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This section provides a brief overview of barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities in the UK. It provides a useful starting point and reference source for further investigation and and links to support and campaigning organisations. Many working age people have a long term disability or health problem. As a group they experience higher rates of unemployment and have lower levels of qualification. The majority of disabled people were not born with a disability but became so once of working age. There is a pervasive lack of awareness in our society about disability which helps fuel prejudice against the disabled.

What does disability mean and how is it defined? Society's interpretation of these questions profoundly influences its response to the 'problem' of disability. From 1 October 2010, the Equality Act replaced most of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). However, the Disability Equality Duty in the DDA continues to apply. It prohibits all employers, except the armed forces, from treating people with disabilities less favourably than anyone else. The law defines disability as a physical or mental impairment with a substantial, long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out day-to-day activities. This definition covers many different sorts of impairments - from sight and hearing to dyslexia, severe asthma and HIV diagnosis.

There is a get-out clause for employers if a disability genuinely prevents someone from doing a job, but they must make ‘reasonable adjustments’. These might include, for instance, a physical modification to equipment or the work environment, allowing flexible working hours, or, in the case of job applicants, giving more time to complete a recruitment test.

A good place to start is with the Government’s Office for Disabiltiy Issues (ODI) – it has recently reported findings of a baseline Life Opportunities Survey on disability which highlighted that 29 per cent of adults, aged 16 and over, in Great Britain had at least one impairment; 26 per cent of adults, aged 16 and over, in Great Britain had rights under the disability provisions of the Equality Act; 16 per cent of adults with impairment experienced barriers to education and training opportunities (that is, the learning opportunities they had) compared with nine per cent of adults without impairment; and 57 per cent of adults with impairment experienced barriers to employment (that is, in the type or amount of paid work they did) compared with 26 per cent of adults without impairment. These results were published in December 2011, for further detail, see: Life Opportunities Survey – Wave one results, 2009/11. Other ODI publications include:

Publications from key research organisations

Other relevant publications from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation include:

Publications from the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds include the following web resources:

Other selected publications

  • Barnes, C. and Mercer, G. (2010) Exploring Disability: a sociological introduction [Second Edition], Cambridge, Polity Press
  • Mental Health Foundation (2002) Out at Work. London: Mental Health Foundation.
  • Read, J and Baker,S (1996) Not just sticks and stones: A survey of the discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems. Mind: London
  • Sayce, L ( 2000) From Psychiatric Patient to Citizen Overcoming discrimination and social exclusion. Hampshire. Palgrave
  • Shah, S. (2008) Young Disabled People: Aspirations, Choices and Constraints, Ashgate
  • Shah, S. and Priestley, M. (2011) Disability and Social Change: private lives and public policies, Bristol: Policy Press

Organisations and charities

For further information on particular aspects of disability see, for example: