The New Labour government in the United Kingdom led a series of welfare reforms for people with disabilities from 1997 to 2010. These reforms were heavily influenced by neoliberalism, and emphasized that there were 'no rights without responsibilities,' making labor market participation essential. Simultaneously, the recognition of disability rights was growing in the United Kingdom, culminating in the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009. This article explores the tension between neoliberalism and the human rights approach to disability in the context of New Labour's welfare reforms for people with disabilities. The analysis includes the perspectives of people with disabilities and disability stakeholders who participated in focus groups or interviews in an English metropolitan region, and is framed by the principles that underpin the Convention. The article offers policy insights to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are included in future welfare reforms.

Introduction: The Political Context

Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition (Con-Dem) government that assumed power in the summer of 2010 in the United Kingdom, inherited a social context and labor market characterized by the marginalization of many people with disabilities from employment and a high rate of disability benefit recipients. The Con-Dems have proposed a number of further reforms retrenching government benefits, including further changes to welfare to work and eliminating the Disability Living Allowance, which Morris (2011) argues will have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities in terms of funding for services and national and local benefits. The Con-Dems are operating in an international and national environment that has seen significant reforms and trends in two directions: the development of a rights-based approach to disability and the growing influence of neoliberalism on economies and policy. This article is a case study of the New Labour government and its policies that were implemented as that context developed.

The Organization for Economic Operation and Development (OECD) suggest that nations need to adopt reforms that focus on the short-term by retaining, recruiting and/or reintegrating people with disabilities into the labour market. However, nations also need to implement structural reforms that promote a culture of inclusion and focus on capacity (OECD, 2009). These recommendations propose that using active workfare or welfare to work can be effective if implemented in a context that aligns with principles of human rights. This article focuses on recent welfare reform in the United Kingdom (UK) to explore tensions between neoliberal influences on this policy and participants' conceptions of human rights.

Proponents of disability rights and national governments both view increasing labor market participation of people with disabilities as a central goal, albeit for different reasons. From the disability perspective, employment is about rights and participation in society; while for national governments, especially OECD countries, employment is about reducing welfare expenditures and activating beneficiaries. The low labor market participation of people with disabilities is a significant problem in the UK, as is the high level of people receiving disability benefits rather participating in the workforce. There are 10 million people with disabilities in the UK, 7 million who are of working age. Less than half (48.4%) are employed, compared to 79.6 per cent of the rest of the population (28.9% work part-time, compared to 23%) (Office for National Statistics [ONS], 2009). People with disabilities also face disadvantages in income compared to the general population, both in terms of hourly pay (ONS, 2009) and average income levels (OECD, 2007). Reasons for the low employment status of people with disabilities include the low levels of qualifications (ONS, 2009; Thornton, 2003), precarious work positions (Crisp, 2008), and that work and employment is viewed narrowly as consisting of wage labor only (Warren, 2005) focusing on the maximization of profit and competition between individuals (Barnes & Roulstone, 2005).

Both disability rights and neoliberalism have received increased attention in the UK that culminated in the mid-1990s. In 2009 the government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In recent years, New Labour governments implemented a series of neoliberal reforms designed to move people receiving out of work benefits, including people with disabilities, into the labor market. This article considers the development of these areas in the UK and considers empirical evidence collected from focus groups with people with disabilities and interviews with policymakers, employers and a disability stakeholder to explore the tension that exists between neoliberal policy and the human rights approach. The results of this research provide insights into complex policy issues that can be used to ensure new programs are as effective as possible and meet the needs of and align with human rights for people with disabilities.

Disability Rights In The United Kingdom

Under New Labour, people with disabilities in the United Kingdom were protected from discrimination by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 and subsequent amendments (now largely replaced by the Equality Act 2010, except in Northern Ireland). The DDA protected people with disabilities from 'less favorable treatment' in employment (among other areas) and required employers to provide 'reasonable adjustments' for employees with disabilities, depending on their resources (Meager & Hurstfield, 2005). Amendments in 2005 introduced a Disability Equality Duty on public bodies to promote equality in a proactive and mainstreamed way (Baldwin, 2006; Fox, 2007).

Overall, the DDA appears to have little proven impact on the experiences of people with disabilities seeking employment (Bell & Heitmuller, 2009). The unemployment rate remains high and discrimination claims are difficult to win, leading to the conclusion that legislation has done little to relieve disadvantages in the labor market (Meager & Hurstfield, 2005). In general, employers, especially smaller companies, have poor knowledge of their legal obligations (Roberts, et al., 2004; Thornton, 2003). Compounding this, were concerns of the Disability Rights Commission (now replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission) that employment agencies, including Jobcentre Plus, were not promoting awareness of good practices in the DDA (Goodley & Norouzi, 2005).

The United Kingdom ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in June 2009, signifying commitment to the human rights of people with disabilities at a broad level. Ratifying the CRPD and its Optional Protocol means that the United Kingdom has the legal obligation to align domestic legislation with the underlying principles of the CRPD (Lord & Stein, 2008; Melish & Perlin, 2007). New Labour's mantra of 'no rights without responsibilities' creates an interesting case study of the tension between neoliberal welfare reform and this human rights paradigm.

Neoliberal Welfare Reform And The United Kingdom

Neoliberalism challenges the idea of a welfare state and government intervention. The neoliberal approach focuses on promoting the free market and improving the economy rather than securing social rights. As neoliberal governments focus on the economics of social policy debates, "social policy's traditional commitment to altruism, social care and social rights have been relegated" (Tang & Peters, 2006, p. 572). Welfare state retrenchment is a key feature of neoliberal policies, and Korpi and Palme (2003) argue that retrenchment also involves reductions in social rights. For people with disabilities, retrenchment means less expenditure on social service programs, reduced quality of the services that do exist and fewer social rights. Neoliberalism has resulted in the destruction of the prior "divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life, attachments to the land, habits of the heart, ways of thought, and so on" (Harvey, 2006, p. 146). The impacts of the neoliberalism can be summarized by considering that neoliberalism embodies the recommodification of labor; that is, market participation is required for an individual to meet their needs and be considered a citizen. While governments have adopted this approach to varying degrees, individual needs are now the responsibility of the individual and they receive minimal government assistance. Where government assistance does exist it typically offers a minimal amount of protection and has been linked with the labor market through employment-related conditions. Neoliberal approaches require individuals to participate in the labor market in order to achieve a decent standard of living.

In the UK, the election of the New Labour government in 1997, with Tony Blair as Prime Minister, began a series of reforms and reviews of most social programs. The reforms were designed to promote paid employment as the best way out of poverty, especially by making work pay (Sheldrick, 2000; Evans & Millar, 2006). New Labour social policy stressed activation, empowerment and responsibility, which Clarke (2005) argues essentially abandoned the individual and allowed the government to retrench their role in social protection for people who do not participate in the labor market. That is, individual needs have been recommodified so as to be met through participation in the market (Powell, 2008). New Labour typically focused on supply-side programs to activate people outside the labor market, and addressed specific groups of people (Evans & Millar, 2006). As Jessop (2003) notes, these features underscore the neoliberal approach that is inherent in New Labour welfare reform. The primary program for people with disabilities was known as the New Deal for Disabled People (NDDP), in which participants worked with a Job Broker to identify employment goals, receive training, and gain assistance applying for jobs. This program was subsumed by Pathways to Work when the Pathways program was extended nationally in 2008.

Pathways to Work (which ended in 2011) was a broader program designed to increase employment for people claiming disability benefits, operated by public (Jobcentre Plus), private or voluntary organizations. Pathways to Work included NDDP and the Condition Management Programme (CMP), which partnered with local health experts to manage a health condition. In-Work Support was contracted out to providers who may provide mentoring, a job coach, occupational health support, in-depth support, and/or financial advice to people in employment. There is also a little-publicized Adviser's Discretionary Fund that allows advisers to give up to £300 to a participant for employment-related activities. The key feature of Pathways to Work was a series of Work Focused Interviews (WFIs), which all new beneficiaries were required to take part in (anywhere from one to six interviews, depending on their work responsibilities and advisers' recommendations for becoming job ready). The primary goal of Pathways to Work was to reduce dependency on benefits, although an assessment of the pilot areas found that it did not have a statistically significant impact on the number of people who claimed out-of-work disability benefits. It did find that the program increased the probability of working by 7.4 percentage points, though it is unclear what types of employment participants were able to obtain (Bewley, Dorsett, & Haile, 2007).

Pathways to Work operated in conjunction with the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), introduced in the Welfare Reform Bill 2007, which replaced existing benefits and increased the conditions placed on those receiving benefits, including making work-focused interviews mandatory (Chapman-King, 2007). One of the core principles behind these welfare reforms was personalized conditionality, guided by the Work Capability Assessment. People found not to have a disability that limits employment are placed onto Jobseekers Allowance/Income Support, which is the mainstream unemployment protection in the United Kingdom and has strong work-related expectations. People with a disability that limits their work activity can be placed into one of two different groups under ESA: the 'Support Group', who do not have work-related requirements, or the 'Work Related Activity Group'. People in the latter group are expected to attend Work-Focused Interviews (WFI) with a personal adviser. Benefit levels are periodically reduced if a claimant does not meet the agreed responsibilities (i.e. participating in WFIs) without good reason. The Government expects half of all ESA applicants to be denied because fewer people will fail to meet WCA's criteria than under the previous assessments (Piggott & Grover, 2009). It is within the policy context outlined so far that the research was conducted.

Research Methodology

This article draws on the CRPD as a human rights framework in which to assess welfare reform in the United Kingdom. It examines if national legislation aligns with the rights principles contained within the CRPD (i.e. respect, autonomy, non-discrimination, full and equal participation, equality and accessibility). 1 Notably, the CRPD uses the phrase "on an equal basis with others" dozens of times within its articles, which provide focal points that translate into an analytical framework. Assessing policy with respect to the effect and impact it has on equality for people with disabilities highlights how well policies and policy contexts promote human rights. With welfare reform as the policy context, this article focuses on two research questions:

  1. To what extent is a human rights approach to disability evident in neoliberal policy reforms, specifically New Labour's welfare reforms and associated programs for people with disabilities?
  2. What lessons can be learned about balancing rights and responsibilities from the experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities and other stakeholders who are engaged in these reforms and programs?

This approach combines empirical data with policy analysis to address these questions and further explore the tension between neoliberalism and human rights. The empirical data consists of focus groups with people with disabilities (n=15) and interviews with disability stakeholders in the North of England in May and June 2010. The interviews included local and national policymakers (n=4, from both local and national government offices), employers (n=2), and an individual who coordinates a local network of people with disabilities (n=1) (see Table 1 and 2 for detailed de-identified participant descriptions). People with disabilities were recruited using various listservs and posting flyers in conjunction with local disability organizations. 2 The interview participants were recruited using direct contact with local offices, who identified the most appropriate person within the office to participate. The assistance of a local research advisor and his existing connections and contacts facilitated recruitment. The employers represented businesses that had won local awards for hiring people with disabilities recently. Analysis of the data was conducted using ATLAS.TI and coded into core themes, three of which relate to the tensions between rights and responsibilities (national and international human rights, responsibilities of citizens and the government, and welfare to work information), presented below. The analysis proceeds thematically and contains empirical data from each type of participant. Because the qualitative data was collected in one metropolitan region, it is not necessarily representative of England (or the UK) as a whole. The key policies are national and the data illustrates how they have been implemented and experienced locally, but the analysis offers valuable insights into how complex policies impact people with disabilities.


Characteristics of the Focus Group Participants

Abe Male 45 white University degree Deaf None Access to Work Yes
Beth Female 39 white NVQ levels 1 +2 Physical and Visual Disability Living Allowance and Severe Disablement Allowance   No
Cara Female 60 white University degree Physical Disability Living Allowance   yes
Dan Male 50 Indian NVQ level 1 Physical Incapacity Benefit   yes
Erica Female 46 white city and guild english and math Physical Disability Living Allowance   no
Fran Female 38 white GSCE Physical Income Support   yes
Gaby Female 35 white   Physical Disability Living Allowance   no
Hope Female 37 white GCSE ABI Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance   yes
Ian Male 56 white sec. mod Physical Incapacity Benefit   yes
Jan Female 57 white   Physical Disability Living Allowance and Income Support   no
Kate Female 47 white secondary boarding school Physical and mild learning disability Disability Living Allowance and Income Support   Only as a volunteer
Larry Male 57 white MDQ level 1+2 Visual Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance Two local Pathways to Work providers yes
Mike Male 56 white Grammar Physical   Local Pathways to Work provider yes
Nikki Female 34 other finishing PhD program Physical and Visual Disability Living Allowance and Income Support none no
Ron Male 53 Indian University training Visual Employment and Support Allowance Local Pathways to Work provider yes
* Could not attend a focus group, so participated in a one-to-one interview by phone
Blank cells were either withheld or unknown


Characteristics of Stakeholder Interviewees

Alexis Head of HR Strategy Local City Council Employer
Betty HR Manager National Care Home Organization Employer
Carl Head of Commissioning - Adult Social Care Local City Council Policymaker
Darcy Team Leader, Disability Programme Evaluation National Government Department that runs Employment and Benefit programs Policymaker
Ed Head of Analysis, Disability and Work Division National Government Department that runs Employment and Benefit programs Policymaker
Finn Head of Analysis, Disability and Carers Division National Government Department that runs Employment and Benefit programs Policymaker
Gretta Coordinator Local network of people with disabilities Service Provider / Key Informant

Findings And Analysis

Welfare reform communication

One of the main barriers reported in this research centered on communication about welfare to work programs, and in particular the lack of information given to people with disabilities. There was disconnect between policy discourse about welfare to work and informing people with disabilities. Most of the people with disabilities had never heard of welfare to work schemes that were in place, and said that their advisors did not really encourage employment. As one person said, employment advisers felt like they should not 'feed [people with disabilities] the information, because it's too much like hard work' (Fran, female, age 38, physical disability). A number of people with disabilities said that their social workers and employment advisors often encouraged them not to find employment because they did not know how it would impact other parts of their benefits. The lack of this information was a barrier to many people with disabilities: 'It's discrimination when you can't even access what you need from the people around that you can ask. It's this magic person who is never there when you want him' (Jan, female, age 57, physical disability).

People with disabilities noted that if you wanted to find out about government programs you had better go to a government office. A few knew that there were dozens of grants and programs available, but were unsure how to find out where they were. Another person emphasized that they were hard to find and get on 'unless you know the right contact and where to go' (Larry, male, age 57, visual disability). People with disabilities were very cynical about receiving information in general. When asked how they get information about what programs are available to them, one of the people with disabilities responded 'you don't' (Beth, female, age 39, physical and visual disability). Some people with disabilities wanted to receive the information by having the government come and do a session with them or phone them. Others received their information through the Internet, which was described as 'quite liberating' (Abe, male, age 45, deaf).

The information provided in regard to welfare reform was focused on individual responsibility (a key tenet of neoliberalism). While information may be available, especially on the Internet, it largely requires an individual to seek out this information in order to learn about the programs available to them. Access to information is fundamental to human rights, without access to adequate information people with disabilities do not understand how they are impacted by welfare reform or know of opportunities to participate in the market. In order to achieve equality of opportunity, full and effective participation in society, and other human rights principles, better access to information is necessary for people with disabilities. If future governments are sincere about activating people with disabilities and not simply reducing benefit enrollments/expenditures, a collaborative process with and explicit outreach to people with disabilities is needed. These efforts could help to ensure human rights have a place within neoliberal reforms.

National and international rights

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was widely considered by people with disabilities to be an important law that offered a legal means to empowerment and had the potential to reduce barriers. However, they were concerned that business and the general public saw the law as just 'red tape' that has to be 'dealt with', rather than as a fundamental right to ensure access and equal opportunity. Some people with disabilities thought that employers were avoiding conflict by not hiring people with disabilities:

They don't employ as many people with disabilities because they don't want to cause disturbances in the workplace with able-bodied people saying, "why are they getting treated different?"… That's another reason why you find people with disabilities not seeking employment, that sort of discrimination' (Ian, male, age 56, physical disability).

The employers offered a different perspective on their support for hiring people with disabilities and were cognizant that legal measures were not sufficient for changing approaches to employment: 'There's certainly more awareness but … the whole thing is that everyone should be treated the same, and I don't know if we'll ever end up in that ideal world. There shouldn't have to be discrimination laws about everything - it should just happen' (Alexis, employer). Part of the problem with anti-discrimination legislation is that marginalization occurs outside of the workplace, which means legal measures, workplace policies and various systems of support can only go so far. As disability groups and organizations argue, there is a need for change in attitudes towards people with disabilities (e.g. Pillai et al., 2007). People with disabilities suggested that public education might help, especially if it starts at a young age. A widespread public education campaign ("See the Person") did accompany the DDA, though the people who participated in this research did not mention that. As one person with a disability highlighted: 'It [equality for people with disabilities] is not going to happen in our lifetime. I am just being pragmatic, but it is promising because every decade it slowly gets better' (Abe, male, age 45, deaf).

In discussing whether international human rights were as effective as national anti-discrimination legislation in changing discriminatory attitudes, people with disabilities were, overall, critical of the use of human rights in effecting change, wondering 'How far you can actually take human rights?' (Mike, male, age 56, physical disability). Many thought the CRPD was 'just words' which did very little to change anything. People with disabilities did not think that disability, disability rights and other areas of discrimination were a concern within the political processes and one person with a disability pointed out that 'we are in the background' and during the last general election disability was not talked about, while race and immigration were (Larry, male, age 57, visual disability). A policymaker within a national department with a focus on disability reinforced the idea that the CRPD had changed little in the UK: 'I have not identified any shifts in policy; it is reflected pretty well in what we would do anyhow' (Darcy, policymaker).

One employer noted the difference between human rights as a legal measure versus human rights as a set of values: 'Britain probably had quite a lot of legislation already [prior to the CRPD], but whether it had the right cultural context and values are a different thing. I don't think the Convention had an impact on my day-to-day work. For me, it's more about what's right for the city and employer, not because there's international law' (Alexis, employer). Similarly, the policymakers spoke of the aspirational nature of the CRPD, which they believed would only go so far toward making change for people with disabilities. One person noted:

I was involved in working on it when we decided to adopt it and my recollection of it was that there was very little in there that we would not say we aspire to. My personal view was that it wasn't a positive thing because it didn't tell us [within a department on disability benefits and employment] to do things that we didn't want to do, but it was possibly giving us a little more structure or weight to hold us to account (Finn, policymaker).

The tension between disability rights and the business community/employers was evident to people with disabilities, employers and policymakers. The DDA (now the Equality Act) is the main antidiscrimination legislation for people with disability in the UK, but it has had little impact on their employment, overall (Bell & Heitmuller, 2009; Meager & Hurstfield, 2005). The discussion of national and international rights in the UK shows that there is work to be done before the CRPD principle on non-discrimination is fully implemented. The Disability Rights Commission's Disability 2020 (Pillai et al., 2007) argues that, despite the existence of antidiscrimination legislation, people with disabilities still face discrimination on a regular basis, which limits other rights principles like equality of opportunity, accessibility, and full and effective participation and inclusion in society. The research showed that there was little faith that the CRPD would be an improvement, particularly among policymakers, which raises questions about the incorporation of human rights within the neoliberal policy reforms that emphasize 'no rights without responsibilities.' Domestic disability policy remains important and must be effectively implemented and enforced and be effectively woven into new policies, including welfare reform.

Responsibilities of citizens and government

Many of the people in this research spoke about work as being 'what you do' and about 'social norms' of working. The economic and social incentives to work were recognized by policymakers and people with disabilities alike, and there were discussions of how work increases social interaction and helps people feel a part of society. However, one of the concerns when discussing the rights and responsibilities of work was the lack of choice that people face. Many people with disabilities felt that they had very limited choice in the types of work available and who would hire them. This concern raised broader policy questions about the expectations of moving from welfare to a job, rather than being encouraged and supported to move from welfare into a career. People with disabilities felt that the workfare programs were pushing them into 'any work' rather than a career of their choosing. As one participant put it: 'I don't think we have the same choice as an able bodied person. … Other people can go out to work and enjoy what they do, because it's their choice to go into that profession' (Fran, female, age 38, physical disability).

There were also numerous assertions that if people with disabilities were employed then they could help change attitudes and perceptions within the workplace, leading to more choice. This could only happen however, if supported by policy to promote opportunities for people with disabilities. The policymakers in particular, discussed a shift in approaches to disability, which under the new reforms had changed to more of a 'capabilities' approach. They saw this as a renewed focus on identifying what people are able to do, and what kind of support they needed. The Work Capacity Assessment has been redesigned to take a more holistic approach through the Work Capability Assessment, which promotes respect for people with disabilities rather than focusing on their diagnosis (Fox, 2007). Respect for individual differences is a principle under the CRPD, and this change promotes respect for what a person can do rather than what they cannot. Policymakers saw this as a positive approach that embodied both rights and responsibilities, with all of them noting that the principle behind welfare to work is the right to some support, but there are obligations that go with the support. However, the Work Capability Assessment is still a medical assessment that relies on the opinions of medical professionals, which ignores the social model of disability that the CRPD is built on. The assessment may be individualized, but questions remain about how well it respects individual differences.

The policymakers were all aware that income support must be balanced with work, but that people with disabilities needed to be better supported in moving from welfare to work. One policymaker noted that government could do better in 'pushing the idea that if you are capable to work you have a responsibility to do so', however the same person noted the barriers that people with disabilities faced in working: 'Certainly [work] is a right in the sense that somebody who is willing to work and capable of working should not be prevented from doing so … there are far more people who want to work and are somehow being held back from doing it than people who are able to work but make a conscious choice not to' (Finn, policymaker). Clearly, people with disabilities are still prevented from full participation and inclusion in society.

Some people with disabilities saw that it was unfair to have expectations of them, but not for government: 'I think of that as a contractual thing. It takes two to tango. You both have to contribute something. So, I have to be able to say, look I want to be able to work, I want to work, but the government has to do its bit and give me the tools, the support to allow me to work independently' (Abe, male, age 45, deaf). Many people with disabilities believed that there was a need for more 'carrot' and less 'stick': 'There should be some kind of reward for moving forward and perhaps going into work, not the fear of not having any benefits left at the end of it. They should be encouraging you back into work shouldn't they, not scaring you' (Hope, female, age 37, ABI). One policymaker noted that the economy could cause problems with linking rights and responsibilities:

People don't see how we can give a responsibility to work when there aren't really any jobs for them to go into. However, if there's no focus on making sure people are trying to work, you end up so far away… I think by forcing people to do some sort of activity means that people stay relatively close to the job market even if they can't get in it so when opportunities arrive they have as good a chance as anybody else in moving back into the job market (Ed, policymaker).

This emphasizes the presence of neoliberalism in welfare reform. Although policymakers acknowledged that sometimes placing labor market responsibilities on people with disabilities is not always feasible or fair, the neoliberal approach adopted by New Labour encourages that the government move as many people into the labor market as possible. People with disabilities do not have equal opportunity to succeed in this situation, but human rights are subverted to the influence of neoliberal politics. Again, when there are few jobs to begin with, the choices available to people with disabilities regarding participation in the labor market are minimal.

One of the people with disabilities was not against the government emphasizing getting off benefits and into work, 'as long as we are not harassed into having to work. I think I still have a choice to work or not…but it's as if you're being harassed, we want you off your benefits' (Mike, male, age 56, physical disability). This goes back to the role of emphasizing any job possible, rather than one that is chosen, just to move people off of benefits. Ensuring that adequate supports and benefits are in place is essential in this regard and highlights the important role that the government has to create equal opportunities before imposing labor market responsibilities.

The discussions about rights and responsibilities stress that the both government and individuals have responsibilities regarding the employment of people with disabilities. People with disabilities realized that they have the responsibility to work, but the government also has the responsibility to make sure that there are opportunities for them to participate. New Labour typically focused on supply side measures, with little attention given to increasing the demand for people with disabilities as workers (Chapman-King, 2007; Oliver, 1990). These supply-side programs focused on addressing the individual with little regard for the underlying causes of unemployment and barriers within the labor market itself (Baldwin, 2006). The individual focus of welfare reform is indicative of the neoliberal approach to policy adopted by New Labour. That focus is misguided when there are few labor market opportunities to begin with.


The results of the research presented in this article suggest that neoliberal reforms have not aligned with human rights to the extent needed to ensure success for people with disabilities. The reforms serve to normalize people with disabilities into labor market participation and are most effective for those closest to the labor market. Not all people with disabilities were aware of their responsibilities following welfare reform, and they faced contexts with existing challenges to their rights and limited labor market opportunities.

As Cameron and the Con-Dems continue welfare reform and replace New Labour programs, including Pathways to Work, indications are that they will continue active workfare and further retrench social rights in the UK. Morris' (2011) assessment that retrenchment is having and will continue to have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities, makes efforts to better include rights-based practices in neoliberal reforms more urgent than ever. It was widely acknowledged that the DDA has not had a positive impact on the overall labor market participation of people with disabilities, but people with disabilities, employers, and policymakers in this research did not believe that the CRPD would have an impact on policy in the UK. The growing number of beneficiaries has relegated the concerns of disability rights so 'no rights without responsibilities' guides policy related to welfare reform. Understood on the individual level (the level that New Labour intended), rights and assistance from the state was dependent on individuals fulfilling their responsibility of labor market participation.

Newer efforts could take a broader view and look beyond the individual as the cause of unemployment and consider wider structural and market-based barriers. People with disabilities in this research understood their responsibility to work, but they also understood that the government had responsibilities too. The perspectives offered by people with disabilities and related stakeholders in this research highlight lessons that can be learned so that the principles of the CRPD can be better included within welfare reform. These suggest that 'no rights without responsibilities' can also be understood in terms of the government's responsibility. People with disabilities will find it difficult to achieve human rights unless government also fulfills its responsibilities. First, people with disabilities emphasized the importance of adequate and accessible information on welfare reform so that people with disabilities can understand how reforms will impact them. Government offices and policymakers should take care to ensure that reforms are communicated to people with disabilities and that people with disabilities understand how they will be impacted. The role of choice is important, but people with disabilities have very little room to exercise choice within current welfare reform. People with disabilities felt that they did not have the same choices that people without disabilities had with regard to opportunities in the labor market and many of the reforms were punitive and forced them into the labor market.

A related responsibility for the government is to address the labor market itself. In an economy that already has a limited number of job openings, placing labor market expectations on people with disabilities may be unrealistic. The government could pay additional attention to the demand-side of the market and try to open up new opportunities for people with disabilities. This aligns with the OECD (2009) recommendation that future reform should also include structural reforms to promote a culture of inclusion and focus on capacity.

It remains to be seen whether neoliberal contexts can incorporate human rights for people with disabilities, and this research has shown some (but not all) of the challenges faced in these contexts. The 'mutual obligation' focus used in Australia is a similar 'active' approach to that used by New Labour and allows people with disabilities to continue to receive benefits for participating in volunteer work or training to a greater extent than in the UK. However, the focus is still on promoting full-time work for the most 'able' people with disabilities. Other countries have made exceptions to neoliberal reforms that the UK could consider within their practices in order to account for the inequalities that people with disabilities face. Notably, volunteer experiences and/or education or training are more valued as worthy alternatives to full-time work in countries like Denmark. The Danish 'flexicurity' model with its unique blend of labor flexibility and security provisions for citizens may be a viable alterative for engaging people in the market to the extent possible. These, and other, policy alternatives should be considered as governments look to promote human rights within welfare reform, specifically activation policies. A sole focus on neoliberal efforts may ignore cultural and structural changes needed for reforms to be successful.


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  1. This research is part of a larger cross-national comparative research project to be published elsewhere. The data reported here are specific to one aspect of the data collection and analysis in England (rights and responsibilities).

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  2. It was assumed that recruiting from these organizations would capture local advocacy viewpoints, and although the individual who coordinates a local network did represent this stakeholder group to an extent, the views of local advocacy groups are underrepresented in the qualitative data.

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Copyright (c) 2012 Randall Owen, Sarah Parker Harris

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