make sense to me. In fact, it’s both mean and absurd.
The retired civil servant shocked me by saying how limited were the adjustments made in the initial tests of numeracy and literacy for people with sight or hearing impairment - and that with less obvious disabilities, the provision could be even worse.
That must mean that a lot of people with a disability do less well in those initial tests than would be the case if they were first assessed for and provided with appropriate assistive technology - and given the time needed to get used to that - before they were tested.
She also told me that there may be as few as two Access to Work advisers for a whole county. They are under great pressure to meet targets for the number of people seen who end up in employment.
No wonder, I was told, that there is a certain amount of cherry picking, with those whose disabilities could be more quickly and easily ‘sold’ to employers being given preference over those who would take longer to find work for, or who would require greater - and more expensive -adjustments in the workplace.
Not surprising, then, that not as many people as could benefit are referred to a specialist organisation for an assessment and to recommend appropriate support.
Nor are the problems over even when that does happen, because it is then up to the access to work adviser to decide what is appropriate, not the expert or the person with the disability.
Why should the disabled person have to have been employed for a minimum of six weeks before the technological and other support needed will be paid for by Access to Work? What’s worse, the average wait is 143 days, according to Action for Blind People, until the grant is paid.
Those first few weeks in any new job are bad enough for anyone, but so much worst if you are left without what you need to enable you even to start to get to grips with the job. No wonder if employers’ and fellow workers’ doubts about how much the person will be able to do increase during that time. No wonder the employer to whom I spoke had concerns.
How, he said, is an employer to know that someone with a disability has the competence to do a job if that person does not know because they’ve not had a chance to try doing it with the right assistive technology?
And if the company has never before employed a disabled person, the employer might be unable to imagine how anyone with that particular level or type of disability could do anything worth doing for his business.
I was regaled with horror stories from his and other companies’ experiences in recent years, of having to bully and cajole assessors to come and carry out the assessments or of employers being told to come up with a shopping list themselves for approval.
He said that, because of his previous positive experience of employing visually impaired people and his knowledge of what was available, he had persisted, but he could understand why a small business employing someone with a disability for the first time, finding they had to wait weeks and put in a lot of effort to get the technology the system is supposed to provide, might decide ‘never again’.
He stressed that while the assessors themselves weren’t at fault – they were over worked and under resourced – something has to be done to match expectation with delivery.
He said that, bluntly, the Government has to accept that many employers think there is an extra cost – and perhaps an added risk - attached to employing a disabled person, over and above employing a similarly qualified non-disabled person and that to lower those perceived barriers a different approach was needed.
His idea was for an apprenticeship model for recruitment, whereby the disabled person would be assessed, profiled and tested before they go forward for a job. The agency handling the whole process would remain as the employee’s mentor, there to help with any issues that may arise on either side. How difficult would it be to transform the existing Access to Work scheme into something on those lines?
Both he and others I spoke to also commented on the business of ‘review’ through Access to Work in one to three years, after which any funding in place could be withdrawn.
In some cases, that could mean employing the person was no longer economically viable, so the job itself was at risk – and the disabled person would then have to start the process all over again. How wasteful is that of resources; and how destructive for the individual involved?
No wonder, according to government statistics, only about one third of registered blind and partially sighted people are in employment. And it’s not just about getting any job, but getting the right job and then keeping it.
Access to Work cost £105 million in 2010- 2011, 57% of which went to people with visual impairment, but only about 6.5% of the total was spent on assistive technology. That suggests to me that we must be wasting a lot of talent and ability and frustrating a lot of people.
In Britain, we have much that is good in the way of infrastructure to enable people with disabilities to lead lives as they choose, and I know that in these hard economic times, it is unrealistic to expect more public money to be forthcoming, but with some tweaks here, and a bit of common sense there, and a dollop of flexibility, we might actually come up with a system that really does deliver what we all want – people of all abilities able to lead better, more independent, fulfilling and productive lives.
BATA would like the Government to think again about allowing disabled people to secure Access to Work funding before they apply for a job -something they seemed to be seriously considering in 2010 but no longer talk about.
And we would like to see the Coalition re-thinking the new rules that have shifted the cost of some basic but vital software and equipment to the employers or disabled employees themselves.
We also say it is not enough to suggest (as DWP has) that disabled people whose jobs are at risk because of losing their Disability Living Allowance should just apply for Access to Work instead.
As part of our championing of those who use assistive technology, BATA has commissioned a survey into the use of assistive technology in the workplace, from both the employer and employee perspectives. Later this year we will be publishing the results and using them to identify what needs to be done.
BATA has only been in existence since 2010 but we are already active and working alongside many others to bring about these and other changes needed to enable more people to lead better lives through the use of assistive technology.
Barbara Phillips CBE
British Assistive Technology Association (BATA)