From the TUC

Disabled people and the recession: new information

29 Jul 2009, by in Economics, Equality

New data suggests that the picture I painted earlier on in the month of steady progress in narrowing the disability employment gap was a little simplistic.

Nigel Meager, from the Institute for Employment Studies has pointed out that using the figures for a different definition of disability actually shows a decline in disabled people’s employment rate in recent years.

Regular readers will recall that, in my last posting, I looked at the position of disabled people in the labour market and how it might be affected by the recession. In that report I followed a narrative that is very common in official reports (such as this one from the Office for Disability Issues) – the employment rate for disabled people has been rising and the gap between disabled people’s employment rates and non-disabled people’s has been falling.

After that posting Nigel contacted us (we’re really grateful for this) to point out that the picture of disabled people’s employment is altered by using a different definition of disability.

A tale of two definitions

The figures I relied on are for people who meet the Disability Discrimination Act definition of disability – having a physical, mental or sensory impairment that has a long-term adverse impact on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The Labour Force Survey also uses a definition of disability that dates back to before the DDA – respondents are asked if they have a ‘work limiting’ health problem or disability.

Of course, these definitions overlap, so we have data for three groups: people who are disabled using both definitions and those who are disabled using one or the other. Nigel points out that:

  • If you follow the Government and use the DDA definition you are looking at a group of 5.6 million people, 1.6 million of whom are disabled only using the DDA definition.
  • There are 5.1 million people disabled using the work-limiting disability definition, 1.1 million of whom are disabled only using this definition.
  • There are 4.0 million people disabled under both definitions.

Nigel compared employment rates in the period Jul 07 – Jun 08 with the period Apr 05 – Mar 06. (Which is the period covered by the DWP’s Public Service Agreement target for disabled people’s employment.)

If you look at the DDA definition group as a whole, their employment rate rose from 45.8% to 47.2%, which fits in with the story I repeated in the Recession Report. But that is not the case for all the different ways of defining disability:


Employment rate

Apr 05 – Mar 06

Jul 07 – Jun 08

DDA definition only

1.6 million




5.6 million



Both DDA and work-limiting disability

4.0 million



All work-limiting disability

5.1 million



Work-limiting disability only

1.1 million



Disabled under either definition or both

6.7 million



Nigel draws particular attention to the fact that people in the group that are disabled using the DDA definition have a higher employment rate than those who are disabled using the work limiting disability definition and that that is because this group includes people who are disabled only under the DDA definition; they have an employment rate that is actually slightly higher than the employment rate for non-disabled people (81.1%, compared with 80.0%).

The DWP must be pleased that the definition they used produced a bigger increase in disabled people’s employment rate than any other definition. Using the work-limiting disability definition would have produced a decline in employment rates in the few years immediately before the recession began.

The significance of all this

So, what implications does this have for what I wrote in the second half of the last Recession Report?

If I had known about these data at the time I would definitely have changed what I wrote, but I don’t think I would have reversed the overall story.

The DDA definition is the way we define membership of the group that is protected by the Disability Discrimination Act, and in whose prospects we are interested. The falling employment gap for this group is still an important story.

On the other hand, what we are interested in is whether the discrimination and exclusion faced by disabled people are harming their employment prospects to a greater or lesser extent than in previous years. Those problems are likely to be more severe for those who are disabled using both definitions and the improvement of recent years is smaller for this group.

It seems reasonable to say that judgements about the success or failure of the Government’s efforts should take into account what has been happening to disabled people using both the DDA definition and those who meet both the DDA definition and the work-limiting disability definition.

If I had had these data when I was writing that story I would also have issued extra caveats about the picture of what has been happening in the recession. It is still good news that the employment and unemployment gaps for disabled people using the DDA definition have continued to shrink, but I would have had to add that we need to know what has happened to those who also have a work-limiting disability to get a clearer picture.

We are grateful to Nigel for raising this issue with us in a very positive way, and for giving us permission to use his data. We will include a note in the next Recession Report referring readers to this ToUChstone entry.