Valuing access to work
Unemployment is costly. It costs the unemployed person and it costs society. For plenty of people with disabilities this cost of unemployment is a reality of life. There are too many barriers to employment, resulting in higher dependence on family support and government support.
A recent report commissioned by Access Alliance, a group of key Disabled Persons Organisations, has followed this logic. They found that New Zealand would save $270 million each year by decreasing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities to the same level as the national average unemployment rate, as there would obviously be fewer people in need of welfare support. In fact, the report claims that in a scenario where jobs are readily available and no one is displaced from work the saving in social support payments would be $2.9 to $3 billion over 10 years. It would seem that employment does indeed pay.
This “benefit to society” measure is a relatively new argument for increasing accessibility to employment for people with disabilities. The more traditional message has been that employment provides a personal payoff for people with disabilities, with economic benefits and social benefits of belonging, identity, and purpose. In fact, data from British think tank the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 14% of people with disabilities want to work but can’t find a job, compared to 6% of people without disabilities. For many of us, work gives a sense of value and purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. This is no different for many people with disabilities. Beginning to understand the wider economic benefits does not mean that we should forget the social and personal ones.
Of course, in using the economic or business argument we have to ask where these jobs come from, and what the cost of building or altering accessible workplaces will be. Writers of the report have acknowledged that “the study had not yet calculated the other side of the ledger; the costs of modifying workplaces, public transport and even websites to make them accessible,” but do see attempting to answer these questions as the next phase of their work. While the costs may be high, particularly in the early phases of creating an accessible workplace, I am inclined to think that over the long term the cost will pay off – if not economically the societal pay off must surely be worthwhile.
As the report points out, however, it’s all very well envisioning what it might be like to have a society where the barriers to accessing meaningful and sustainable employment for people with disabilities are easily overcome, but it is much more difficult to make that vision a reality. It requires strong and long term support structures, government assisting communities in overcoming the barriers and becoming fully accessible, as well as employers and fellow employees prepared to be flexible and creative in their view of what work looks like and who those workers are or can be. Employment will pay, but only when we’re prepared to make it accessible.