We need to talk…about disability

When Lord Freud, the Government’s Welfare Minister, appeared to suggest that people with disabilities might not be “worth” the minimum wage, the news instantly became a headline, started trending on Twitter and sparked multiple debates on and offline.


The controversy has gathered around two opposing views. Some argued he was being thoughtless, discriminatory and severely diminishing the contribution disabled people can make to the workforce. Others believed that he was at least looking to tackle what is a critical issue – access to, and opportunities for – paid employment for disabled people.


For my part, I’m just pleased that disability has made headlines and prompted so much discussion because all too often it’s a topic that people – including businesses – are simply not having enough conversations about. This is an issue that affects all companies, who have both the internal (the employment of people with disabilities) and external (how customers can access the end product or service) aspects to consider.


Here’s what we know:

  • There are over 11m people with disabilities in the UK today – that’s about 1 in 6 of us. So don’t tell me this is a niche problem, to be tucked away in Human Resources.
  • Disabled people are significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people: 46.3% of working-age disabled people are in employment, compared to 76.4% of working-age non-disabled people. That’s a gap of 2 million people.
  • People who live in families with disabled members are substantially more likely to live in poverty. Leaving an even bigger question mark over the suggestion of £2 an hour being an adequate level of pay.


But here’s the thing: having worked on disability issues for many years, I don’t think deliberate discrimination is the root cause of the problem. People may well be uninformed. But often they simply haven’t stopped to consider how a blind, or deaf, or less mobile person may be able to use their product or service. Many are also afraid of causing offence, of getting it wrong, of using the ‘wrong’ language – and this fear can stop people discussing disability in the first place. But if we don’t talk about it and if we don’t ask the question about how this might impact people with disabilities, then aren’t we already implicitly discriminating?


Sensitivity around language matters, of course. Lord Freud’s use of the word ‘worth’ proves that. But, generally, I believe people with disabilities would rather people talked to them, or talked about the issues, even if they didn’t use the agreed lexicon of the day. Avoidance, albeit safer, does nothing to advance our society towards a more inclusive one.


A blind consultant I once worked with visited several high-street stores as part of a mystery shopping exercise. He was dismayed when employees all started shrinking away into the background when he walked in with his guide dog. Then, when he did find someone to talk to, they addressed their questions to his wife. But these people weren’t being unfriendly, or unprofessional: they simply lacked the confidence to talk to him. Just think how much better his experience would have been if someone had just walked up to him and asked simply how they could help; if they’d had the confidence to start the conversation even if they had no idea how it was going to end.


So, today, tomorrow, or next week – ask the question; start a conversation; get people talking. As the impassioned Caroline Casey, a visually impaired social entrepreneur once put it: “To be human is to be different. We all want to belong.”

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