Reforms to the government scheme that supports disabled people at work will make the arts “less diverse at every level”, according to the country’s leading disabled-led theatre company.
Graeae said the new Access to Work (AtW) rules would “terminate the careers of many emerging Deaf and disabled artists and create a glass ceiling for established professionals”, and rule out the arts as a profession for hundreds of disabled people.
The reforms will also hit Graeae “hard” and make it “significantly more difficult to govern effectively and meet our charitable objectives”.
Jenny Sealey, Graeae’s artistic director and chief executive, said: “After 18 months of campaigning, I am so disappointed that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have still not levelled the playing field for Deaf and disabled people in the workplace.
“I’m determined to continue the battle to enable people to set their aspirations high and be ambitious.”
Last October, Sealey said she feared for her career after her AtW support was cut by more than half, while Graeae had been forced to cancel international work as a result of cuts and delays in dealing with AtW applications.
Last week, disabled people’s organisations said that new plans announced by the government to cap AtW support for individuals were a “huge concern” and would damage efforts to encourage Deaf people to become teachers, lawyers and politicians.
Annual awards will now be limited to one-and-a-half times the average salary, which at current levels will mean no-one could claim more than £40,800 per year through AtW.
Campaigners believe the new cap is likely to hit Deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL) like Sealey hardest, with about four-fifths of the highest value awards paying for BSL services.
Graeae said that this “arbitrary” limit “complete underestimates the value that Deaf and disabled employees bring to the workforce”.
It added: “A £1 investment in the Access to Work scheme brings at least £1.50 back into the economy.
“This is even higher for those with higher-level needs who might have been relying on a larger package of benefits if not working. Setting a limit on support doesn’t make good financial sense.”
Because employers will not be able to cover the resulting funding gap, which could be up to £60,000 per person, the reforms “effectively establish a glass ceiling for (particularly) Deaf employees and will keep them from management or leadership roles in the workplace”.
Graeae backed other changes that will make it easier to use AtW for those who do not use the telephone, aim to improve customer service, and will see a return to “flexible” personal budgets.
But it also raised concerns about new eligibility rules for disabled people in self-employment, which will mean most AtW claimants will have to earn at least the equivalent of the national minimum wage through their business.
All performers and stage managers must be treated as self-employed, under an agreement between the industry, the government and the union Equity, but half of performers earn less than £5,000 per year, and half of theatre directors also earn less than £5,000 per year.
And the new rules mean that, after the first year, a self-employed person will need to prove they are paying national insurance to claim AtW, even though the threshold for contributing towards national insurance is £8,000 per year.
A Graeae spokesman said: “These new rules do not allow the flexibility needed in order to pursue a career in the creative sector.
“They mean that hundreds of people will be dissuaded from entering the workplace and will mean that employers won’t employ Deaf and disabled artists.
“If performers will need to prove their self-employment business is profitable before getting a job, in order to get their access costs reclaimed, employers may be forced to employ a non-disabled worker instead.”
Amit Sharma, associate director at Graeae, said: “By introducing arbitrary caps and narrowing down choice for Deaf and disabled people, the DWP are penalising those who are already contributing to the economy.
“Spending hours on the phone to prove your eligibility is still an incredibly tough process to go through as each new application is assigned to a different adviser.
“With the same information given, different decisions are made. The heart of the matter doesn’t lie in using rhetoric to appease the masses.
“Put simply, it’s the dignity and empathy awarded to every Deaf and disabled citizen to have the right to full access to work.”
Mike Adams, chief executive of the user-led organisation ecdp, who chaired an expert panel for the government on how to improve AtW, said he was “pleased” with what was “a sensible set of recommendations” from the government.
But he also criticised the new cap, which he said was “taking a hammer to crack a nut”, and he called on the government to allow for “a greater level of funding in cases where it is the only option for the disabled person to access the job”.
At its peak, in 2009-10, under the last Labour government, AtW was supporting more than 37,000 disabled people, but this plunged under the coalition to 30,780 in 2011-12, although it has started to increase again in the last couple of years.
The latest figures, published in January, show 35,540 disabled people were helped in 2013-14, still well below the figures for 2009-10.
It emerged last week that the parliamentary ombudsman is dealing with more than 40 complaints about AtW.
And last month, Disability News Service reported claims by disability organisations that nearly all of the disabled people facing reviews of their AtW entitlement were having their support cut.
Pictured: Jenny Sealey (second from right) with an interpreter and cast members at a rehearsal of Graeae’s production of Blood Wedding. Picture by Ross Fraser McLean