In the wake of the scandal of Lord Freud's comments about wages for disabled workers Graeae Theatre Company have issued a statement on the realities of the impact of the changes in Access to Work and other disability-related employment policies on the work of the company.
Much has been said about Lord Freud’s recent misplaced comments on the net worth of a disabled person to an employer and how the level of pay should reflect that.
Graeae’s position is that the value of the employee is not linked with their disability and that it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that their employment is meaningful to both parties. There should NEVER be a situation in which someone’s value is lower than the minimum wage and this sentiment seems to have received cross-party support.
Assigning disabled people’s NET worth to the direct financial impact they have on an organisation is reductive and at odds with the Government’s drive to support disabled people to re-join the workforce.
We don’t think the government can claim to have removed barriers disabled people face in finding employment. Reforms to disability benefits have been detrimental to disabled people finding work rather than supporting them.
Graeae is providing case studies and statistics to show the negative impact the changes are making to its employees and its charitable output.
Lord Freud’s, David Cameron’s and Esther McVey’s recent comments have all alluded to how in reality lives are changing in a positive way for disabled people. We are led to believe that the disability benefit reforms are ‘looking after disabled people’ and ‘supporting people with disabilities’ and ‘helping disabled people overcome the many barriers they face in finding employment’.
That may have been the intention but unfortunately it is not the reality.
A number of schemes have been affected by Government cuts and policy changes. The three that most directly affect Graeae and its employees are: Disability Living Allowance, Independent Living Fund and Access to Work (ATW). Delays in processing claims, rejected claims and lost paperwork have resulted in un-claimable genuine costs that are so substantial that they have meant individuals have been forced to move and Graeae has needed to cancel work.
Access to Work has enabled Jenny Sealey MBE, CEO of Graeae, to operate professionally. She says:
‘Co-directing the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony was the most extraordinary experience. It would not have been possible without ATW providing a dedicated team of highly qualified sign language interpreters and access workers supporting me as a Deaf woman and supporting my cast of Deaf and disabled professional artists.
The artistic narrative of the London Paralympic Opening Ceremony incorporated The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and when 67,000 people in the stadium sang along to Spasticus Autisticus it felt like the future held great things for Deaf and disabled people worldwide.’
Despite the extraordinary success of the London Paralympics and its opening ceremony, Jenny has had her ATW support cut. Her ongoing interpreter support has been cut by 53% and claims for international projects have been cut by 100%. She responds:
‘Two years on from the Paralympics and I am seriously in fear for my career. The severe cuts in my ATW provisions mean I simply cannot fulfil my job description as CEO / Artistic Director of Graeae.’
Jenny is just one of the eighty Deaf and disabled employees Graeae contracts every year and her story is far from unique. Graeae’s employees are facing delays in the processing of ATW applications of up to eight months - and counting.
The company is currently awaiting decisions on 10 ATW applications, some of which date back to February 2014. It is also disputing a further 4 decisions. The activity for 8 of the outstanding 10 ATW applications has now happened and Graeae has had to incur the cost in the hope that it could be reclaimed.
Graeae has had 4 applications rejected, despite them, on the face of it, falling under Access to Work’s criteria for permitted reclaimable expenditure. Some of these are under review.
Jenny highlights what this means for Graeae:
‘Graeae is the UK’s flagship professional disabled led theatre company and has a growing international reputation. The very real danger is soon we will no longer be able to commit to our mission placing Deaf and disabled people centre stage.’
‘Decisions made now will have a huge impact. If this is allowed to continue we will have to cover all the costs related to meeting people's access needs. Therefore, we would have to reduce our artistic programme by that same amount. Cuts to arts funding across the board mean we can’t feasibly find this money from elsewhere.’
‘I will lose my job, as will other members of our core staff and the company will become non-disabled led and will become disconnected from our core charitable objectives.’
Our message to people wanting to work with Graeae is this:
‘Many people – interpreters, access workers and disabled people - are saying: “I’m really sorry that due to the changes to Access to Work it means that I’m a pain in the arse to employ”. ‘You are not. Graeae wouldn’t have achieved all that it has without the talent of its creative team or the access support team that surround them. You are not just a vital part of the company but core to why we do what we do.’
‘Whenever we offer employment to someone, it is because they are the right person for the job, regardless of their impairment, condition, disability or health. The Access to Work scheme should mean that support costs do not become a discriminating factor between disabled and non-disabled candidates. Our problem is that the changes to this scheme are actively removing employment opportunities for deaf and disabled people across the country.’
Jenny Sealey concludes:
‘At Graeae, we are in turmoil: There is more interest in the company locally and internationally than ever before. Our artistic and training programme remains ambitious but we face a real threat of such ambitions being unrealised because of ATW cuts of up to £125k. The impact of waiting to find out if costs are going to be covered means we are already having to cancel future plans. It makes it impossible to plan as you don’t know where you stand. We are seriously concerned about what the future holds.’