Our Paralympians may be inspiring, but working with a disability is anything but easy

We may marvel at the prowess and skills of our Paralympic champions in Rio, yet for many people with disabilities or health issues, the biggest challenge is just managing to hold down and stay in employment.

Whether it be Jonnie Peacock, Hannah Cockroft, Kadeena Cox or the two Ellies (Simmonds and Robinson), the stars of our ParalympicsGB team in Rio have been both a revelation and inspiration.

But, while they have shown all too clearly how it is perfectly possible for people with disabilities not to be defined by or (worse) written off by their disability, the reality for many people with disabilities or long-term health condition is an ongoing struggle to get, and stay in, employment, according to new research by Citizens Advice.

The study, Working with a health condition or disability, has argued that people with disabilities or those with a health condition are more than twice as likely to fall out of work in any given year compared with people who do not.

Of the 3.5 million people who are disabled or have a health condition who are out of work, 1.4 million wanted a job. Yet they were three times less likely to move into employment, the report said.

The welfare system and employers needed to better recognise the needs of people with fluctuating conditions or conditions that may be hidden, such as arthritis or depression, Citizens Advice also suggested.

Our ageing population and workforce was also playing a significant role in this trend, given that Citizens Advice highlighted that an estimated one person in four aged 50-64 has a disability or health condition and 500,000 people in this age group want to work yet are unable to do so.

The advice organisation has, as a result, called for improved support for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions to stay in work or get a job.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Closing the health and disability employment gap will take work from both employers and government. Disabled people and those with a health condition face a range of obstacles which need to be recognised and addressed to help them get and keep a job.

“Simple things like being flexible about medical appointments or adaptable working hours can make a huge difference. It is also vital that people can get timely support from the welfare system when they need it, such as through Personal Independence Payments,” she added.

There are a number of issues here for employers to consider. First, of course, the NHS needs to play its part, despite its straitened financial circumstances at the moment.

For example, the recent National Rheumatoid and Early Inflammatory Arthritis Audit report commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership and carried out by the British Society for Rheumatology (RSA) highlighted the referral and appointment delays experienced by many people with suspected rheumatoid and early inflammatory arthritis.

It argued up to a million Britons are at risk of preventable, long-term disability and reduced life expectancy because of delays in referrals to specialist advice and treatment services.

Nationally just 20% of patients who saw a GP with suspected rheumatoid and early inflammatory arthritis had been referred to specialist services within the three-day limit as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, it added.

There is also mileage here in employers supporting or complementing hard-pressed NHS services by offering their own bespoke, fast-track support. Of course, for some disabilities the provision required is going to be quite specialist, but access to physiotherapy, counselling, occupational health and other services will always be helpful.

More than this, however, it has to come down to changing attitudes. Yes, by all means ensure your organisation has a clear and well-communicated disability policy, yes very much ensure recruitment is fair and transparent, yes please do offer practical tools and adjustments, such as flexible working and flexibility over medical appointments.

But if you do not ensure that preconceptions, and prejudices, are proactively addressed, at all levels, then you are likely to have an uphill struggle.

It is about ensuring the conversation from the off is framed around not what someone can’t do, but what they can do, much as has been the case with our Paralympians.

Indeed, as Gillian Guy has made the point, while this is at one being a disability-friendly employer is about being a “good” employer, it also goes more widely than that.

Moreover, as our working population ages and more and more workers will be carrying health conditions or impairments or disabilities within the workplace, it is increasingly going to be in the interests of employers to do this.

“As many now work for longer in life, the number of people who need to balance the demands of work and managing a health condition or disability will continue to grow. It is in the interests of employers and government to work together to offer a range of support so anyone who is disabled or has a health condition and wants to work can achieve job security,” said Gillian Guy.

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