25 Nov 2014 UK Disability History Month Blogs 2014: Disability and Employment: Reconciling the Irreconcilable? - Georgia Burdett


Much of Anne Borsay’s work was driven by a heightened sense of social justice, and an underlying commitment to equality for all. It is not surprising then, that one of the many things she wrote so very astutely about, was the subject of disability and employment. Some of her views on this can be elicited from her pioneering work, Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750, first published in 2005. Indeed, ten years later, in the aftermath of Lord Freud’s recent controversial questioning of disabled people’s very basic human right to the minimum wage, Anne’s words remain incredibly pertinent:


The Disabled Persons Act of 1944 was perceived as bestowing upon disabled people the right to engage with the labour market and consequently achieve full citizenship. However, the act embodied the division between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ workers.


It would seem that ever since, disability has been somewhat irrecoverably associated with unskilled work, and with employment rehabilitation centres that are orientated towards settling disabled people in manual jobs. Historically, policy has concentrated on finding fitting individuals to carry out jobs and compensating employers for taking them on.


Protesters against the planned closure of a Remploy site.

[Protesters against the planned closure of a Remploy site. Photo: Roger Blackwell on Flickr.]


In my own research on literary and cultural representations of disability in contemporary Wales, I looked closely at the prospect of securing alternative employment for disabled miners. As you might imagine, such opportunities were slim, but where they could be found, the productivity of disabled miners was closely monitored. In 1949 a study was commissioned by the government in order to ascertain the efficiency of groups of ex-miners disabled by pneumoconiosis who were then employed in the very few ‘light labour’ industries in South Wales. It was hoped that the findings would encourage more employees to provide work for these afflicted men.  J. A. P. Treasure found (PDF) that such a study was difficult to conduct, not least because the efficiency of most types of labour (including coal mining) is measured directly by output. As most of the disabled men in his study were employed in light labour, store keeping and the like, they were seen as only ‘indirectly productive’. Consequently his work revolved around less-obvious measures of ‘efficiency’, including: absence from work, labour turnover, and accident rate. There is of course no necessary correlation between absence and efficiency on the job but the two are probably inversely related.

The most fascinating component of Treasure’s study, however, are the comments collated from a questionnaire that he issued to various employers of disabled ex-miners in South Wales, inviting them to comment on any aspect of these employees’ performance.  For example, the manager of a factory in Porth employing three disabled miners provided pleasantly surprising feedback:


We would like to say most emphatically that these men show, in our opinion, a greater amount of keenness and interest in their work than normal men, and are most satisfactory employees in all respects.


So far, so good. However, the employers cited in Treasure’s study are shown to be particularly concerned about notions of ‘lost time’ that are accumulated by their disabled workers. Whereas one factory in Trefforest believed ‘the time lost to be practically nil’, another in Carmarthen reported that ‘the tendency was definitely more’. Overall, the survey showed average late-coming and sickness with no wanton absenteeism. One manager spat venomously that a number of his disabled employees ‘could be more gainfully employed if they could get over the fact that they are permanently ill!’

Aside from Treasure’s report, the South Wales Miners’ Library in Swansea has archived many pamphlets from the 40s and 50s about the formalities of employing disabled people, the claiming of ‘disablement’ benefits, and one very curious document published by The British Epilepsy Association in 1953. This pamphlet is much concerned with the impact and social consequences of having an epileptic fit in the workplace, saying: ‘If [a man’s] fits are infrequent or mainly nocturnal, shall he hide his disability when he presents himself for employment in the hope that he will not have a fit while at work? If this should happen, will he get the sack?’ The text goes on to express the need for more employers to be willing to employ epileptics on ‘safe’ jobs and to reserve such work for them, before listing some of the thoroughly condescending tasks that ‘epileptics can usually manage successfully’. For example: ‘French polishing, coach cleaning, store keeping and market gardening.’ Women with epilepsy are said to be capable of working in various types of domestic work ‘in hostels or hospitals.’ We are still only one generation removed from the widespread publication and dissemination of such disability-damning statements.

While the ableism, arrogance, and ignorance displayed in some of the above historical sources seems outrageous, it must be noted that even today there are marked divergences of opinion surrounding the employment of disabled people, not least within the disability rights movement itself. Such arguments normally revolve around issues of segregation from or integration with the nondisabled workforce. Nowhere can this opposition be illustrated more clearly than in the recent arguments around the closure of the Remploy factories in Abergavenny, Caerphilly, Cwmbran, Ebbw Vale, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Ystradgynlais between 1946 and 2013. When the last site closed, in a switch from ‘sheltered’ workshops to integrated support for people with disabilities in mainstream employment, the decision was polemically interpreted by localised disability groups, seen either as a long overdue progression from paternalist attitudes towards disability and work, or an unforgivable betrayal of people who were unlikely to find work anywhere else. What is clear that in a culture of continuing austerity where as few as 1 in 10 people with a learning disability have any kind of paid employment (a statistic that includes those working as little as one hour per week), and only 1 in 50 earn a ‘living wage’, the fight for employment equality for people with disabilities is nowhere near over. Not only was Anne Borsay one of the first to negotiate the historical and contemporary complexities of this issue in great depth, she was also one of the first to make these findings accessible to a non-specialist readership. For that reason (amongst many others) disability studies scholarship and the movement itself will forever be in her debt.


Georgia Burdett recently submitted her PhD at Swansea University on Cultural Representations of Disability in Contemporary Wales.


Further reading


Guest post for Disability and Industiral Society's UK Disability History Month Blogs 2014.