Disabled people in Hertfordshire are twice as likely to be employed as disabled people in Liverpool.

The benefits of renewed growth and rising employment are not being felt by everyone. Despite almost a million extra people being in work over the past year, the number of disabled people in employment has fallen by nearly 30,000.

A significant proportion of the four million disabled people who aren’t working would like a job: a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found disabled people were three times more likely than others to be “lacking but wanting work”. Yet fewer than half of disabled people are employed, compared with nearly 80% of non-disabled people. This stubborn gap represents over two million individuals currently deprived of the opportunity to reach their potential and gain independence through work.

Society as a whole suffers as a result, with social inclusion stunted and huge economic potential overlooked: the Social Market Foundation estimates that raising disability employment to Liverpool city centre the national average would boost the UK economy by at least £13bn.

Yet, beneath the national figures there is a complex picture of wide local variation that must be addressed. Research by Shaw Trust shows that on a local enterprise partnership (LEP) level, disability employment rates range substantially: from 24% in the Liverpool LEP area to 52% in Hertfordshire.

Some of this local variation corresponds with general local labour market conditions. At the bottom of the scale are several areas with traditionally fewer job vacancies than the national average, such as the north-east LEP region. However it is striking that many areas don’t fit the pattern. The Oxfordshire LEP area, for example, has a higher overall employment rate than its immediate neighbour Buckinghamshire Thames Valley, yet its employment rate of disabled people is 12% lower. And while Cumbria LEP area has an overall employment rate in the top third of LEP areas, it has the fourth lowest disability employment rate in England.

How can we explain these differences?

The ONS Life Opportunities Survey highlights that a lack of confidence, low skill levels, transport issues and individuals’ health problems all act as significant barriers preventing more disabled people from working. However, at present we can only speculate as to how these barriers impact at a local level, with very little research published by local authorities or LEPs. This lack of understanding prevents local gaps in employment between disabled and non-disabled people from being bridged. Direct consultation with disabled people and service providers, conducted by councils and LEPs, is clearly needed to determine where to focus efforts.

With local powers over skills and employment expanding at pace, there is now a major opportunity to improve outcomes for disabled people across the UK. It is crucial that LEPs and local government leaders closely analyse the needs of their disabled residents and introduce targeted interventions to help more individuals into work.

Build on good practice

One-to-one support from a personal adviser, social enterprises as intermediate labour markets, and supported employment models all show strong potential for improving services. Shaw Trust Enterprises Hampshire, for example, provides disabled people with paid work placements, training and personalised support at two local horticultural centres, helping participants to progress into sustained employment. But this is just one example: evidence on what works in different areas remains too limited, with more research and evaluations needed.

Most importantly, access to specialist support for disabled people must increase. We still spend over 20 times more on out of work disability benefits than on specialist disability employment support (£8bn and £350m respectively), while a recent study by Inclusion found fewer than one in 10 disabled people without a job are receiving support through the government’s main back to work programmes.

Wide variation in the employment rates of disabled people across the UK shows the urgent need for new local interventions to complement national programmes. As local areas are empowered to drive social inclusion and local economic growth, action to support more disabled people into work must be at the heart of their plans.

Gemma Hope is head of policy and research at Shaw Trust, a national back to work charity. Sam Boyd is a policy and research officer at Shaw Trust.

The Guardian