Over my lifetime, things have undoubtedly improved in respect of the challenges and the barriers that those with any form of disability face in their everyday lives. Of course, for those who are experiencing the most difficulty, it’s little consolation.
There was once a BBC Radio 4 programme themed around the treatment of disability called Does He Take Sugar? This was a nice quip but no joke for me. As a teenager I experienced being referred to by just that phrase when accompanying my mother to a social event. No wonder I had rough edges well into my 20s.
That is why, as well as providing robust practical measures to those with disadvantages, societal change is also extremely important. The UK’s Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, of which I am a patron, sets out to change minds and open up opportunities in the business and public sector employment fields. This task is, of course, much broader than disability and incorporates age, gender and sexuality as well as race.
There are two major approaches that require constant pressure to achieve these aims. One is directed upwards from people with disabilities themselves. The other must come from government at every level and others in any position to make a difference.
Giving people the opportunity of education and skills, and then the chance to be able to present to employers the contribution that they can make, ought to be a given. It is not.
A further priority is the welfare of people who find themselves through accident, ill-health or degenerative conditions struggling to maintain the job they have. Perhaps technology has overtaken some of what they were doing and switching is proving to be a real challenge. Perhaps mental health conditions are not understood by managers or even by colleagues.
Sometimes problems arise because of a lack of awareness or an unwillingness to give an individual time to reskill — or simply to overcome the trauma of the developing disability, hidden or otherwise.
As highlighted in these pages, the position of disabled men and women of working age in regard to unemployment remains a disgrace. It is a tragedy for the individual and their family but it is also a complete waste of talent, ingenuity and commitment which the nation badly needs.
Perversely, the higher you climb in any form of employment, the more support you get. When I started out taking evening classes and then having the advantage of day release from work, it was really down to the support I received from friends and family and of course from tutors who went the extra mile.
I will never forget the late Wilf King, my secondary school teacher, who came to visit me week after week, unpaid and unsung, while I took what was then O-level physics. His was just one example of someone who made an extra effort to help me in obtaining the necessary qualifications to get into university.
When one of my old school friends who had become a computer analyst with Marks and Spencer lost his remaining sight and suffered tremendous trauma in relation to the pain and condition which accompanied it, the employer not only gave him time to recover but support in retraining with equipment, by drawing on support provided by the UK government’s Access to Work programme.
I did not forget this when I was the work and pensions secretary in the Blair government and discovered that the budget for Access to Work was one of the items on the agenda for “spending reduction”. This was rapidly reversed by me. The government’s 2015 cap on this annual allowance, then set at £40,800, was lifted to £57,200, effective last month.
The continuance of the Access to Work scheme, taken together with the Flexible Support Fund and the potential for assistive technology highlighted in last month’s Work and Pensions select committee report, allows real progress into work to be possible.
But here’s the thing. Other people determining what you can and cannot do is frustrating and patronising.
There may be exceptions but the vast majority of men and women who want to work know all too well their limitations. What all those in this situation have in common is an awareness that the job they are applying for, given their ambition and determination, is attainable.
The work-life balance of a cabinet minister is already impossible but I made it worse by taking every hour that God sent at weekends and into the night to ensure that no one could ever say “he wasn’t on top of that because he couldn’t see”.
My overriding message is clear. It’s not just about “giving someone a chance”, but giving yourself a chance — to take someone on who has real enthusiasm, determination and work ethic. They would not be presenting themselves for interview if this was not the case.
And here’s another thought. Of all the things I’m proud of in my time in government and public service, the achievement of which I will probably be most proud in years to come is the example that I might have set both to aspiring youngsters and for employers.
In your chosen field, and with the right skill set, the sky is the limit. If you believe you can do it and you have done the work necessary to be able to do it, then you will succeed.
Lord Blunkett is a former UK home secretary, Labour peer and patron of The Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion
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