The future of the support that allows disabled people to find and keep work is under serious threat as a result of the financial crisis and government spending cuts, disabled trade unionists have heard.
The TUC’s annual disability conference heard from a string of activists who attacked the cuts to public sector spending and the government’s planned welfare reforms.
But one activist warned that threats to the Access to Work (ATW) scheme had so far not received enough attention from campaigners, who had focused instead on cuts to benefits such as disability living allowance (DLA).
Peter Milliken, from the education union ATL, claimed the government wanted to “decimate” ATW.
He said his own ability to work full-time, through a support worker part-funded by ATW, could be at risk.
He said: “If I lose that support I will not be able to work full-time. I know DLA is getting a huge amount of publicity but it is important for people to be very aware that ATW is at very great risk.”
The conference also heard that employers – both in the private and public sectors – were increasingly flouting their legal duties to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled staff.
Saraka Keating, from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said there appeared to be an “increased willingness by some NHS and other employers to ignore their obligations to make reasonable adjustments”.
She said one disabled physiotherapist had been told he could not bring his guide dog to work, even though as a patient he was allowed to bring it onto the same premises.
She added: “They said if he couldn’t adapt they would sack him. This employer’s attitude is they would be perfectly happy to face a case at tribunal and take the hit if they lose it rather than make the necessary adjustments and keep the physio in employment.”
Michelle Williams, of the NASUWT teaching union, said she detected “a new selfishness” among employers, who were beginning to “challenge reasonable adjustments”.
She said unions must “protect disabled employees and their employment rights” and “end this new selfishness before it takes hold”.
Roland Zollner, from FDA, the public service union, said employers were targeting the workplace support that disabled employees needed to keep their jobs now that the “hard times” had begun to bite.
One after another, delegates to the conference attacked the government’s spending cuts and their disproportionate impact on disabled people.
Berni McCrea, from Unite, Britain’s biggest union, called on the TUC to produce a report on the impact of the cuts on disabled people, and for protest action later this year on or around the International Day of Disabled People in early December.
She said: “We have to stop these devastating cuts and show this government that we will not stand for their bullying tactics.”
Earlier, the conference had heard from the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who said that the government’s suggestion – on its Red Tape Challenge website – that the Equality Act could be scrapped had “sent chills down my body”.
She said that to even contemplate scrapping the act and to realise that it was now “perceived as a burden to business, as a piece of tape” was “fairly frightening”.
25 May 2011