Removing barriers to work for people who are disabled

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits direct discrimination against people who are disabled (section 13), indirect discrimination (section 19), discrimination arising from disability (section 15), harassment (section 26), victimisation (section 27) and also requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to prevent disabled persons from being placed at a substantial disadvantage to others because of their disablity (section 20). A failure to comply with the section 20 duty to make reasonable adjustments is deemed to be disability discrimination (section 21). However, it is argued that this legislation has not gone far enough. Currently there is still a ‘disability employment gap’ of 32 percentage points: 81% of the working aged population who are not disabled are in work compared with 49% of people who are disabled (Work and Pensions Committee, 2017: 3).

The social model of disability primarily sees disability as socially caused. For social model theorists the answer is to change the work and not the person. Whilst it is contested whether all disability can be removed by such changes, we are far from a position where socially produced barriers can be ignored. Therefore international organisations, governments and disability rights campaigners continue to advocate for changes to the structure of work.

However, as Roulstone identifies, the narrow hegemonic construction of productive values is at the heart of the problem. Without a broader concept of work attempts at structural changes will merely tinker with the problem (2015: 260).

Solutions within a narrow conception of work

  • flexible hours, including building up hours

Ideas for a broader conception of work

  • Work is linked to community-specific values: activities that sustain social cohesion, make the community ‘more secure, integrated, protected or externally valued’ (Roulstone, 2015: 261).
  • Work is not ‘all of nothing’ (Roulstone, 2015: 261)
  • Work as and when needed, rather than set hours
  • Non-contractual, reciprocal arrangements
  • Includes domestic labour and reproductive work

“If work is defined as ‘productive activity for household use or exchange’ then it is clear that…domestic, productive and reproductive labour is work, since it has economic value for both the family and society” (Tilly and Scott, 1978: 227. Cited in Roulstone, 2015: 266)

“In the same way as women were designed out of the paramount definition of paid work, a process heavily imbued with gender assumptions about biology, the categorical disassociations between ‘non-standard’ bodies and productive work-ableness has been cemented by the 20th century (Roulstone, 2015: 267).


Work and Pensions Committee (2017) Disability Employment Gap, 23 January 2017, HC 56 2016-17.