The British Model of Disability Policy: Is it Working?

Over the past ten years in the United Kingdom, disability issues have come to the forefront of policy-making and subsequently discussion, as the country grapples with a marked shift from a social welfare model to a civil rights approach. Yet criticism abounds as to the effectiveness of this new direction. Why? As this analysis shows, while this sweeping measure imposes new obligations to prevent unjustifiable discrimination of the disabled, many of Great Britain’s disabled remain disenfranchised.

In essence, the so-called “civil rights model” sends a conflicting message regarding removal of barriers. Indeed, so far, the civil rights model has not overhauled Britain’s disability policy, but rather has added new policy instruments to the existing social welfare model. While ostensibly serving the same ends, the mix of these policies paralyzes opportunity for many of Britain’s disabled.

By examining specifically the performance of the new standards to employment incentives and practices for greater disabled participation, it becomes clear that the civil rights model, placed atop Britain’s social welfare structure for disability policy creates polarization of opposing starting points for real reform and therefore, produces mixed results, at best. The United Kingdom (UK) in 1995 embarked upon a significant break with its traditional social welfare model of disability policy.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act set forth provisions making it illegal for employers of more than 20 workers or others who provide goods and services to treat disabled people differently than any other British citizens. The law also provided minimum accessibility standards for disabled people in terms of transportation and educational barriers, physical and otherwise. The legislation, designed for implementation over a period of several years, targeted removal of barriers to open employment for the disabled as a key priority.

Provisions preventing job discrimination of the disabled became effective in 1996 (Department for Education and Employment 1-2). Conventional criticisms do rightfully key in upon the lack of teeth in the UK’s “policies of persuasion” as a principal strategy to promote nondiscrimination and adherence to the law, its lack of a monitoring device for compliance, and the onus the provision places upon the disabled population to initiate complaints of employment discrimination (Doyle 56).

But there is a much broader exclusion occurring, that is the result of tensions between this civil rights model and Britain’s underlying social welfare model. It is important to note that the official definitions of disability, a set forth in the 1995 legislation do not recognize the social welfare model of disability, rejecting “policies and services which see disability as a medical problem” (Diller 386).

Rather, the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP), in implementing the policy directives of the 1995 DDA “believe that disability should be characterized as the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the mainstream of life in the community on an equal level with others due to physical or social barriers” (Barnes 111). Access to Employment Services for Britain’s disabled is therefore governed by this DDA policy definition. In fact, the law prompted a new baseline survey of disabled employee participation in the workforce, because of the new definition.

The 1997 Labour Force Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics found that five million people, or roughly 15% of Great Britain’s working age population is classified as disabled, and that nearly “one in five economically active disabled people was unemployed… compared with less than one in ten non-disabled people” (Beinart, Smith, Sprogton, 37). Only 2. 4 million of Great Britain’s disabled are gainfully employed; representing less than half the country’s disabled population.

While the new DDA policies provide priority access for unemployed disabled who meet the new policy definition to multi-tiered programs for mainstream placement and training through a network of Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), “the emphasis on employment as an outcome of training puts pressure on providers to offer training to the most job-ready candidates. This actually may discriminate against many disabled people and those with special training needs who may require more intensive support or rehabilitation to enter training” (Davoud 87). Statistics indicate that only 11% of the program participants are disabled.

The biggest incentive offered to employers in the hiring of the disabled is the Job Introduction Scheme, which pays a private sector employer of 20 or more workers a grant of 45 pounds per week toward wages for a period of time to compensate for training costs, while the Access to Work program compensates employers for up to 100% of access-related expenses such as “alterations to the working environment,” or “special equipment or adaptations to existing equipment to suit particular work needs” (Beinart Smith, Sprogton, 37)

A recent audit of these programs found that while they were designed to increase the number of employed disabled in the UK, “92 percent [were] already in work when they applied,” and that fewer than half of Great Britain’s employers were even aware such programs existed (Beinert, Smith, Sprogton 37).

The civil rights policy toward mainstreamed, open employment for Britain’s disabled population has therefore disenfranchised a large segment of the population that remains historically unemployed. In fact, the DDA’s effect “on enabling people to move off incapacity benefits has been negligible… only two percent of the 1. 5 million working-age recipients of one of the three main incapacity benefits moved off these benefits and into full-time work” (Rowlingson & Bertoud, 255). Clearly, as policies to remove discrimination from work for the disabled intersect with social welfare mechanisms are reflected in these statistics, the lack of significant results indicates a failure of both to add up to a coherent solution.

On the one hand, the civil rights policy creates an expectation that people with disabilities work and that employers accept them in the workforce, while simultaneously social welfare policies continue to provide opportunity for exclusion and implicit grounds for continued denial of employment. “Because neither one of these.. fully captures the complexity of societal views about disability and work, neither offers a complete and satisfying response” (Diller 386). This sends a mixed message about the obligations of the disabled, employers, and society regarding the nature of Britain’s policy. In conclusion, Britain is struggling with making a meaningful transition in its disability policy.

While on the surface, the DDA appears to represent an about-face from its social welfare model of disability policy, an examination of its employment remedies show that in truth, a great number of Britain’s disabled-the unemployed-remain disenfranchised. It appears that in essence, the civil rights approach at present cannot reconcile with social welfare practices still in place. Not only does it fail to provide adequate compliance regulation of its own provisions, but its present state of implementation alongside existent social welfare procedure has polarized any immediate or effective remedy of the employment barriers faced by the disabled population in the United Kingdom.

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