Philip Davies, a British Member of Parliament, caused a stir recently when he suggested that in order to improve their chances of finding a job, disabled people should be entitled to offer to work for less than the statutory minimum wage — theoretically making them more attractive as potential employees. An interesting idea or shockingly ill-advised?
I was stunned to read about this suggestion, which apparently was prompted by conversations Mr Davies had had with a group of people with mental health problems, who were finding it near impossible to enter the world of work. But is exempting a whole group of people from the provisions of the minimum wage the way forward?
The background to this is that disabled people (according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics and quoted by The Shaw Trust, one of the UK’s leading disability charities) are substantially less likely to be in employment than their able-bodied counterparts: 50% of disabled people of working age, as opposed to 80% of able-bodied people. The figures vary according to the type of an impairment a person has and are even more shocking when it’s a mental health issue; only 20% of people with a mental illness are in employment. Disabled people also earn less on average than the able-bodied: £11.08 per hour compared to £12.30.
While the Equality Act forbids discrimination on grounds of disability, the reality is that disabled people find it much more difficult to find a job than their able-bodied neighbours, and there are several reasons for this: disabled people tend to be less well-qualified (a legacy of the lack of educational opportunities available until relatively recently); physical access to offices and other places of work is still difficult or even impossible in many cases; poor transport facilities for getting to and from work; and stereotypical attitudes on the part of employers — will a disabled employee take more sick leave? Will they be able to do the job as well as a non-disabled person? Will an employer have to spend a lot of money on adapting premises or buying special equipment? Will the disabled person fit in with their colleagues or the company profile?
So is any of this an argument for waiving the statutory minimum wage requirement when an employer is considering hiring a disabled person? As a disabled person myself, I say emphatically no! Over the nearly 30 years that I’ve been a wheelchair-user, I’ve seen huge strides forward in society’s changing attitudes to disabled people and disability in general. When I first became disabled, there was an assumption (sometimes openly expressed) that my life was effectively over, that I’d be on invalidity benefits for the rest of my life, and that there was little to look forward to in terms of further education, employment, relationships and a family life. How different it is now; yes, there are still problems — not least the discrimination faced by disabled people looking for work — but in general attitudes are much more positive. It’s a long time since I last heard the term ‘invalid’ being used to describe me or another disabled person, for example. And thank goodness for that, because it’s a nasty little word that taints disabled individuals with a smear of worthlessness and an absence of anything useful to contribute: ‘invalid’ with emphasis on the second syllable being used to describe something out of date or improper; and the same word with emphasis on the first syllable being applied to a person. The word in both usages comes from the Latin ‘invalidus’, meaning ‘not strong’.
What has prompted this change in attitudes, albeit one with a long way to go? There are two broad ways of looking at the problems and obstacles faced by disabled people in entering equally into the life of the community. One focuses on the individual and his or her impairment (the ‘medical model’), and the other which focuses on the physical and attitudinal barriers present in society (the ‘social model’). Suppose I wanted to attend a lecture, but when I get to the building there’s a flight of steps, which as a wheelchair-user stops me in my tracks; what exactly is excluding me then from attending? Is it the flight of steps (social model), or is it the fact that I can’t walk (medical model)? In practice, it’s obviously a bit of both; no ramp or lift or positive, inclusive attitude is going to get me to the top of the Himalayas however much I might want equal access to get there. However, in principle, I think it’s society’s responsibility to make provision for all its citizens wherever reasonably possible — in other words, it’s not up to me to find a miracle cure to enable me to get into the lecture theatre; it’s up to the owners of the building to provide reasonable access. The social model has increasingly been used as the basis for anti-discrimination legislation. Its shift in focus away from individual ‘problems’ and towards socially constructed barriers has begun to filter through to attitudes ‘on the ground’.
So how does this relate to our MP’s suggestion that disabled people should be able to offer to work for less than the minimum wage? Well, to me it shifts the focus of ‘the problem’ of disabled people obtaining employment right back on to the individual and his or her physical or mental impairment. It suggests that the disabling factor is the individual jobseeker’s impairment rather than the potential employer’s flouting of existing employment and equal opportunity legislation. It suggests that even though the disabled person would be doing work of equal value to their able-bodied colleagues, they should be prepared to accept a lower rate of pay. This kind of discrimination between wages paid to men and women was outlawed as long ago as 1970 in the UK’s Equal Pay Act; if anyone suggested these days that the statutory minimum wage was holding women back from obtaining jobs and that women should be exempt from it, then there would rightly be an outcry.
Let’s just suppose that this suggestion was made into law; what might be the unintended consequences of the legislation? Well, it seems to me that it could actually lead to more discrimination, rather than less. Disabled people as a source of cheap labour; disabled individuals denied a job unless they accept a lower rate of pay; attitudes to disabled people returning to the bad old days when we were not seen as being of equal value to the able-bodied (an attitude that persists in other forms to this day); disabled individuals feeling as if they have to sell themselves short and go cap in hand for jobs, rather than being offered work on equal terms — and what would that do to your feelings of self-worth and self-esteem?
No. This is a dangerous and short-sighted idea that would set back the course of disability equality by decades. Instead, we should be concentrating on improving attitudes amongst employers to the idea of taking on disabled employees, and — at its most fundamental — simply upholding the existing law on anti-discrimination and equal opportunities.