Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Disabled people a third less likely to be in paid employment than non-disabled people

Those with low levels of education are more likely to have a disability, and this disability is much more likely to result in them being out of work, according to new research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

Indeed, the research found that at age 30, the rate of disability is 8% for degree holders and 24% for those with no qualifications.

However, a lack of educational qualifications appears to impede disabled people more than non disabled people, with only 35% of men with a disability and without educational qualifications in their late 50s in work, compared with 72% of similarly educated men who don’t have a disability.

This means the ‘disability employment gap’ among older men without qualifications (after controlling for age) is 31 percentage points, meaning that those with a disability are 31 percentage points less likely to be in work than those without a disability.

In contrast, those with GCSEs or A levels are 18% less likely to be without work, while those with degrees are just 11% less likely to be employed.

Heidi Karjalainen, a Research Economist at IFS and an author of the report, said the research shows that “disability has become both one of the most important sources and one of the most important consequences of inequality.”

Lower educational qualifications linked to poor mental health

The authors of the research say much of the educational gap in disability is attributable to differences in the prevalence of mental health problems, which have been increasing in particular among younger working-age adults in recent decades.

Indeed, younger people with lower educational qualifications are much more likely to have poor mental health, and there has been a significant rise in the prevalence of mental health issues and disability benefit claims among children, particularly in the last decade or so.

For example, among girls aged 16, more than one in five were in contact with NHS mental health services (including learning disabilities and autism services) in 2021–22, which is a near doubling of the rate just four years earlier. In 2002, 3% of children aged 9–13 received a disability benefit, but by 2022 that had more than doubled to 7%.

The authors of the research say these trends may create further educational inequalities and may mean that rates of disability and disability benefit claims among adults continue to grow as the current generation of children enter the labour market.

Disability rates rising among younger generations

The research, which is part of the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, also found that rates of disability have increased in recent years.

Indeed, IFS research shows that 7.4 million working-age adults reported a disability in 2020/21, with the number of people claiming disability benefits rising from 2% in the early 1990s to 6% in 2020/21.

Karjalainen says this new research therefore highlights an “increasingly important issue” given that disability rates are continuing to rise, especially among younger generations.

Alex Beer, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation says more work must now be done so that we can better identify and understand disability inequalities and their drivers.

“This report shines a light on increasing disability rates, related risks to people’s wellbeing, and their connection to some of the most pressing social and economic concerns in the UK. These include the pressure on public services from mental health services to social care for older people.

It calls for deeper comprehension of disability inequalities and their drivers, so we can better understand the disparities in economic, social, and quality of life outcomes between disabled and non-disabled populations,” said Beer.

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