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More disabled people than ever are going freelance – and being let down by government

Jonathan Lima-Matthews, Public Affairs Manager | IPSE

4 min read Partner content

In the last ten years the number of highly skilled freelancers has grown by half. What few people have realised, however, is the big part disabled people are playing in this, says Jonathan Lima-Matthews, Public Affairs Manager at IPSE.

It’s well-known that there’s a boom in freelancing, with more people than ever before turning to it for freedom and flexibility. In fact, in the last ten years the number of highly skilled freelancers has grown by half. What few people have realised, however, is the big part disabled people are playing in this.

A recent report from IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) has found that today, one in seven self-employed people are disabled. Not only that: in ‘Making self-employment work for disabled people’, we also found this huge and growing group are happier with self-employment. Of the disabled freelancers we spoke to, almost half had been in self-employment more than ten years and another one in five had been freelancing for four to seven years.

Disabled people are freelancing for many positive reasons, including more flexibility, pursuing a passion, improving their self-worth and, of course, having more control over their work. One disabled freelancer we spoke to, Leo, said the fact “you are your own boss is great. It’s probably the greatest positive.”

Many other disabled people are turning to freelancing because they are struggling with 9-5 employment. Owen, a disabled freelance graphic designer, said: “I’m autistic, so I struggled to get a job where it’s people facing. […] Just having a normal job is not something I found easy.”

Other disabled freelancers told us that in their workplaces they encountered a lack of understanding and even stigma about their conditions, as well as inflexibility and inaccessibility. Faced with these barriers, disabled people are striking out on their own and taking ownership of their work through self-employment.

Even when they go it alone in self-employment, however, disabled people are facing challenges they are simply not getting enough support for. Many freelancers mentioned the difficulties they faced trying to set up their businesses, while discussed problems with late payments from clients. Charles, a disabled freelancer working in finance and property, said: “there were times where if we hadn’t been paid in two or three months then we would have started to run out of money and that is very stressful.”

Perhaps most importantly, there are reports of self-employed people struggling to get the financial support they need through the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Many claim the WCA, which is disabled people’s lifeline to vital benefits, does not seem to have been co-designed with disabled people, and therefore misunderstands many conditions and impairments.

Natalie, a disabled freelancer in the creative industries, said: “The actual questions that you fill out are not geared towards people with extreme mental health conditions. And so, therefore, when I applied, I initially got rejected, and it had to go to where an independent person came in.”

There is an excellent government programme to support disabled people in work, the Access To Work scheme (ATW). As well as specialist equipment, mental health support and transport, it also gives people job coaching and training to help them find work.

The only trouble is so few disabled people have heard about it. In fact, for some, the ATW scheme is the best-kept secret in welfare support. Low uptake levels show the government and its agencies simply aren’t doing enough to publicise the scheme. With so many disabled people struggling in their workplaces, this simply isn’t good enough.

The overall picture is one of disabled people turning to the freedom and flexibility of self-employment – but being let down by government support that falls short in some places. And although a step in the right direction, the Prime Minister’s recent disability action plan does not set out any clear actions aimed at disabled freelancers.

To tackle the challenges disabled freelancers still face, our report sets out 17 recommendations for government and industry. These included working with disabled people to revamp the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), doing more to publicise the Access to Work (ATW) scheme (including referrals from GPs) and increasing the New Enterprise Allowance mentoring and benefit support to two years.

If the next government really wants to support the growing number of disabled people striking out on their own in self-employment, it should look to these recommendations. At IPSE, we look forward to working with them.

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