Work, welfare and the disabling state

Recent moves toward a more personalised and cost-effective way of supporting people with disabilities in the workplace are to be welcomed. However as with all ‘support’ provided by the state to its dependents it can disable as much as it claims to enable.

One employment scheme will cost £6.8m to subsidise employers at a rate of up to £2,275 per worker over 3 years ‘to support more than 1,000 young disabled people a year’ into work. In the case of Remploy, while half of the factories are due to close this year with the remainder awaiting their fate until next, the government has offered private bidders potentially wanting to take over the factories subsidies of over £6,000 per worker over the first 3 years of operation. So what constitutes reasonable support to get somebody with a disability into work, and what can only reinforce a disabling culture of state dependency? A dependency that is twofold. One that not only threatens continued dependency for the disabled but  subsidises private interests too. Those companies accepting state handouts would be otherwise unwilling to take on what are after all loss-making enterprises – in Remploy’s case at a rate of £68m a year.

As Randeep Ramesh explains, Remploy is not only on its way out because it is a bad model for getting people with disabilities into work. Its post-war era state-dependent factories are very uncompetitive. Operating in sectors ‘such as electronics, textiles and automotive’, says Ramesh, they are concentrated in a failing part of the UK economy i.e. the part that produces things. Of course, as interviews with Remploy workers conducted by The Guardian suggest, whatever the economic rationale the experience of work is in and of itself something that brings a degree of independence that somebody with a severe learning disability, for instance, might not otherwise get.

A segregated environment is also one that is deemed safe from abuse and discrimination, or a lack of understanding of the limits imposed on people by their disabilities. But this notion that the only alternative to segregated employment is a life on benefits should be challenged. As should the way in which the already existing challenges of economic failure, welfare cuts and lower rates of employment for the disabled; are being confused with a fear of discrimination that is driven more by a culture of pessimism in the disability rights movement than by what able-bodied people really think.

Beyond basket weaving?

Like the Paralympics, Remploy – the oldest and the biggest employer of disabled people in the country – was established after World War II to provide employment for injured soldiers, and it has continued to do so since the announcement of factory closures earlier this year. David Floyd, an advocate of the social enterprise model that Remploy were belatedly piloting, supports the government’s decision to close these state-subsidised and segregated workplaces as recommended in the Sayce Review.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, was charged with establishing ‘how the government could better support more disabled people to get into mainstream employment’. As Floyd argues, the response of trade unions that ‘disabled people are vulnerable and need looking after by the state’ is patronising and wrong. The view of those opposing the closures seems to be that Remploy is the best people with disabilities can expect; that they are vulnerable dependents who need protecting. As a spokesman for Unite put it during a recent strike by Remploy workers: ‘To attack the most vulnerable in our society and throw them on the scrapheap is an act against disabled people‘. But what is the alternative?

‘Sit-down comic’ Laurence Clark is torn. He turned down a gig at a Remploy factory once. It reminded him of a visit his special school organised to a nearby sheltered workshop to see ‘older peers packing disposable nappies into bags and other mundane chores’. For Clark, ‘even as a child, I expected a bit more out of life than this’. His career advisor suggested IT but this only confirmed that ‘computing had become the new basket weaving’. But it is the ‘attitudes and inflexibility of employers’ and the threat of removing ‘essential support’ provided by the state that is most problematic. Still, says Clark, Sayce is right to conclude that Remploy is expensive and outdated, representing a poor use of resources that might more effectively be used to support disabled people into mainstream work.

Sayce calculated that the state subsidy to Remploy is £25,000 per worker compared with the government’s Access to Work scheme costing just £2,900 with the prospect of a more integrated and independent working life. The government is committed, said Maria Miller then minister for disabled people, to finding a better way to spend the £320 million that goes to supporting people with disabilities (currently a fifth on Remploy alone) into employment every year. Access to Work, costing £100m a year to run – including support with ‘interpreters, special technology and office adaptations’ – and similar schemes; are a better way of doing this, she says, because they support individuals to access the same workplaces as everybody else.

Miller, before she was moved in yesterday’s reshuffle, had promised an additional £15m to help get a further 8,000 disabled people into work. So it would seem that the government is actually moving in the right direction. However, while this simultaneous broadening and personalising of the support relationship should be welcomed, other initiatives are more problematic. This is something I will explore in my next post.

The disabled: the hardest hit?

As the Paralympics gets under way, I will be asking whether the disability rights movement can live up to the Paralympic spirit? Because It seems to me that far from encouraging people with disabilities to overcome the disadvantages they face, it has increasingly become little more than a variant of today’s stifling politics of pity. While there is much to complain about today, there is no problem so big that it can’t be made worse by the imperatives of competitive victimhood. There are no end of people claiming to be very badly done by, or should I say no end of campaigners and commentators claiming to speak on their behalf.

Whether its as victims of public sector cuts or the apparent excesses of capitalism, some are seemingly little more than the objects of other’s pity. This is particularly the case if you happen to have a disability. According to Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC: ‘No group of people is more affected by the government’s savage, ideological austerity than disabled workers.’ But it is not austerity that represents the biggest assault on people with disabilities. Rather it is the way that disabled people are portrayed by Barber and others that is most troubling of all. Not least by their supposed defenders. From the cuts to welfare to the closure of Remploy factories it is the disabled, we are told, who are the most pitiable. A high profile campaign organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium and the UK Disabled People’s Council leaves us in no doubt that they are The Hardest Hit.

Like I say, there is much to complain about. As Claudia Wood writes for Demos: ‘Disabled people are disproportionately reliant both on welfare benefits and public services’. Not only are 3.5 million people currently claiming cut-threatened disability-related benefits, Wood reminds us, many are also seeing the care services they rely on threatened by 28% cuts to local authority budgets. So the last thing I want to do is diminish the difficulties that people with disabilities are facing now more than ever. Quite the opposite. I will try to show over a series of blog posts here and in the Huffington Post, that it is only by challenging the diminishing of disabled people themselves, that the assault on their standard of living and on the quality of care they receive can be challenged.