Since April 2017, the Scottish government gained new powers to decide on the employment conditions for disabled people. Mark Cooper is a devoted campaigner for disabled rights in Scotland. In October 2016, he attended the Rehabilitiation International Congress on behalf of Cosmopolita Scotland, where these new powers were announced. In his account of the event, Mark describes on how his experience at the congress affected his view of disability employment and reflects on how the experience has stayed with him over the past year.
In October 2016, I attended part of the Rehabilitation International (RI) Congress in Edinburgh. It was a 3-day event, bringing together over 1000 delegates from 65 countries to discuss a range of issues, from leisure and tourism to education and training. Of particular interest to me was the topic of “work and employability” as I am an unemployed disabled person, and was also unemployed at the time.
Since the last time this congress was held in the United Kingdom, back in 1956, rights for disabled people have changed dramatically. This was reflected in the speeches by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister. In their opening addresses to the congress, they both reflected that although great progress had been made, more work is still needed to make the world more inclusive.
It’s significant that the congress was hosted in Scotland because, from April 2017, the Scottish Parliament gained control over disabled people’s employability through a transfer of social security powers from Westminster. The transfer, known as The Scotland Act 2016, has has been called “the most substantial change to the powers of the Parliament since devolution”. However, as of today, November 2017, I haven’t yet seen the effects of this transfer of power.
The morning session focused on the importance of education to help disabled people into work and highlighted its importance in gaining life skills, as employability is only one aspect of life. One particularly powerful presentation was from speaker Haqeeq Bostan, who emigrated from Pakistan to the UK as a child. Initially, he was in specialist education with other disabled children but was then moved to mainstream schooling with non-disabled pupils. He went on to complete a university education and now holds a senior position in a leading FTSE100 company.
Haqueeq’s presentation resonated with me as it mirrored my own educational journey. I strive to be the best I can be. To hear from him that it can be done gave me hope to continue. I no longer felt like giving up my employment journey.
The theme of employment continued through the rest of the morning session with a discussion of the progression of disability employment, from factory employment to customised employment for disabled people. Customised employment is situated in mainstream workplaces, where disabled people are supported in their role by their line managers.
The afternoon session focused on the workplace with presentations from major corporations, including B.T. and Barclays, on how they employ and support disabled people in the workplace. Whilst it is great that these companies support disabled people to enter and remain in the workplace, I feel they are only able to do so because they have the financial ability. This point was reinforced by a Nigerian delegate, who asked the panel: Who should pay if a firm cannot afford adjustments? The reply from the panel was: the government should provide the funding. In my view, governments will have competing priorities. Pressure must be applied to those governments to show them the business case for employing disabled people. These are, in short, that less money will be being paid out in benefits and more people could be paying tax, as well as the recognised social benefits of employment for the individual.
After the conference, my own reflection was that a mixed approach is required. Stakeholders need to learn from each other as to what works. Employers need support to know where they can access help to pay for adjustments to help disabled people and train their staff in disability awareness. Disabled employees need help with applications and interview techniques. Once in a job, they need security. Many schemes to help disabled people into work are fixed term and can lead back to unemployment.
Over lunch, I asked Haqueeq Bostan, the speaker who had inspired me, his best tips for getting and maintaining employment. He said: “Luck!” I couldn’t agree more.
At the end of the day a disabled person is like anyone else. They can have all the support they can get, with the application process and interview preparation. Then, once in the job there can be fantastic adjustments. However, in the interview, it is up to the disabled person to convince the interviewer that they are the best person for the job, irrespective of disability.
I am not in favour of quotas. Yes, they may help disabled people like me get a job, but I would rather get a job based on the skills I have, not because of my disability. More employers need to take the chance on disabled people. Difference, can bring its own benefits.
Now, a year on, I feel that the time I spent at the congress was well worth it. It was amazing to see disabled people from across the world and hear about their experiences. I am still unemployed and, yes, it is very disheartening at times. However, I still reflect on Haqueeq’s inspiring speech and I am determined to keep going. I am still searching for that bit of luck that he talked about.