A government scheme to turn empty retail units into employment hubs for the disabled

The empty shops that now line our high streets, with more certainly to come before this pandemic is over, are a source of despair to retailers who have lost their livelihoods, and of concern and disappointment to shoppers and citizens, threatening individual and societal wellbeing. However, might there be an opportunity not only to provide employment for people with disabilities, but also to regenerate our high streets? Most people with disabilities want to work; they are held back because they cannot find suitable jobs. Although the number of people with disabilities in work has been steadily rising since 2013, they are still far less likely than their non-disabled peers to be employed. The so-called disability employment gap in the UK is currently 28.1%. Unfortunately, government plans to launch a national strategy for disabled people during 2020 have been put on hold due to the crisis. Existing support strategies include Access to Work support for individuals; the Disability Confident scheme for employers; the Work and Health programme; and forms of personalised employment support. Although all have laudable aims, and some successes have been reported, a significant impetus is needed to address the scale of the problem that will be facing us post-COVID. My solution is this: use the empty shops to create retail outlets such as shops, bakeries and cafes to provide employment and work experience opportunities for people with disabilities. There are presently many inspiring examples around the four nations of individual charities and social enterprises that run repair shops, garden centres, cafes or retail outlets employ people with disabilities. These provide people with valuable training and development along with employability skills in a nurturing environment where tasks can be tailored to people’s abilities, creating a sense of meaning, purpose and achievement. These can act as a springboard for employment in mainstream organisations for those who wish to go down this route, or provide a more long-term employment solution. Unfortunately, these examples remain isolated and piecemeal, with no central organising forum, underlying principles, or source of funding. Many small, local charities and care providers may well be interested in creating such opportunities for their clients and service users, but lack the knowledge, time and resources to set something up. My proposal is to establish a new government-funded scheme that provides grants, incentives and information to organisations seeking to set up outlets in vacant retail units aimed at employing individuals with disabilities. These might be taken up by, for instance, smaller care providers who provide supported living to individuals with a range of different needs. These outlets could include cafes or bakeries selling bread, cakes and biscuits made by people with disabilities; shops selling crafted products made by people with disabilities and/or local makers; repair shops; garden centres – whatever is most relevant to local individuals and communities This scheme could be run in collaboration with local authorities and relevant charities, to ensure that local needs are addressed and support is available on the ground. Such a scheme would help to address changing consumer priorities as well as the disability employment gap; it would assist in revitalising high streets and local economies, and foster better integration of disabled people within their local communities.




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