Around 1 in 5 people in the UK have a disability. It goes without saying that disability can present in many forms, and that having a visible or invisible disability need not necessarily impact on your ability to work. However, according to the Papworth Trust, disabled people are much less likely to be in employment than others. In January 2016, the UK employment rate among working age disabled people was 46.5%, compared to 84% of non-disabled people. There are many reasons for this, but in the same survey, it was found that some of the most common barriers to work amongst adults with disabilities are the lack of job opportunities, difficulties with transport to work, and lack of disabled access friendly workplaces.
The lack of job opportunities means that often, those with disabilities are forced to take lower-skilled and thus lower-paid, positions than their qualifications merit. Disturbingly, since 2010 the pay gap between disabled people and non-disabled people has actually increased by 35%. This is compounded by the higher living costs associated with living with a disability; statistics show that disabled people’s living costs are 25% higher than those of non-disabled people. Coupled with swingeing cuts to disabled peoples' benefits, life has got much harder for many disabled people on the breadline over the last six years.
This isn’t just a problem in the UK; this is a problem across most member states of the European Union. However, alongside my Labour MEP colleagues, we have taken steps to change this. My colleague, Richard Howitt, has worked tirelessly to campaign for increased rights for those with disabilities, chairing the European Parliament All-Party Disability Rights group. And 87,000 British disabled people have been assisted towards employment by European 'social funding'. A Europe-wide general accessibility act has also been proposed, and supported by Labour MEPs, that could further transform the lives of millions of people.
In terms of disabled rights, the Papworth Trust has suggested that the UK is one of the more progressive EU member states.
But the recent result of the referendum has led to fears that these well-earned rights may be eroded. When the UK leaves the EU, our government will no longer be compelled to develop our laws and rights on disability in step with the other 27 member states. This could mean that rights for British people with disabilities will stay static, or in the worst case scenario, be repealed. Organisations helping those with disabilities into work will no longer be in receipt of European Union funding, which may pose difficulties to its continued function. Some disability employment organisations, as demonstrated with the closure of the Remploy factories, have faced insurmountable challenges when trying to stay open, even in receipt of European Union funding. Organisation closures are only likely to worsen without this safety net.
Brexit will also remove the right of UK citizens to take cases to the European Court of Justice and prevent us from automatically having rights conferred under the European Social Chapter. The Social Chapter has led to a whole host of associated pieces of legislation and strategies including the European Disability Strategy. This strategy, in place between 2010 and 2020, binds the UK Government to a range of goals and targets, ranging from making buildings, goods and services more accessible to people with disabilities, to pledging to make the open labour market more accessible to those with disabilities.
Increasing numbers of children are being born with disabilities, and many more are developing a disability in their adult life. We must ensure that we keep pushing forward to knock down the obstacles preventing those with disabilities from getting the jobs that they deserve.
Following the Brexit vote, it is more important than ever that we keep lobbying the Government to enshrine their commitment to disabled workers’ rights, and that funding for organisations that support people with disabilities in work is maintained.