Working for all?

Experiences of employment support amongst disabled people with high support needs

This research paper is designed to be part of the evidence base that informs the Improving Lives Green Paper consultation and the Government’s subsequent work in this area. It should also assist employers, managers and colleagues to utilise the full potential of the workforce and their existing employees, as well as highlight areas of improvement in the delivery of employment services.

Employment support can enable disabled people to overcome the barriers relating to employment. In our research we look at support across three areas of the employment cycle:

  • Securing work
  • Staying in work
  • Progressing in work

This research focuses on the 18 per cent of working age disabled people who have the highest support needs. This is not a homogenous group, but consists of people with a variety of support needs and aspirations for work, and a common finding has been the need to acknowledge this and provide personalised support that accommodates this.

This group typically consists of those who are furthest away from the workplace, but many of whom are keen to enter work. The group represents around 1.4 million people, of which 1.1 million are out of work. A significant subset of these people are not — and may never be — in a position to work. However we know that three in 10 (over 300,000 people) would like to work, and that barriers and a lack of support are preventing many from doing so.

Our research is based on in-depth qualitative interviews with 25 disabled people with high support needs and quantitative analysis of the Life Opportunities Survey. Our key findings are:

Support into Work

3 in 10 disabled people with high support needs who aren’t working want to work.

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

Most disabled people with high support needs are placed within the Support Group of ESA. However the restrictions and expectations within this group do not reflect the diversity of expectations, experiences, and type of support disabled people in this group have in relation to work.

Some disabled people in the ESA Support Group are positive about not being mandated to do work-related activity. However, there are others who do want to work but feel ‘written off’ by employment advisers, as well as those who do ‘permitted work’ but are financially disincentivised to increase working hours.

Support with moving towards work

Information and advice can assist job seekers to secure employment. However poor quality information and advice and a lack of understanding from employment advisers about high support needs are acting as barriers to securing positive outcomes in employment.

Support works best when it is personalised, sustained and relevant to a person’s skills, support needs, experience and goals. When this does not happen disabled people with high support needs are more likely to become disengaged from the support available and the process of finding a job.


Employers can also create barriers to securing employment. Recruitment is positive when employers are aware of a person’s support needs and are proactive about ensuring support measures have been implemented prior to interviews. There is a perception among some people that disclosing their disability will negatively affect their chance of securing a job and are reluctant to request in-work support until after employment has been secured.

Support while in work

Employed disabled people with high support needs are three times more likely to stop working compared to non-disabled people.

In-work support

In-work support, such as flexible working or specialist equipment, can help remove barriers at work. This support can be accessed through ‘workplace adjustments’ and Access to Work, a Government scheme which enables disabled people with high support needs to manage the extra costs associated with working.

Access to work

Access to Work is well suited to making one-off purchases and regular, pre-planned support. However, it is too inflexible to adequately administer ad-hoc and fluctuating support arrangements and does not respond to the agile working lives of disabled people with high support needs, particularly those who are self-employed or freelance.

Attitudes to an inclusive workplace

Employers play a key role in implementing in-work support measures. Managers who acknowledge the value of disabled employees are more likely to ensure that support arrangements are properly implemented, therefore removing barriers to staying in work.

Negative attitudes can lead to poor implementation of support measures or even no implementation at all. It can also lead to ‘othering’ of disabled people with high support needs. Where this happens, disabled people are missing out on or being denied access to the support necessary to do their job and are more likely to move out of work.

Support to progress in work

One in five disabled people with high support needs feel they have been denied a promotion in workdue to their impairment.

Employment support is typically focused on the short term goal of getting disabled people with high support needs into work with less focus on long term support that facilitates career development.

Continuity of support

Support measures need to be continuous and regularly evaluated and readjusted to match support needs, particularly for those who are progressing in a career and changing offices, locations and personnel.


Disabled people with high support needs are more likely to feel discriminated against in areas relating to career progression such as the responsibilities they are given, transfers and promotion opportunities. This can result in people not progressing in their career, changing employment sectors to secure opportunities or stopping work altogether.