Disabled people are made to feel grateful for having a job at all. It is time we were brought into the conversation
Forcing companies to disclose their gender pay gap has been like pulling back the curtain. For the first time, we’re seeing the real picture behind the often-secretive world of pay: one in which every industry from academia and local councils to FTSE companies is underpaying women. As part of this, it has been refreshing to see the impact of race and class on the gender gap discussed, despite the fact the gender audit didn’t include these factors. But disability hasn’t been mentioned at all.
In the UK, there is no complex breakdown of disability pay like the gender pay investigation has provided but what we know shows stark inequality.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) 2017 report found that the disability pay gap – the difference between what non-disabled and disabled workers earn – is 13.6%. On top of that, disabled people are significantly more likely to be unemployed, lose a job and be in low-waged work than non-disabled people. We’re also routinely given fewer responsibilities at work and turned down for promotion, or refused the job in the first place.
Being a disabled woman in the climate of the gender pay gap, then, is like being hit from two sides. Disabled men – particularly those from minority ethnic backgrounds – aren’t immune either, in some ways losing the gender advantage afforded to white non-disabled men. Disabled men from the Bangladeshi community, for example, experience a pay gap of a staggering 56% (compared with non-disabled white British men), according to the EHRC.
How can bosses get away with this? As Suzanne Moore points out, women’s unequal pay is justified in a myriad ways: from us not trying for competitive roles, to being “too caring”. Similarly far-fetched excuses are used when it comes to disabled people. Longstanding prejudice around disability – that we are pitiable, stupid or a burden – creates a climate that permits keeping disabled people in low-waged, junior roles. Even the chancellor, Philip Hammond, last year implied disabled workers were less productive, while the idea we should be paid less than non-disabled people is a persistently mainstream opinion (in 2014, the then welfare minister David Freud suggested disabled workers may be “worth” about £2 an hour ). The message is often, “Forget equal pay – if you’re disabled, you should be grateful for having a job at all.”
In recent years, disabled people have routinely been painted as workshy by politicians and the media, but what is attributed to choice is largely a product of circumstance. Disabled people are more likely to work part-time, in part because of their health needs, exacerbated by the fact that flexible working is often frowned upon by employers. The benefits system, meanwhile, often penalises people too ill for a full-time job but who take on a few hours a week. I’ve always worked full-time but because I need more time off sick or to rest, as well as later starts, I know my earning potential is dwarfed by my non-disabled counterparts.
Until we acknowledge the problem, we can’t do anything to fix it. John Lewis, for example, is using the gender pay gap news to talk to their employees about flexible working and barriers to job sharing at management level. This is fantastic and would be ideal if it was to look at how these two measures – perfectly suited to many with health problems – would help disabled employees too.
But to really tackle the disability pay gap, we need to look at the wider structural inequalities facing disabled people. We often have to live in inaccessible housing, are cut off from accessible public transport, and are excluded from education, which means a disproportionate number of disabled people don’t get qualifications. (Even qualifications aren’t enough: a graduate with a work-limiting disability is more likely to not have a job than an unqualified person with no disability.)
Rather than measures to improve things, the government is currently creating extra barriers: hundreds of people have had their car, which they need to get to the office, removed because of benefit cuts; funds that provide in-work support such as sign language interpreters for deaf people have been reduced; and huge cuts in social care budgets have resulted in disabled people losing the assistant who helps them get dressed in the morning.
The gender pay audit means the silence around unequal incomes is finally being broken. Inequality, we are shown, can no longer be hushed away or buried under excuses. Now’s the time to bring disabled workers into the conversation.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/11/gender-pay-gap-disability-disabled-people-job