For unemployed people with physical and/or learning disabilities living in and around Castle Donington in Leicestershire, the new Marks & Spencer (M&S) warehouse that is due to open in 2013 will provide a much-needed boost to the local jobs market. M&S has said it will create 1,000 jobs there, in a variety of roles, for people with disabilities.
But much more will need to be done if the problem of unemployment among people with disabilities is to be addressed on a national basis.
The retailer’s commitment to employing people with disabilities lays down a marker for other employers. While some, such as Asda and BT, to name two at random, have recruitment policies and work practices designed to break down the barriers faced by people with disabilities, these are by no means universal, especially among smaller employers.
So it is little surprise that unemployment among all disabled people remains high – about 49% - and is even higher among people with learning disabilities, with only about 10% in paid employment.
Of course, with the planned closure of the majority of Remploy factories in the next year, after the Government withdrew its funding, many more people with disabilities will soon be pitching up at their local jobcentre plus, looking for work.
And it could be a long search. While overall unemployment may be falling at the moment, there are still about 2.5 million jobless people in the UK and competition for jobs is fierce. Also, many employers look for experience, which people with learning disabilities often do not have. Sadly, disability discrimination is still a factor: while it is supposed to have been outlawed, there is anecdotal evidence that it is still practised, albeit sometimes unwittingly.
There is also debate about whether current mainstream schemes designed to help people into employment, such as the Work Programme and Work Choice, have enough scope to give people with learning disabilities the support they need to overcome the challenges that they face, which can be different to those faced by non-disabled people.
So, apart from large-scale schemes like M&S’ – which are welcome, but few and far between – getting a job remains very difficult for people with learning disabilities.
Creating sustainable employment for people with disabilities has to be a key aim for the Government – especially given its commitment to personalisation and reducing the welfare bill – and the problems highlighted above need to be addressed, if matters are to improve.
How the protected £320 million budget for disability employment will be used will be crucial. About a fifth was spent on Remploy factories, but that will now be deployed elsewhere. Government must ensure that those funds are used to break down the barriers faced by people with disabilities, and that they support many more such people into paid employment.
Time will tell if this happens, but many people will be watching things closely to see if the Government delivers on its promises to people with disabilities.