Will working from home fix the disability employment gap?

Two women are sitting at desks, working on computers.

At last month’s Autumn Statement, the Government set out its grand plan to erase the Disability Employment Gap. Heralding ‘greater flexibility and availability of home working since the pandemic’, the Chancellor said that the Work Capability Assessment needed to change – implying that it is now easier for disabled people to find work.

But is that really the case? Has the growing acceptance of homeworking really been a gamechanger for disabled people?

The benefits of working from home

For years, disability charities have been saying that employers should do more to facilitate flexible working, including working from home.

Some disabled people prefer to work from home because it enables them to manage their condition more easily than they could in the workplace. It may also mean that disabled employees do not need to face barriers such as inaccessible public transport while getting to work.

Despite this, disabled people often found that employers did not do enough to enable them to work from home.

And then came the pandemic.

Suddenly, many employers reluctant to offer homeworking ran out of excuses. If people can work effectively from home during a pandemic, why couldn’t they do so at other times?

For some disabled employees, the opportunity to work from home has improved their experience of employment. It may even have opened up new employment for some disabled jobseekers

And yet…

Homeworking is not a silver bullet

The key word so far as been ‘some’. Not every disabled person has benefited from the move towards working from home.

In the words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is not clear…that [disabled people] have particularly benefited from this shift’. The Office for National Statistics have similarly found that disabled employees are only marginally more likely to work exclusively from home.

The Disability Employment Gap, meanwhile, shows no sign of the world of work being transformed. In fact, at 29.0%, the Disability Employment Gap was higher in 2023 than in 2020.  

This is not what you would expect if homeworking had been a gamechanger for disabled people.

Few jobs can be done from home

Despite the growth in homeworking, few jobs are done fully remotely – if they can be done from home at all.

The Office for National Statistics have found that only 18% of disabled employees work only at home. A quarter split their working life between the workplace and home, while almost half of disabled employees can’t work from home at all.

That means that most disabled employees still face barriers linked to physically going to a workplace.

But even roles that can be done from home pose many of the same challenges to disabled people as those that must be done in the workplace.

Disabled people face barriers to work wherever they are

The barriers to employment facing disabled people are complex. They include attitudes to disability, unfair recruiting practices, and a lack of suitable job opportunities.

For people with complex disabilities, whose support needs tend to be higher, these challenges tend to be more acute. Sense polling of people with complex disabilities, carried out earlier this year, found that, of those in work:

The growth in homeworking has done nothing to address barriers like these. In fact, this very discrimination could make it less likely that employers would allow homeworking in the first place.

Some barriers to employment are getting worse

And it’s not just that many of the barriers to employment disabled people face are still there. Some of them have even worsened over the past few years.

Access to Work, for example, funds specialist support and equipment for disabled people in workplace. But’s been getting harder to access the scheme, with the backlog in applications tripling between February 2020 and January 2023. In some cases, the wait for Access to Work has led to employers withdrawing their job offers from disabled people.

Clearly, even after the growth in flexible working, disabled people continue to face a range of barriers to employment.

What can the Government do to help disabled people into work?

If homeworking hasn’t transformed the world of work for disabled people, then what should the Government do?

Given all the barriers to employment we’ve mentioned, it’s vital that people with complex disabilities can access the support they need to enter and stay in work.

But our recent employment research found that half of jobseekers with complex disabilities did not have the support and equipment they needed to look for work.

That’s not surprising, given that we also found that no computers in jobcentres have the specialist assistive technology some disabled people would need to use them. 

These are the sorts of issues the Government would need to address if it were to tackle the Disability Employment Gap.

Because the Disability Employment Gap isn’t going to disappear by itself – and the Government can’t use homeworking as an excuse for not offering disabled people the right support.