'See the person, not the disability'

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With a tough job market, what can disabled people do to make employers see what they can do instead of what they can’t? Reporter Freya Findlay finds out for the News and Star.

For four years, Ana Crome has sent off hundreds of applications for jobs.

But despite her persistent efforts, an employer is yet to take her on.

It is a story thousands of people will be familiar with – sending off tailored covering letter after covering letter with a sparkling CV attached, only to be greeted with silence or a polite email of rejection.

But for people with disabilities, the quest to find a job is much more difficult. The evidence is in the statistics – nationally, disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.

In north and west Cumbria, the latest official labour market statistics show that in the year leading up to June 2016, the employment rate of disabled 16 to 64-year-olds was 50 per cent, compared to 85 per cent for non-disabled people of the same age.

The biggest difference in employment rates and economic inactivity between disabled and non-disabled people is in Penrith and the Border, perhaps because of its rural nature.

The employment rate for disabled people in Rory Stewart’s constituency is 35 per cent but for non-disabled people it is 87 per cent. The percentage of economically inactive disabled people aged between 16 and 64 is 63 per cent, compared to just 11 per cent for non-disabled people.

Ana Crome, who lives in Penrith, is one of those statistics. The 26-year-old suffers from arthrogryposis, a rare condition where, because her mum’s womb wasn’t big enough, her joints fixed together in whatever position they could.

She has limited movement in her arms and is in a wheelchair. She is also bubbly, fun and has years of experience under her belt as a volunteer for Age Concern.

Ana said: “I have been trying for about four years to get a job. It is one of my life goals to be able to handle full-time work.

“A lot of companies look at my disability and presume I can’t do anything. I never go for a job I can’t do.

“One company said that the reception post I was applying for also required me to dive into the pool if anyone was drowning. Companies need to stop seeing us as a hindrance, or a risk and start seeing the person not the disability.”

Christine Bowditch, chairman of Carlisle Mencap and former mayoress of Carlisle, knows of many success and failure stories of people with disabilities in jobs.

She said: “People with disabilities almost always want a job, it gives them self respect, a purpose in life and a sense that they are like everyone else. In my role as chair of Carlisle Mencap, as a parent and in my role as county councillor, I have met and heard of many adults with severe learning disabilities who are or were in employment.

“There are many success stories – employees at Asda, Sainsbury’s and cafes, one in Denton Holme, for example.

“Where employment has failed it is almost always to do with the employer. For example, a religious book selling firm in Carlisle sacked their small additional disability workforce when their finances became difficult. A woman who washed dishes in a cafe – a job she loved – had to leave when the owners bought a dishwasher.

“A young man called Andrew was a very popular waiter in a local care home in a cafe run one day a week with people with disabilities when the owners realised they could themselves make a profit. This was devastating for Andrew but also for us, as we feel very much for our disabled children.

“There are lots more examples.

“Of course, it can take more time and patience to employ a person with a disability but, as they are always the most willing and rewarding of employees, giving unstintingly of their time and effort it is almost always worth it, not just for the person themselves but, if we are to be an inclusive society, for everyone.”

Mrs Bowditch stressed that the person and the employment must initially be carefully managed and the work must be suitable for the disabled person, otherwise things could go very wrong.

Sheila Gregory, chief executive of Carlisle Mencap, said employers should concentrate on what people can do rather than what they can’t.

She said: “I think it’s always an issue particularly with people who have learning disabilities. I think it’s more of an issue than it used to be because of how we have changed how we work.

“I think people need to look at what talents people have got and look at what people can do.

“Why do we have to use a machine when people are more than able to do it?

“They need to look at what people’s talents are. People have talents but they also need that support.”

Mrs Gregory said machines had taken away many jobs from people with learning disabilities.

Also with such a competitive job market, it was harder for people with learning difficulties who may not have further education qualifications to compete.

Without employment, people with physical and mental disabilities have to find something else to occupy their time and mainly rely on benefits for money.

In the meantime, all Ana can do is fire off covering letters and her CV and hope that an employer will one day look beyond her disability.

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