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Disabled people working for free? - the Disability Pay Gap widens

Disabled people working for free? - the Disability Pay Gap widens

Phil Steventon


Reading time: five minutes

From 7 November 2022 until the end of the year, I've been working for free.

But I got paid for the work I did for my employer for those 54 days.

So, what's going on?

This is because of the disability pay gap.

What is it?

The disability pay gap isn’t the difference between two people being paid differently for work of the same/comparable value – this is ‘unequal pay’.

Instead, ‘pay gap’ measures the difference between the average earnings of disabled people and non-disabled people in the workforce. The disability pay gap is a measure of disabled people’s position in the economy, compared to that of non-disabled people. This is the result of the combined social and economic factors that reduce the earning capacity of disabled people over their lifetime.

It’s measured as a percentage of how much less pay disabled workers take home compared to non-disabled workers.

The disability pay gap for 2022 is currently 17.2%, an increase from 16.5% from the last year. This effectively means disabled workers have stopped being paid from 7 November 2022 and will take home £3,731 per year less than their non-disabled peers for a 35-hour week.

This gap persists throughout careers too. Research shows that the gap starts at 65p per hour for workers aged 20 and increases incrementally to a peak of £3.55 per hour, or £6,461 per year, for workers aged between 40 and 44.

This pay gap is a significant barrier for disabled workers who may already face challenges in finding and retaining quality employment due to discrimination, inaccessibility, negative stereotypes and prejudices, and much more.

Why is there a gap?

Disabled adults, whether they’re born disabled or acquire their disability later in life, will face additional costs just to live and function in this society and workforce. Maybe it’s medical fees, the cost of additional aids, extra equipment that they buy to help them at different jobs, added training and therapy, to mention just a few. Their non-disabled peers won’t have this cost to pay.

As we know, being neurodivergent can be disabling in a society and workforce that isn’t wholly accessible or inclusive of us and what we need in order to thrive.

In a survey commissioned by YouGov and Monzo Bank, it was revealed that ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) adults are directly impacted financially by the divergence, costing them an average of £1,600 per year more than non-ADHD adults. With an estimated 1.8 million UK ADHD adults, the overall annual cost to the ADHD community could be as high as £1.74 billion!

Further, disabled workers may be less likely to be offered jobs in the first place, whether in law or not, due to negative stereotypes and prejudices about their ability. In addition, recruiters may be unable able to see past their own (often outdated and hurtful) preconceptions about what they believe our experiences are. Even if we’re offered employment, promises of adjustments and accessibility to support us and to remove obstacles in the workplace, there are still preconceptions around ability.

Also, disabled workers face disproportionately high rates of redundancy and unemployment, compounding the hurtful idea that disabled workers’ lives are less valuable than those of our non-disabled peers.

I’ve had instances where if I do exceptionally well at something, I’m celebrated for my autistic brain; but if I can’t do something that a colleague seemingly has no trouble with, then my autistic brain is used against me. These attitudes are off-putting when we want to find meaningful employment, do fulfilling work and make a living for ourselves.

Read this article to see how a neuroinclusive workplace starts with the interview process.

What can be done? Can the gap be closed?

Logically, if the gap can widen then it can be closed too. This gap needs to be closed so that disabled workers are not so disadvantaged because they’re disabled in a world that isn’t inclusive of our challenges.

The Trades Union Congress has called for:

  • mandatory disability pay gap reporting for employers with more than 50 employees;
  • a duty on employers to identify steps they’ll take to address the gap;
  • a day-one right to flexible working and employers to include flexible working options in job adverts (the covid pandemic has clearly shown that it’s possible for everyone to work remotely effectively);
  • increasing the National Minimum Wage to £15 per hour; and
  • a stronger legal framework for reasonable adjustments, including employers responding to requests promptly, penalties for employers who don’t provide reasonable adjustments, and reasonable adjustment ‘passports’ to be mandatory for all public bodies.

Mandatory reporting might shine a light on current disability inequality at work, but is it really the key? It would capture only a piece of the full picture, and it measures only disabled workers in active work; not those who are job searching or who may have lost employment.

Further, forcing workers to reveal whether they’re disabled may open them up to even more stigma and prejudice from colleagues and management. So, forcing all employers to report on their disability pay gap won’t necessarily produce reliable data.

Put simply, employers and society must go further with real-world actions. This could include:

  • reviewing physical infrastructure and where inaccessibility can be corrected;
  • reviewing hiring and retention policies and practices;
  • training around attitudes, values and understanding of disability and disabled people;
  • prompt implementation of reasonable adjustments and all parties to learn together what works and what doesn’t work for the worker; and
  • cultivating an environment of trust and psychological safety for all staff.

By putting disabled staff at the heart of business and recruitment strategies in such a way that processes and physical workspaces are as inclusive and accessible as they can be, employers can rewrite their cultural narrative and reverse the disability pay gap, embrace intersectionality (disability is pervasive across all protected characteristics and identities) and gauge the extent to which it’s reflected within business.