Disabled and in Work? Chance Would be a Fine Thing

Like many students, Anne Taylor was uncertain that her degree would guarantee employment when she graduated from the University of Portsmouth. Unlike many graduates, Anne faces some additional barriers to finding work: she is disabled and over 40.

‘Congratulations!  You have a degree!  This puts you among roughly the top third of educational attainment in the UK, so well above “average”,‘ I was told when I finished my degree.

But instead of being encouraged, these words reflected how I’d felt while attending university: a fraud.

Why? I am a middle-aged woman with MS. Could achieving a degree help improve my employment chances in the same way it does for many non-disabled people?

Sadly, probably not. In my own studies, researching the employment of disabled people in the UK, I found that no matter how educated I am, finding work will be a bigger challenge for me than it is for most. In January 2016, the UK employment rate among working age disabled people was 46.5% compared to 84% of non-disabled people.

Our society still vilifies those with disabilities. If you think disability discrimination laws offer adequate protection, think again. According to Scope research, one in eight disabled people (13%) have been overlooked for a promotion and one in four (24%) say their current employer is not supportive of their disability. My research on disability and employment confirmed the national evidence base: people with disabilities are less likely to find employment, or succeed in higher education – as students or academics.

By this point, you might be sensing bitterness in my tone, and frankly, you’re right.

I’ve tried for 2 years to get a job and failed to secure a position, including as a supermarket worker, a job I’m over-qualified for. It’s not my interview skills, I’ve been praised for them on many occasions, once being told I was the most ‘engaging interviewee, very employable,’ only for them to turn me down with, ‘so don’t worry you’ll be employed soon’. I’ve been rejected from a job for ‘not knowing’ an easy piece of software, something I could easily have learned.

60+ applications and 1 well researched and conducted interview later, and still no job. After a while, the excuses as to why become hollow.

It’s not that I am punching above my weight, or aiming too low, the middle ground is always the safest route. You can always get promoted, work your way into a career – as long as you’re given the chance, of course.

While the government has pledged to increase the number of disabled people in work, their commitment to austerity significantly undermines the intention. In November 2016, the UN found that the government’s austerity policies amount to ‘systematic violations’ of the rights of people with disabilities.

The attitude of government is reflected in wider society, most notably in the increase of attacks on adults and children with disabilities. Reading the papers reveals daily stories that show the subtle trend: rude notes put on cars with blue badges, a group of young men attacking a disabled woman with flour, or a group of young women throwing hot tea at a disabled man in the street.

Perhaps our politicians do not realise the damaging impact of their policies: the constant implication that austerity is an inescapable reality, not an ideological choice. The public is searching for an enemy and easily finds a scapegoat, someone to blame for the hardship we are suffering. Why not the disabled?

When people look for someone to blame, the complexities of reality are lost. Is that woman parking in Asda with the blue badge even really disabled? Maybe a lot of these disabled people are really benefit frauds, pretending to be ill while we can’t even afford new clothes for the kids. It’s not a huge leap from here to thinking most ‘so-called disabled people’ are on the take, is it?

But where does all this leave me? Do I retreat more into myself, not voice my concerns, become upset at being disregarded yet again?

Or do I keep trying, taking every rejection on the chin, in the hope that one day in the near future I will get the employment I deserve?

I guess we’ll see.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.