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Self-employed disabled workers helped to thrive

11th December 2019

Too few self-employed disabled workers know about learning and training opportunities that would help them make a success of self-employment, according to a new report drawn up through Community’s one-year innovation project funded by the Union Learning Fund (ULF).

And too many disabled freelancers are priced out of the training opportunities they do find out about, reveals the report, Making Self-Employment Work For Disabled People: An agenda to make it happen.

Published by Community and the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) earlier this year, the report breaks new ground in its detailed analysis of a fast-growing group that now accounts for 14 per cent of the self-employed workforce.

And it has drawn up a set of detailed recommendations for policy reform to help more disabled people thrive as freelancers. These include redesigning the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) to reduce the chances of wrong decisions in the assessment process; extending New Enterprise Allowance (NEA) mentor and benefit support to two years; and increasing awareness of Access to Work (ATW), widely considered one of the best kept secrets in welfare support.

With the National League of the Blind and Disabled having been part of the union for nearly 20 years, Community was well aware of the increasing numbers of disabled people leaving payroll jobs to start their own businesses.

What the union was keen to shed light on was what was behind the trend towards selfemployment; what were disabled people’s experiences of working for themselves; and what could unions and other organisations do to improve working life for self-employed disabled workers.

As well as teaming up with IPSE, the representative body for the UK’s self-employed community, Community also collected expert evidence from organisations it was already working with on other campaigns, including Mind and the Mental Health Foundation, and from new connections with other leaders in their fields, such as Blind Ambition, Disability Rights UK, Mutually Inclusive and Scope. Crucially, the union made sure that it reached out to disabled freelancers themselves.

Photo of Kate Dearden discussing disabled self-employed workers and learning

Kate Dearden discusses Community’s findings with union learning colleagues

Research and Campaigns Officer Kate Dearden said:

“We wouldn’t have published the report without the views and experiences of disabled people in self-employment: they’re the ones with the best recommendations about what would make their working lives better.”

Being able to access affordable, high-quality training is vital for all self-employed people but that goes double for disabled freelancers since disabled adults are nearly three times more likely to have no formal qualifications than their non-disabled counterparts.

But according to the project’s analysis of Labour Force Survey (LFS) data, while 27 per cent of disabled people with a payroll job have recently taken advantage of job-related training, that figure drops to 13 per cent for their self-employed counterparts.

And what the report revealed was that the main reason disabled people are not taking up training is because they don’t know what’s out there. Even when training opportunities do come across their radar, the cost can often prevent them signing up (disabled full-time self-employed people earn 23 per cent less than their non-disabled counterparts and 42 per cent less than disabled employees).

Another major obstacle is inaccessible provision.

Community’s National Organiser Sidra Nisa said:

“Widening accessibility is very important because of what education does for people, giving them confidence to succeed in our ever-changing world.

“That’s why the union’s new online learning platforms and partnerships with The Skills Network, Wranx and Litmos Heroes have the potential to help the union’s disabled freelancers,” Sidra says.

Sidra said:

“When people are self-employed, taking time out to invest in training may mean passing up the next paid opportunity; and when they have unpredictable work schedules, that makes finding a regular time to take training very challenging.

“But with The Skills Network, they do not need to take time away from work or be at a specific location as it is distance learning that’s complemented by tutor support. And as tutor support is available through email, telephone or meeting face-to-face at a preferred location, that removes barriers for the disabled self-employed.”

Community is already disseminating the findings of the report through the wider trade union movement, starting with a presentation to ULF project managers in the autumn.

Kate points out that:

“Unions have changed working people’s lives for years through the ULF offering training and reaching out to those people who need it the most.

“So unions have a critical role to play in making sure self-employed disabled workers in particular can have access to training and upskill and retrain in ways that will help them make a success of their working lives.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2019 Learning Rep