Speech in the Scottish Parliament
22 May 2018
We all want to work.
Work is a part of us; it makes us who we are and helps us to define ourselves.
We all need a purpose.
We need a way to contribute to society and the ability to be independent and self-reliant.
That is why work is so important.
There are 1 million people in Scotland with disabilities, but only 42 per cent of them are employed.
We can only imagine the frustration of the other 58 per cent.
The Government’s motion is worth while, and there is nothing in it that we cannot support.
However, we need to go further.
We cannot simply close the employment gap for disabled people through wishful thinking.
That will not happen on its own; it will happen only if we make it happen.
We need to take action to make it happen.
We need to set targets and monitor the action that we are taking to achieve them.
Our amendment therefore calls for targets and progress reports to the Parliament, so that we can ensure that progress is being made and concentrate minds on what needs to happen.
I do not want to hear a debate in this Parliament in 10 years’ time in which members make the same points as we are making today.
We also want the UK as a whole to do better by disabled people. It has been picked out for criticism by the United Nations.
That is simply not good enough; we need to lead on the issue. In a report, the UN said that the Conservative Government had committed
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.
The situation is partly due to the Conservative Government’s closure of Remploy factories.
We need more such placements for disabled people, not fewer.
Disabled people must overcome many hurdles to find work, including discrimination and false perceptions.
Sometimes, it seems that it is just too hard for employers to go the extra mile to remove the barriers that society puts in place to make life harder for people with disabilities.
Why would an employer pay to fit a ramp when they could just employ someone who did not need one?
Why would they take time to make adaptations to a workstation when they could just employ someone who did not need those adaptations?
Why would they put in additional support systems when they could just employ someone who did not need them?
Such attitudes mean that we all lose out.
We do not expand our knowledge of the challenges that are faced, and we miss out on enriching our own lives with the experience of disabled people.
Such attitudes also prevent disabled people from being able to contribute to society and lead fulfilling lives.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the first members of the Scottish Parliament to take part in Inclusion Scotland’s parliamentary internship programme, which pays for interns to be placed with MSPs in order to gain work experience.
I had the pleasure of having Ryan McMullan as my intern—some members might have met him; they certainly will not have forgotten him if they did so.
Ryan has cerebral palsy, which makes his speech difficult to understand, but he was undaunted and he was a real asset to our office.
I learned more from the internship than Ryan did.
Initially, we had to make adaptations and find technology that would enable him to answer the phone, for example.
Then I became aware that people who did not know Ryan were sometimes awkward around him—that was very obvious to him.
The experience taught me that we simply need to take time to find out how to work alongside a person with a disability and that, if we do that, we all benefit.
The trouble with fear of the unknown is that it can lead to discrimination, and discrimination leads to further discrimination.
The best way to overcome the fear of the unknown is to make it known.
The best way to show that disabled people can carry out everyday jobs is to give them the opportunity to do so.
Only when we all know disabled people in the workplace and educate ourselves will any fear—and, with it, discrimination—reduce.
To achieve that, we will need to exercise positive discrimination. We have the powers and the ability to make change.
The public sector is a huge employer; we need to take positive action and employ disabled people in at least the proportion in which they are present in our communities.
We could do so by, for example, ensuring that qualified disabled people are guaranteed interviews for jobs and that we set targets for levels of employment.
Such an approach would be even more important for people with learning disabilities.
There are many fantastic organisations in our communities that offer work training to support people with learning disabilities to learn to do jobs at their own speed and in their own time, after which they can do them as well as anyone else.
There are some such organisations in my region—for example, the Shirlie Project Ltd and Café Artysans in Inverness—but many more, some of which sent us briefings for the debate, take the time to do those things in other communities.
Last week, in the Highlands, I met Apex Scotland, which has traditionally provided services to help offenders back into work.
It discovered that most of the people with whom it was dealing had drug and alcohol problems that had got them into trouble in the first place and that such addictions came from their having poor mental health.
Apex started working with people with drug and alcohol problems or whose mental health was poor before they offended and, in doing so, has ensured that they have not ended up in the criminal justice system but have found another way to deal with their problems.
Apex helps them to get into employment and thereby build satisfying and stable lives.
Such organisations work intensively with people, which takes time and money, but the rewards more than make up for it—not only the personal rewards for individuals and the rewards for businesses in having good staff members, but the economic rewards of allowing more people to contribute their expertise to society as a whole.
In its “End the Gap” report, Disability Agenda Scotland urges the public sector to take the lead through its own employment practices and by using procurement policies to contract only with businesses that have disabled-friendly employment practices.
It points out that disabled people are more likely to be lower paid and underemployed as well.
When we take into account the fact that it costs a disabled person, on average, an additional £550 a month simply to live, the situation is even worse.
We cannot focus just on getting more disabled people into the workforce; we must also support them when they get there.
Disability Agenda Scotland’s report found that a huge 64 per cent of disabled people in work have felt at risk of losing their jobs.
We need to make a step change in how we deal with people with disabilities.
We must acknowledge that many of the barriers that they face have been put up by a society that does not understand and has largely ignored their needs.
We must break down such barriers to allow them to gain employment and to have the same career chances as the rest of us.
We all want to live in an equal society, and that is one way in which we can do that.