OPINION: Make work more accessible

Peter Stanford

The men in my family are prone to hypochondria. My wife tells me it's all men. So when my older brother mentioned recently in passing that he was disabled, I assumed it was simply that attention-seeking gene kicking in. After all, he looked much the same as last time I'd seen him when he'd been fine and dandy. Closer questioning, however, made it plain what he was going on about. He has a hereditary condition that causes progressive deafness. At 54, he's only just had it diagnosed and already he is 80 per cent deaf in one ear.

Impaired hearing is just one example of what might be termed hidden disabilities.

These cut both ways. I'm forever banging on about the need for integration and when there is not an obvious sign - say a wheelchair - we are much better at treating others the same as us. We don't adopt a special tone of voice or ask ridiculous questions. But at the same time we also fail to recognise the need for such easy bits of technology as hearing loops in offices and public places.

This may go some of the way to explaining why in a country where one in five people of working age have a disability, visible or not, only half of that group are in jobs. While this government has been effective at smoothing the way into the workplace for other disadvantaged groups such as single parents, and more generally in reducing the high levels of unemployment, the number of people claiming sickness or disability benefit continues to climb.

There are many factors involved in the trend, such as an ageing population and wider recognition of mental health problems. But the high number of talented people with disabilities who are excluded from the workplace must cause us all concern. As a society we are missing out on their talents and failing to provide diverse role models for the next generation. The government's current green paper on this issue, Pathways to Work, faces up to the issue, but hasn't been given nearly enough prominence as a key matter of public policy and a basic question of justice.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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