Sarah Dean is not the image of a disabled person in work the government wants you to see. The 26-year-old has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Unable to cope with the anxiety of going through the “fit for work” tests in order to apply for employment and support allowance, the disability out-of-work benefit, Dean is surviving on zero-hours contracts. ESA would have given her either a higher rate of benefit to live on (compared with jobseeker’s allowance) or support (albeit poor) to find a job more suitable to her health needs. But as a JSA recipient, Dean is not classed as “disabled”, as ESA claimants are, and so has to take pretty much any job going.
Dean has had four different contracts in as many years, working as a shop assistant at various tourist venues, on- call for a shift any, and every, day. What makes an insecure job difficult for workers generally can make it debilitating for someone with a disability or health condition, and Dean tells me both her ADHD and OCD have worsened, to the extent she now needs specialist ADHD therapy.
“It’s been constant pressure: pressure to take whatever hours I could, stress wondering if I could afford the bills,” she says. “No adjustments were made [for me] despite quoting the Disability [Discrimination] Act till I’m pink in the face.
“The ethos is, ‘humans are cheap. If they’re different, use them till they break, then replace,’” she adds. “It turns you into a complete wreck.”
Dean’s is one of close on 150 experiences of disabled workers catalogued in a study by the Public Interest Research Unit (PIRU) for the campaign group, People with disability Against Cuts. The government rhetoric about disability over the past five years has effectively created two mythical figures: the lazy, work-shy person with disability, milking the state for benefits, and the hardworking disabled person, able to take any job with little or no support. But the PIRU research gives a voice to the hidden reality: from the strain on disabled people forced to take unsuitable work, to discrimination or abuse by colleagues and employers.
“The attitude to workers with disability has hardened in the last few years,” says Claire Hudson, a public sector worker in her early 30s. Hudson has a neurological condition that means she struggles to pick up new skills without the right support but, regardless, has been expected by her employers to take on additional work after other departments had cuts. She has applied to reduce her hours but says her employer “is not making it easy”.
Taking time off because of her disability has been met with resentment. “When I returned to work in my current job I was treated quite badly by colleagues who felt I shouldn’t have any ‘special treatment’,” she says. “Months on, it’s not much better.”
This sense that “disabled scrounger” narratives are permeating the workplace was a common theme in PIRU’s research, with disabled workers reporting they were increasingly regarded as “a burden”, “alien”, “lazy”, or exaggerating their condition. One local authority worker, with a disability that affects his ability to walk, said his boss tried to make him move “to a building with stairs and no lift”.
It was a fear of being seen as “trouble” – and the insecurity of a zero-hours contract – that meant Dean originally didn’t disclose her ADHD or OCD to her last employer. Her fears were justified: when Dean did explain her disability to her boss and asked for stable hours “to help [her] cope”, her hours were reduced to nothing, in effect, forcing her to leave. “Now I’m about to sign on for the third time in a year,” she says.
As another respondent to the study put it: “I always try to hide my disability from prospective employers. If it became known, I never got the job.”
The minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, confidently claimed this month that the Conservatives have got “thousands more disabled people into work” but look a little closer, and the government is cutting Access to Work, the fund that helps make that possible. Work Program figures show just 8.7% of new ESA claimants put on to the flagship back-to-work scheme in March last year had a “job outcome” a year later.
Both ESA claimants placed in failing work schemes or people like Dean parked on JSA may feel that they have been abandoned: disabled people expected to find work, regardless of whether a job exists that they are physically or mentally able to do.
Their numbers are likely to increase, given that reducing the number of people on disability out-of-work benefits – at a cost of almost £14bn – has been an ongoing focus for the Conservatives. In May, leaked Whitehall documents listed “stricter” fit-for-work tests as a way to find part of the £12bn cuts to social security. Earlier this week, David Cameron refused to rule out taxing disability benefits for those in work.
But without a funded, specialized system of support, a drive by the government to push claimants off incapacity benefits and into unsuitable work is simply abandoning people who are struggling to pay the bills while ill or disabled.
“It’s all a pathetic way to force ill people off the benefits they need. It doesn’t address the issues preventing you from working,” says Dean. “Where’s the justice in this mess?”