Ambition Capped

If you’re a disabled person with high or specialist support needs, or if your job involves long working hours, or if you work abroad, there’s something you need to know – your career, your ambition, your potential are about to be capped. And your livelihood and working patterns will be dictated not by your talent, nor by the requirements of your employer, but by a cap on your support costs imposed at a national level.

Access to Work is the government scheme that assists employed disabled people by meeting the additional cost of the support they need to do their job. This can include specialist equipment, additional travel costs, support workers or sign language interpreters. The level of support provided is based on the individual’s needs – or at least it has been up to now.

Over the last year surreptitious changes have been made to Access to Work and they’ve had a big impact on its effectiveness. The result is that many disabled people across the UK have been left without the support they need to do their jobs, or have been forced to spend many hours of their own time trying to navigate their way through a disjointed and convoluted system just to stay in work. I’ve written before about my personal experience of this and the impact it is having on my career.

The latest proposal to be announced is a cap on the amount of support an individual can receive in any one year. From October 2015 a limit of £40,800 per person per year will come into force. This is obviously a significant amount of money, but there are four things about it that everyone ought to know before discussing the rights and wrongs of the cap.

1. This money does not go to the individual. It is not a benefit. Most frequently it pays the wages of a specialist support worker or an interpreter. As such it creates jobs and therefore goes back into the wider economy.

2. Widely accepted figures show that for every £1 spent on Access to Work the Treasury gets back £1.48 in taxes paid and lower benefit claims.

3. Large employers or those with the financial capacity to do so are expected to make a contribution to their disabled employees’ support costs.

4. The majority of disabled people supported by Access to Work do not receive support at this level. Access to Work provides help to 35,540 disabled people per year at a cost of £108m, which works out at an average of £3039 per person. The total cost of MPs’ expenses in 2013-14 was £103m. That’s for just 650 MPs, and averages at £158,462 each, an amount that’s nearly four times the new Access to Work cap.

You might be wondering why a cap is such a bad thing if most people using Access to Work receive far less than the proposed maximum. Here’s why:

• Certain types of support are more skilled and costly than others. For example, British Sign Language interpreters train to post-graduate level and theirs is a highly skilled profession. This means that the cost of BSL support is higher than most other other types. As a result, the cap will hit particular groups disproportionately. I work full time (35 hours a week) and need a support worker at all times. The annual cost of this falls below the cap but if instead of a support worker I needed an interpreter it wouldn’t. The cap discriminates against deaf people and those needing skilled support, restricting their working hours and career choices.

• Some professions have long or unpredictable working hours – should disabled people be prevented from entering these professions? For example as a performer and theatre maker, if I go on tour the number of hours I work increase and so, consequently, do my support costs. The cap will thus discriminate against particular types of employment. And that’s bad for everyone, as it’ll lead to workplaces becoming less diverse. It’s also likely to reinforce the idea that disabled people should only do particular types of jobs.

• Access to Work meets the cost of regular on-going costs like support workers, but it also helps provide specialist equipment when it’s needed. What if equipment breaks or someone’s needs change and they need different equipment? Should someone lose their job because the wheelchair or software they need to be able to work would take them over the support cap?

The basic point is that the support provided should be based on needs, both the needs of the disabled person and the needs of their work. The proposed cap will discriminate against particular groups, and rule out the flexible approach to support needs that’s essential for keeping disabled people in work as their careers progress.

The cap is seriously flawed. It’ll save very little money but it’ll cost a great many disabled people a lot. Not to mention the employers who risk losing talented disabled staff and highly trained support workers whose own livelihoods will be put at risk. Ultimately, less diverse workplaces are worse for everyone, so everyone stands to lose out.

I don’t want to live in a society where the aspirations and talents of disabled people are capped. We need to act together or potential, physicists, Paralympians, plumbers, palaeontologists, politicians and painters will be sitting in Job Centres, their wings clipped by the State.

For more information on the campaign against these cuts check out Stop the Changes.

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