An interesting programme began this week on Channel 4 called Benefits Britain 1949 which aims to show how various categories of benefit claimants were treated when the new benefit system came into force in 1949.  The programme aims to provide lessons for today's welfare state which is groaning under the increasing benefits bill.  One category of benefit claimants that was looked at was that of the disabled.  This category was represented in the programme by Craig Newman a 24 year old with spina bifida who despite having applied for over a 1,000 jobs had never worked.  To mimic life in 1949 his television and laptop were taken away and he was given the equivalent amount of cash that he would have received then, an amount much less than he receives today.

In 1944 the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act was created to provide a framework for employment for those people who had become disabled during the second world war.  The country needed to get back on its feet and need every available pair of hands to help it do so.  The government recognised the value that disabled people had, perhaps an idea that has been very much lost in recent years.

The Act established a register of disabled persons, aided them in obtaining jobs through rehabilitation and training, and imposed the requirement that employers of 20 or more people employ a minimum of 3% of disabled persons.  To help secure jobs for persons listed in the register, a specialised employment placement service was created to monitor employment vacancies that could be filled by persons on the register.  A National Advisory Council for the Employment of People with Disabilities was also established.

In 1949 around 94% of disabled people were in employment compared with  2013 where only 46% are employed.  Since the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 the concept of disability has widened to incorporate medical conditions that may not be physically obvious such as cancer, diabetes, depression, etc.  These days 1 in 5 people has a disability – approximately 11 people million with 4/5 not having been born with one.  According to the Office of National Statistics, the most commonly reported conditions are mobility, lifting and carrying.  A quarter of disabled people do not have any qualifications compared to 1 in 10 of the general population.

According to the DWP half of all disabled people can't find work and, of those who are employed, 1 in 2 work in low paid, short term and part time roles.  A disabled man's annual earnings are £1,700 less than his abled bodied comparator and for a disabled woman the gap is £5,000.  Due to low earnings many disabled people live below the poverty line. Attitudes towards disabled people are very negative with many disabled people reporting acts of hostility against them.  This demonstrates lots of discriminatory practice and unacceptable behaviour in the UK.

However given the right support and opportunities disabled people can do well in life.  Statistics show that disabled people in university education are just as likely to achieve good grades as non-disabled students.  In the world of sport Team GB in 2012 brought home 120 medals of which 34 were gold and excelled in horseriding, swimming and athletics.

 In 1949 disabled people who were prepared to undergo training to help them find work received a large sum of money to allow them to do so.  In the programme, Craig was prepared to receive training and was given one day's work experience in a ticket agency call centre.  He appeared to be a natural quickly making his first sale.  Because he did so well on the day he was then offered a permanent job which he was overjoyed about.

Disabled people deserve a chance to work and add to diversity.  Perhaps some simple lessons from the past could help many of them achieve their desired goal.

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