Essex is championing employment opportunities for people who have a disability and aiming to find jobs for hundreds of residents.
Essex County Council has pledged to become one of Britain’s first accredited employers under the Department for Work and Pensions’ nationwide Disability Confident campaign, and is now challenging other Essex businesses to close the disability employment gap.
The local authority wants disabled people to make up at least 7.5% of the council’s workforce by 2018 – that’s an increase of 200 to 500 employees.
The county’s first candidate, Chelsey Reynolds, impressed so much during three weeks’ work experience at County Hall, Chelmsford, that she secured a full-time role as a communications officer – something she previously thought was out of reach.
The 25-year-old disability equality campaigner and model said:
“In 2011, I was working as a healthcare assistant and training to be a nurse at Broomfield Hospital and all of a sudden I got this condition called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which came out of absolutely nowhere.
“It basically means my blood just isn’t doing its job properly, so when I stand up, no blood goes to my brain and I just pass out. Therefore I have to stay seated all the time so I’m in a wheelchair.
“It was really difficult losing my job. I absolutely loved caring for patients at the hospital and felt I’d found my career, so to lose that at 20-years-old, I just thought ‘what am I about now, what’s the point?’”
She spent four years volunteering at an organisation championing diversity in media and fashion, but desperately wanted a paid role to give her the independence she craved.
“The government has launched a big incentive to get companies to change their culture and employ disabled people, almost as second nature,” added Chelsey.
“The council went out on the UK’s first Disability Confident tour earlier this year to urge the county’s 63,000 businesses to think about hiring disabled people.
“But they wanted to practice what they preached, so they came up with the work scheme.
“The placements are tailored to the individuals, so I wanted something with a communications background and that’s exactly what I got. I was right in the thick of it and I was working with absolutely everybody, so I got a taster of every person’s job, a kind of day-in-the-life experience. It was brilliant.
“It’s been a huge help to me personally. Becoming a wheelchair user with no warning was a huge dent to my confidence, and being undesirable for work because of a disability that wasn’t my fault was absolutely crushing.
“But now I feel super confident and I’ve honed my skills, so I can take them further in my career. If anyone out there is lacking confidence like I was this is perfect.”
For many people with disabilities, the key to independence is overcoming barriers to employment, so while Essex County Council already works with partner Realise Futures and local employers to improve job prospects for disabled candidates, it has now pledged to strive for Disability Confident accreditation too.
The council is set to work with Purple, the legacy organisation of Essex-based disability charity ecdp. Purple offers support to businesses to help them achieve all three levels of the Disability Confident accreditation.
Purple’s CEO, Mike Adams OBE, said:
“I am delighted Essex County Council has taken the decision to become Disability Confident, and will be working with Purple on their journey. We need to change the conversation on disability from one of disadvantage and inequality to one about potential and value, and Essex County Council has a great opportunity to provide leadership on this issue across the county.”
Council chief executive Gavin Jones has been chosen to join the government’s Disability Confident business leaders group to oversee the expansion of the initiative nationwide.
He said: “We’re delighted to be working with Purple to become one of the nation’s leading Disability Confident employers.
“At Essex County Council, we believe in focusing on what people can do, rather than what they can’t. It’s a belief at the heart of our Increasing Independence programme – working with people with disabilities and their families, communities and partners, so that everyone can enjoy the same life aspirations, opportunities and outcomes. I’d urge businesses everywhere to see what they can do to help disabled people build confidence in the workplace.”
There are nearly seven million working age disabled people in the UK, 149,600 of whom live in Essex. Office for National Statistics figures from March show there were 78,700 disabled people in Essex in work – that’s 52.6% of our disabled population.
The Essex unemployment rate for disabled people is 7.6%, considerably less than the 10.1% British average.
The work placements at Essex County Council offer valuable experience and an opportunity to build confidence in the workplace, breaking the vicious cycle that many disabled jobseekers face: unable to get a job due to lack of experience, and lack of experience because they can’t get a job.
To find out what support is available to get into work, visit your local Jobcentre Plus. To enquire about roles at Essex County Council, visit www.workingforessex.com.