Mark O'Donnell: Companies should open their eyes to the benefits of employing disabled

Posted: 11/12/2018 |

Written for The Scotsman, Published on Tuesday 11 December 2018

Employment is fundamental to quality of life. Many of us spend much time and energy on our careers, applying for jobs, looking to the next career move or worrying about job security. Political debate is all about promoting job opportunities and driving down unemployment. How difficult would life be for you if you couldn’t find work? How would you pay the bills?

These questions highlight just how important it is that all of us are given the best opportunities to find employment. That is why we are supporting the Scottish Government’s goal to reduce the disability employment gap by at least half. 

receptionist at Scottish Braille press talks on the phone.

This is an ambitious target, and means that the new Disability Employment Action Plan, which ministers are due to publish before the end of the year, must provide a focus for all of us working to promote employment for disabled people to step up our efforts. Because it is still the case today that there are too many barriers to work for disabled people in Scotland, including those living with vision impairment.

Two-thirds of working-age people who are registered as blind or partially sighted in Scotland are not in paid employment. They are nearly five times more likely to have not been in paid employment for five years or more than the general population. These figures are deeply concerning for Royal Blind. We believe disabled people in our society should have the same right to employment as everyone else. This goal is central to the work of our charity, from the Royal Blind School giving pupils the education and skills they need to progress into further education or employment, to the Scottish Braille Press providing supported employment opportunities. 

The Scottish Braille Press employs 103 people, almost half of whom are disabled, including staff who have vision impairment. It is a successful social enterprise, and is a leading provider of large print, audio and Braille transcription for individuals and businesses across the UK. Earlier this year the Scottish Braille Press moved into state of the art new facilities in Edinburgh, allowing the business to increase its number of employees.

The success of the Scottish Braille Press shows that employers also benefit from providing employment opportunities which are invaluable for disabled people. Jodie Renton has been a proof reader for the Scottish Braille Press for three years. She has Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, a -retinal degenerative disease characterised by loss of vision at birth. Despite having secured a good degree in HR and languages, after leaving university she was -previously unable to find suitable permanent and full-time work, taking temporary jobs and doing voluntary work to build her CV, a cycle she found demoralising. 

Jodie said: “Having a permanent full-time job does a lot more good for your confidence and your outlook. It feels totally isolating not having that. I think my confidence has definitely grown. I’m much more confident meeting people both in work and outside work because of regular contact with people.”

Jodie’s experience shows how important it is that we do far better as a society to remove the obstacles which prevent too many disabled people finding employment. The gap between the employment rates for disabled and non-disabled people currently stands at 35.8 per cent. This shows the urgency required for effective action to tackle this inequity, and why the plans announced by the Scottish Government to address this issue are so important.

More employers need to be aware of the support which is available to them to employ disabled people, and more needs to be done to create a level playing field for disabled people in workplaces and in application processes for jobs.

We welcome the Scottish Government taking on new responsibilities for promoting employability. We understand that this has taken place at a time of financial constraint for these programmes across the UK, but it is vital that the Scottish Government provides leadership on this issue. It is important that ministers bring together employers, third sector organisations, and work directly with disabled people themselves to tackle this inequity in our society. The experience of Jodie shows how transformational employment can be to the lives of disabled people, and it is time we did more to match their ambition and benefit from their skills.