How the disability employment gap impacts health outcomes

In this blog, Holly Beattie, Media and Communications Officer at People’s Health Trust discusses the importance of closing the disability employment gap as a priority in tackling health inequalities.

In England, Scotland and Wales the disability employment gap has slowly been closing. Over the past six years, employment for disabled people has risen from 46% to 54% in England, 42% to 48% in Wales and 40% to 47% in Scotland, however there is still a huge amount of work to be done to narrow the employment gap with non-disabled people.

Despite the government’s target to see one million more disabled people into work by 2027, current work programmes are severely lacking in comparison to the need.

The Work and Health Programme, which provides support in helping people back into work, has so far supported 120,000 people, 73% of whom are disabled people. However, there are currently 3.7 million disabled people out of work, many of whom are seeking employment.

As we move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even greater need to ensure there are accessible and targeted programmes in place to support disabled people into work and that these programmes are considered effective by the disabled people accessing them.

Research by Leonard Cheshire found that 71% of disabled people have been impacted by loss of income, furlough, unemployment or other damaging effects as a result of the pandemic.

We know that being out of work or being in low-paid, insecure employment has a significant long term negative health impact. Higher life expectancy is strongly correlated with higher employment rates. The Marmot Review (2010) outlined access to fair employment and good work for all as one of the six policy objectives needed to reduce health inequalities. The review highlighted that for each occupational class, unemployed people have higher mortality than employed people.

Disabled people already face a number of barriers to achieving good health outcomes which are directly linked to or worsened by a lack of secure and accessible employment opportunities. These inequalities faced by disabled people are driven by the social determinants of health.

The disability pay gap increased from 15.5% in 2019 to 19.6% in 2020. The poverty rate for people in a family with a disabled family member was 31% in 2018/2019 compared with 19% for families with no disabled members.

This stark data is the result of barriers disabled people face as a result of systems being designed by and for non-disabled people, and this has severe consequences on long-term health outcomes. We know that the median life expectancy of people with learning disabilities was 27 years less for women and 23 years less for men than people without learning disabilities.

As we look at new ways to approach inequalities in health following COVID-19, it is imperative that access to secure jobs and incomes is prioritised as a crucial social determinant of health. In order to fully address the long term health inequalities faced by disabled people, governments across Great Britain must recognise the importance of access to secure employment and ensure that the disability employment gap is tackled as a priority.