The Working Together conference in London brought about 300 businesses and disabled entrepreneurs together, as the coalition launched a two-year campaign aimed at making employers more “disability confident”.
The prime minister, David Cameron, told the conference: “We need to break the myth about the complexities of employing disabled people, or to put it more simply: to give employers confidence.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, said he wanted to see a society that “uses all its talents”, with businesses sharing best practice on employing disabled people.
But when a delegate asked if tighter equality legislation might encourage businesses to employ more disabled people, Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said: “I am not somebody who would want to tell somebody what they have to do. We have to work with business.”
She told Disability News Service (DNS) later: “This is the start of a two-year journey. How do we get the best out of people? Are we going to be confrontational? Does that make for a better relationship or a worse one long term?
“What we have got to do is go on a journey together, because I want to do it. It is the start of a journey and sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t know.”
Asked what should be done with those businesses that do not want to employ disabled people, she said: “Every journey begins with the ones who are the outliers.”
But she added: “There is statute and law that people have got to adhere to. But we haven’t sort of moved much further on with the legislation that has been there for a lot of years.”
There was criticism of the government’s approach – and the conference – from some of the disabled entrepreneurs who attended.
One delegate won applause after he pointed out that it was difficult to persuade colleagues to take on disabled employees when there were “contradictory messages” coming from the government.
He pointed to the “strong and positive” messages that had been coming from Duncan Smith at the conference, even though his government had been suggesting through its welfare reforms that disabled people were all “wasters” and that they would be “completely unsuccessful” in work.
He said the government’s benefit reforms were making disabled people “less confident and more nervous”.
Neil Barnfather, who has started 19 companies – seven of which have become multi-nationals – and is now chief executive of the web hosting firm eHosting, with 10,000 employees, said: “The message from the last year is that you can be a Paralympian and throw a discus or roll round a track, or you can be a welfare cheat.”
He told DNS later: “We don’t ever tell people what the other options are. I wasn’t even invited to this event. I had to ask them if I could come.”
He said that the efforts big businesses were making to employ disabled people were “pathetic”.
He said: “Everyone in this room will be talking the talk. But no-one walks the walk.”
Disabled activists who followed the conference online took over the government’s #disabilityconfident Twitter hashtag to make their feelings clear about the coalition’s disability policies.
David Gillon, who tweets at @WTBDavidG, said: “This week the government wants us to be #DisabilityConfident, yet last week we were #DisabilityExtremists,” referring to comments made by Conservative MP Paul Maynard in a Commons debate.
Lisa Egan, @lisybabe, added: “I used to be #disabilityconfident. Now I read in the paper every day that I’m a waste of tax payer’s money. That crushes confidence.”
Presenter, broadcaster and writer Mik Scarlet, @MikScarlet, tweeted: “All of society should be able 2 work, but also have all of their care needs met #savetheILF.”
He tweeted later: “Left #disabilityconfident early despondent. Focus on dis ppl in work as good but those out of work as bad hurts us all. Equality 4 all.”
Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, who tweets at @spoonydoc, said: “I was inspiring and a role model, got awards for it. The illness progressed more. Now called scrounger. #disabilityconfident.”
Another Twitter-user, @Chaonaut, said: “2015 looms. #DisabilityConfident mainly to create footage/spin for more smear campaigns against workshy sick/disabled. tell me i’m wrong.”
There was more criticism of the content of the conference from @dis_psych, who tweeted: “#DisabilityConfident was interesting mostly for what it failed to cover. For example not one mention of HR practices.”
Another campaigner, @claireOT, said: “Too much #DisabilityConfident concerned our personal attributes, not the structural barriers and oppression we face #DisabilityConfident.”
And @nikwebster tweeted: “I’d be more #disabilityconfident if I didn’t get abused whenever I walked down the street because I ‘walk funny’.”
The Department for Work and Pensions used the event to launch the latest changes to its Access to Work scheme, and new guidance on employing disabled people, which contains advice and links for employers.
The government will also host a series of regional “business breakfasts” to develop plans for a service that will focus on helping business to employ disabled people.
And it says it will support media organisations to increase the representation and portrayal of disabled people in mainstream programmes.
Duncan Smith said: “Today our message to employers is that recruiting and retaining disabled person doesn’t have to be challenging at all.”
He added: “Among many disabled people, there is often a perception that work is simply not an option.”
And he said it was “tragic” that many disabled people thought work would not be good for their health, and that he wanted to ensure there was “no-one left behind”.
But Simon Stevens, a disabled entrepreneur and activist, said the messages from the conference had been about creating “special jobs” for disabled people, rather than securing “normal” jobs for them.
He said: “It is just patronising waffle. This could have been 1993. It hasn’t changed. Disability employment hasn’t changed.
“We all know disabled people can work. We do work. It’s not about us, it’s about them, it’s about inclusion.”
He said: “It’s very easy to create a job for an individual. In the real world in the future we want to be people with impairments that get normal jobs.
“We need a new generation of companies that will employ disabled people, that are more accepting of disabled employees, where that is natural.”
He said the answers were in inclusive education, in improvements in technology, and in improved attitudes to disabled people. “If we haven’t got inclusive education, we will not get disabled people to work.”
And he said there was not yet any support available that “prepares disabled people mentally for work”.
18 July 2013