Awareness of the Access to Work scheme – which provides grants to support disabled people in the workplace – needs to be increased, experts have said, after the government raised the cap on funding by around £15,000 yesterday (20 March).
Access to Work is a publicly funded employment support programme set up to provide funds to help more disabled people start or stay in work. But in October 2015, the government introduced a cap on the annual grants available per person, meaning that many disabled workers – many of them deaf – saw their annual grant on disability-related work support fall to £43,100.
Yesterday, this move was reversed and, from April, the annual cap on the grant will return to £57,200, and will be up-rated annually on that basis, the government said.
“With the disability employment gap as wide as it is, any rise in Access to Work grants is welcome news in terms of helping people obtain the adjustments and support they need,” said Bela Gor, head of campaigns, resources and legal at the Business Disability Forum.
“However, Access to Work has been described as the government’s ‘best kept secret’, and there needs to be more promotion of the scheme among employers.
“By the same token, employers need to be equipped to help employees effectively access this important source of support.”
Access to Work is a discretionary grant scheme that can be accessed for personalised support by disabled people who are in paid employment or the self-employed. Apprentices, trainees, supported interns, those on self-directed work experience or Jobcentre Plus-promoted work trials, or individuals attending a job interview can also all apply under the eligibility criteria.
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled employees. The support provided by Access to Work covers interventions that go beyond this duty, and grants are assessed on an individual basis.
The definition of disability for the purposes of the Access to Work scheme follows that set out in the Equality Act. It defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
The type of help and adaptations that are available under the scheme include a communicator, a support worker, specialist equipment, help towards taxi fares – if the individual cannot use public transport – and support through Access to Work’s dedicated Workplace Mental Health Support Service.
Despite the wide range of support available through this scheme, many employers are unaware of it. Access to Work may also help employers to avoid disability discrimination in the workplace.
“There is still a significant number of employers, particularly SMEs, that are not aware of the valuable support that Access to Work can provide to help them tap into the valuable talent and skills of people with a disability and/or long-term health condition,” said Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD.
“We know from our research that those employers that have used the service have found it to be very helpful, so we encourage government to work with business to promote the scheme more widely.”
The £15,000 rise in the Access to Work cap has been widely welcomed. Disability Rights UK said it was pleased that the government had listened to the experiences of deaf people who need to access British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters to carry out their employment duties.
The highest-value grants awarded under Access to Work are predominately used to purchase human support, often by deaf people. Previously, some BSL users were said to be detrimentally affected by the lower grant cap, and the new higher rate should go towards reducing this disadvantage.
But Disability Rights UK remained concerned that the cap needed to be more flexible. “While it is sufficient for most disabled people, we think that flexibility is needed particularly regarding self-employed disabled people who may need expensive equipment to remain in employment,” said a spokesperson. “It should be possible for the cap to be exceeded in exceptional circumstances.”
Suff added: “Most adjustments needed by people with a disability are relatively inexpensive, which many employers do not realise.
“However, we recognise the concerns of some disability charities that more flexibility in the amount available would better support those individuals who have greater support needs and where the adjustments required could vary year on year.”
The cap on Access to Work grants was originally introduced in March 2015 to encourage “better use of public funds” and to enable or stretch the previous Access to Work funding over a wider number of people.
In her written ministerial statement, the secretary of state for work and pensions, Esther McVey, said: “The principle of the cap is sound, balancing the need to provide support to the largest number of people, and at a significant level for some, with the need to make the best use of public funds.”
Disabled workers can apply for an Access to Work grant online. Employers are expected to pay a proportion of the costs – how much depends on the size of the organisation – if the employee in question has been in their role for six weeks or more when they first apply.
Guidance for employers about Access to Work is also available.