The minister for disabled people has risked ridicule after announcing that Swansea has become the country’s first “Disability Confident City”, despite being unable to explain why it was chosen.
The announcement was timed to coincide with a Disability Confident conference that took place in Swansea.
But so far, no-one has been able to explain why Justin Tomlinson (pictured), the minister for disabled people, picked Swansea as the UK’s first and only “Disability Confident City”.
The government’s much-criticised Disability Confident campaign was launched in July 2013 and aims to “debunk the myths around employing disabled people and encourage employers to take advantage of the wealth of talent available”.
But the government was criticised from the start for the campaign’s “patronising waffle”, at a time when it was smearing disabled benefit claimants as “workshy”.
In a statement this week, Tomlinson said Swansea had been awarded the “unique accolade” because of the “overwhelmingly positive response of local employers including Swansea Council, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Swansea University”.
He said: “Swansea is leading the way by becoming the UK’s first Disability Confident city, something the whole community can be proud of.
“With this statement, Swansea has laid down a challenge to other cities and towns to follow its lead.”
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been unable to explain what these employers – and the city – have done, other than to attend the conference and express their “ambition” to become “disability confident”.
A DWP spokesman said the decision was about “recognising their ambition” and “recognising their goal of promoting disability employment”, and he said there had been “a clear movement within local employers to try and support the goal of employment and disabled people”.
Julian John, the disabled social entrepreneur and founder of the human resources and training consultancy Delsion – who organised the event – said in a message that he was unable to comment this week because he was “on holiday for a couple of days”.
He also said he was unable to suggest anyone else that Disability News Service could talk to about the conference, as he had organised the event on his own.
Swansea council has made it clear that it played no part in what was “a DWP initiative” to make the city the first Disability Confident City.
Although the council said it supported the principles of the government’s campaign, it has been unable to explain why Swansea was chosen.
A council spokesman said the city was “recognised as being at the forefront of best practice because of the commitment of major employers in the city to employment equality”, and that the council’s employment policies “reflect our commitment to employment equality for our disabled staff and for disabled people who apply for jobs in the council”.
Robert Lloyd Griffiths, director of the Institute of Directors Wales, which was a partner of the conference – but who played no part in organising it – said the decision to name Swansea the UK’s first Disability Confident City may have been due largely to Julian John’s “desire to make a difference in his own town”.
He said the conference had aimed to “dispel some of the myths about employing someone with a disability”, “bang the drum” about the opportunities business can derive from employing disabled people, and share best practice.
But he admitted that it was inevitable that businesses that attended were those that were already “doing it well”.
When asked if there was an argument for greater enforcement of equality legislation, to prevent businesses from discriminating against disabled people, he said: “If the law is being broken, that is unacceptable, but the whole thrust of this conference was a positive message as opposed to being negative.
“If you start using the law as a stick to beat companies with, you are going to create a situation where people say, ‘I am not going to do that because it is too difficult.’
“What I think is the best practice is to encourage them because it is the right thing to do and makes commercial sense.”
In response to criticism that many conference participants had commented on social media about how “inspiring” the disabled speakers had been, Lloyd Griffiths said: “We were not looking at people because they were disabled, we were looking at them as people and saying, ‘What a fantastic thing you have done in your business.’
“It wasn’t sympathy, it was positive outcomes within a business. The speakers were very good because they were passionate.
“It held the attention from the start to the finish, and that doesn’t always happen at conferences.”
But David Gillon, a disabled activist and blogger, who has been critical of the Disability Confident campaign, said that business had “systematically ignored disability employment laws since at least 1944” and have had “over 60 years to voluntarily comply”.
He said: “It is clear that they will not do so until forced to, and opposing enforcement says that the rights of disabled people can be discarded for the convenience of business.”
The conference took place on the same day that the Independent Living Fund (ILF) closed for good, increasing anger among disability campaigners on social media about what some called #DisabilityCONfident.
Gillon said: “We wouldn’t try to explain away two million people denied work due to race, religion, gender or sexual orientation as simply due to a little ‘employer embarrassment’, but that is precisely what Disability Confident does for workplace disability discrimination.
“Until Disability Confident starts challenging the institutionalised disability discrimination in recruitment and in the workplace, then it will remain part of the problem, not part of the solution.
“Even the recruitment industry admits 39 per cent of disabled people face discrimination during recruitment, while far too many disabled people find their careers come to a grinding halt when they try to access their rights under the Equality Act 2010, yet Disability Confident lacks the confidence to acknowledge workplace disability discrimination even exists.
“I have yet to see anyone come away from a Disability Confident event tweeting ‘disability discrimination must be stopped’. Being labelled ‘inspiring’ really doesn’t make up for that.
“What Disability Confident needs to do is start confronting employers with disabled people whose careers have been destroyed by workplace discrimination, and disabled people whose careers never got a chance to start because of discrimination in recruitment.
“Its reliance on feel-good speakers who ‘made it’ is just more inspiration porn.”
While businesses were attending the conference in Swansea, ILF-users and other disabled activists were protesting in Whitehall at the decision to close the fund, which is likely to make it impossible for many ILF-recipients to continue working.
Meanwhile, a new survey of 145 employers by the Business Disability Forum (BDF) has found that only one in five of them has a target for the number of disabled people they want working in their organisation.
The survey figures are part of Retaining and Developing Employees with Disabilities, which BDF says is the “first ever report about the skills, confidence and practices that help retain and develop employees with disabilities and long term health conditions across private, public and third sector employers in the UK”.
The report also says that one third of employers do not have any written agreements describing the adjustments they will make for each disabled employee, while fewer than one on five have written agreements for all of their disabled employees with adjustments.
The report offers five recommendations for how employers can improve their retention and development of disabled employees.
These include “increasing the visibility of disability within the organisation”, building the skills and confidence of line managers in managing disabled team members, and providing “targeted development opportunities” for disabled employees.