Sean Fitzsimons is responsible for coordinating Disability Action’s Employment Advocacy Service. He works across Northern Ireland with a wide range of employees and employers. He also sits on Disability Action’s Policy Committee and plays a key role in writing and shaping Organisational Policy positions that respond to/reflect the issues that affect over 100 member organisations. Sean is passionate about positively challenging the barriers that disabled people face within society.

Employment – The Right to Work

Despite being enshrined in Art. 27 of the UNCRPD, many disabled people continue to struggle to gain, retain and progress in meaningful employment. This struggle arises primarily as a result of entrenched societal barriers that have been constructed over not mere decades but centuries. Broad public perceptions around disability continue to be tainted by a fear of the unknown. At times deliberate misinformation and widespread misunderstanding continue to enforce an unwritten ‘closed door policy’ to disabled people in a fragmented, competitive and swiftly changing labour market.

Despite these challenges, disabled people continue to break down the barriers, gain their rightful place in the workplace and progress. Those that manage to achieve these things however are very clearly a minority. There has consequently been widespread growing acknowledgement and acceptance of the ‘disability employment gap’ in the UK at both local and national level. In the wider UK context ‘Ahead of the Arc – A contribution to halving the disability employment gap’ by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability unflinchingly referred to the “institutional disabilism” within both the public and private sector. In NI the disability employment gap remains stubbornly high at 42% - a trigger for ‘Supporting Equality through inclusive employment. An employment strategy for people with disabilities’an ambitious blueprint for local government to ‘enable’ and ‘empower’ disabled people to achieve career ‘ambitions and aspirations’ which are the same as everyone else’s.

While there are many noteworthy proposed solutions to close this gap, it is imperative that one key principle is present in them all - coproduction.

In order to effectively address the challenge, we must look at all the programmes, supports and assistance already in place and ask to what degree are disabled people involved in the design, production and delivery of each? 

Experiential expertise is one key element of coproduction. Alongside this accessibility, collaboration and shared goals, the equalising of power relations and impact are also vital.

It is critical that we as individuals, organisations, national and international bodies – look at our efforts and ask is coproduction really our aspiration? Are we delivering services on to disabled people, are we loosely consulting with disabled people? Or are the services truly ‘by and for’ disabled people?

Failure to move towards coproduction, no matter how ‘well intentioned’ or funded will inevitably in the longer term simply create another barrier, adding to the multitudes already placed in front of disabled people as they stride towards equality and full inclusion in the workplace.

Sean Fitzsimons
Employment Advocacy Officer