Students Staff

19 January 2011

New research on employment of disabled people

Colchester Campus

The number of disabled men and women claiming out-of-work benefits has been of great concern both to policy makers (worried about public expenditure) and to disabled people themselves (worried about poverty). There was a large increase in claims over the 1980s and early 1990s, and the numbers have remained stubbornly high since then, despite efforts by governments of all parties to reduce them. Benefit statistics tell us very little about the people who do not have jobs, and nothing at all about disabled people who do have jobs. Richard Berthoud from the Institute for Social and Economic Research has analysed a series of surveys over 30 years, to try to find out what has been going on. Key findings include:

  • The prevalence of disability (the proportion of working age adults who report a limiting long-standing illness) rose from 14% in 1975 to 18% in 1996, before falling back again to 16% in 2004.
  • The ‘disability employment penalty’ is a measure of the extent to which disabled people are less likely to have a job than otherwise similar non-disabled people. It increased from 17% in 1987 to 28% in 2000 – but has not reduced since then.
  • These figures refer to all people with limiting health conditions. It is commonly assumed that most of the changes in prevalence and in employment prospects have affected people with relatively minor impairments – but the research shows, on the contrary, that people with severely disadvantaging sets of health conditions have been more, not less, affected by the trends.
  • Payments of the main social security benefits (Incapacity Benefit and Severe Disability Allowance) lagged behind the number of disadvantaged disabled people in the 1970s and early 1980s, especially for women. But they had caught up by 1990.
  • The detailed analysis made possible by the series of surveys suggests that changes in disabled peoples’ employment rates or in benefit payments have not coincided with major changes in the social security rules and procedures.
  • Disabled people are very sensitive to long-term geographical variations in the health of regional labour markets; while non-disabled people have similar prospects, wherever they live.
  • But disabled people’s employment is hardly affected by booms or busts in the national economy.
  • People without educational qualifications are more likely to be disabled, and their employment rates are more affected by disability, than (at the other extreme) people with degrees. Both of these tendencies have increased in intensity over time, so that the current generation of unqualified people has very high rates of disability, and the disabled members of the group have very low rates of employment. But the number of poorly educated people in Britain has been declining over the decades, so very little of the overall growth in the number of disabled people without work can be explained by the skills effect.
  • The fact that well-educated people are relatively less affected by disability helps to show that it is not disability, on its own, that determines outcomes, but the interaction between disability and opportunities. Disability nevertheless has a substantial effect across the spectrum.
  • The research helps to counter the idea that some disabled people are unequivocally capable of work, while others are wholly incapable. It supports instead the concept of disadvantage – a sliding scale of employment probabilities affected both by the nature and severity of people’s impairments, and by the willingness of employers to hire them.

This analysis of the trends over three decades has tended to undermine some of the hypotheses frequently put forward to explain the experience of disabled people:

  • There is little sign that most of the changes observed over the period have mainly been associated with minor sets of impairments;
  • There is little sign that disabled people are especially sensitive to the ups and downs of the business cycle;
  • Although there was a substantial shift in the ratio of incapacity-related benefit payments to disability-disadvantage up to about 1990, there is little sign that this ratio was influenced by major changes in the rules governing eligibility for benefits.

Commenting on the research findings, Richard Berthoud says:

'It is possible that the main shift has been at the boundary point between social convention and labour market activity. The same period witnessed a major positive shift in the economic identity of women with children – mothers have increasingly seen themselves as potential workers. It is possible that an opposite trend is affecting disabled people, who increasingly see themselves, and are seen by others, as permanently unable to work – in spite of the new emphasis on disability rights in public discourse. While employers have become more willing to recruit from the large pool of well-qualified women, they have become less motivated to hire or retain people who combine ill-health with low skill levels.'

About the research

The study analysed 28 years of the General Household Survey, using data collected between 1974 and 2005. Information was available from about 360,000 people aged 20-59.

The analysis compared the employment rates of people who reported a limiting long-standing illness with the prospects of other people with no health problem, taking account also of their age, family position, educational background and so on. “LLI” is a loose definition of disability, but the research was also able to compare the outcomes for people with more or less disadvantaging sets of health conditions, available in some years of the sequence.

Trends in the employment of disabled people in Britain is an ISER Working Paper.

This paper is part of a series of studies of disability and employment supported by the Nuffield Foundation.

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