Paying people with learning disabilities lower wages perpetuates inequality
When is one person of less value than another? According to some when they have a learning disability and are looking for work. Rosa Monckton businesswoman and parent of a learning disabled woman has reignited calls for the law to be changed so that employers can pay people with learning disabilities below the minimum wage. Journalist Libby Purves then chimed in with her support.
As is so often the case with calls to make a special case for learning disabled people these well meaning but fundamentally wrong proposals fly in the face of the evidence. Yes it is unacceptable that the employment rate of adults with learning disabilities has dropped to 5.8% but trying to get people into work by paying below the minimum wage is not the answer. Monckton's suggestion is based on four false assumptions.
First there is no evidence that in the words of Purves "the minimum wage is pricing people out of work". People with learning disabilities are out of work because of a combination of negative attitudes and not having access to the right support. Currently only about one third of local authority spending on employment support is on the approach (called supported employment) that actually gets people into paid work (pdf). The rest is wasted.
Supported employment involves understanding each individual's strengths developing a job plan engaging with an employer matching the person to the job and then supporting them in the early stages of work. When done properly as for example by Ways Into Work in Berkshire this results in employment levels of around 10 times that achieved elsewhere - at less cost to the public purse than the alternative social care. Based on these figures we estimate that doing this across the UK could result in around 19000 more learning disabled people in work without spending a penny more. People are not out of work because of pay levels they are out of work because they are not getting the right support.
Second working for less money is not a route into long-term paid work. Research (pdf) shows that people who start off working without proper pay such as by volunteering or in a sheltered workshop get stuck in those settings and rarely - if ever - progress into real paid employment. So why would working for below minimum wage lead to anything other than a vicious cycle in the future?
This stems from the belief that it is acceptable ?to behave as though people with disabilities are not equal citizens
There is thirdly no additional cost to employers of employing people with learning disabilities that they have to offset with lower wages. Rather there is a strong case that employers benefit financially. Back in 2004 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated (pdf) that learning disabled employees generally stay in the job for longer than their non-disabled counterparts in part because "they have a strong commitment to work as well as good punctuality and low absentee rates". All these things save money for employers. The Charity Awareness Monitor reports meanwhile that 77% of the public think more highly of companies that employ disabled people and there are 10 million disabled people in the UK with a combined annual spending power of 220bn Euro. It makes business sense to have a diverse workforce.
Finally it is just wrong to assume that people with learning disabilities will not be able to do their job properly and so should be paid less than others. Sometimes because of a person's particular disability there will be bits of a job they could not realistically do. This is why "job carving" exists which adapts roles to meet a person's disability and interests so they have a full job with responsibilities they can perform fully and the employer gets value for money.
These four evidence-based flaws to Monckton's proposal (I won't even start on contravening equalities legislation) all seem to stem from one belief - that it is acceptable to behave as though people with learning disabilities are not equal citizens.
How else can you explain why it would be defensible for an employer to advertise a job and then pay a person with a learning disability less money for doing it than anyone else?
What does that say about the value placed on those people in the workplace or how their colleagues at work will view them?
Rather than a proposal to create inclusion and equality - as Monckton claims - this is actually a strategy to reinforce prejudice and to provide an excuse for not investing in the evidence-based employment support that would employ people with disabilities in the workplace as equals.