Improving access to work

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2010

Employment Studies Issue 11

Ceri Williams and Sara Dewson

Ceri WilliamsThe Access to Work programme (AtW) has been operating in the UK since 1994 and is designed for people with long-term health conditions and impairments who require additional support to take up work or to do their job. It aims to reduce inequalities between disabled people and non-disabled people in the workplace by removing practical barriers to work. Funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and administered by Jobcentre Plus, the AtW programme can pay towards the following types of help and provision:

  •  special aids and equipment to overcome disability-related barriers in work
  • adaptations to premises and equipment
  • Travel to Work (TtW) grants to meet the additional costs of getting to and from work for people who are unable to use public transport
  • support to help disabled people to do their jobs
  • communication support at interview
  • other miscellaneous expenditure items.

Importantly, AtW is intended to supplement rather than replace any reasonable adjustments made by employers, in line with the Disability Discrimination Act. In some cases, employers share the costs of help provided by AtW, and particularly so in the case of special aids and equipment, and adaptations to premises and equipment. The DWP commissioned IES to undertake a qualitative evaluation of AtW provision. The research project had three strands:

  • an overall evaluation of AtW – the core evaluation
  • an exploration of the effects of the decision that, from 2006, Ministerial Government Departments should fund adjustments to support disabled employees from their own budgets, rather than from the AtW budget
  • an assessment of how individual budgets, AtW and the provision of employment-related support were working together.[1]

This article presents the findings from the core evaluation and the ministerial government departments strand.

Core evaluation

The main aims of the core evaluation of AtW were: to examine disabled people’s experience of AtW, to examine the level of service they received, explore how AtW was being administered, and to examine the issue of deadweight and identify areas where the service could be improved.

IES carried out in-depth interviews with a range of stakeholders including: AtW recipients and their employers, Jobcentre Plus staff, and AtW assessment providers.

AtW recipients had found out about the programme from a number of different sources, including friends, family, colleagues, employers, Jobcentre Plus advisers and literature, and from charities and disability organisations. There was no evidence to suggest that disabled people found out about AtW in any systematic way – rather, they often felt they found out about AtW by accident. Few employers had heard of AtW unless one of their employees had made an application for support. Further, awareness of AtW was patchy within Jobcentre Plus, particularly among generalist front line staff.

Overall, disabled people and other stakeholders were positive about the AtW application and assessment processes. However, it was sometimes difficult to categorise or explain impairments, and there were also difficulties with standardised application forms and the time taken to complete the application process and get support in place. AtW staff were also concerned about delays in putting support into place as this was often beyond their control: in a lot of cases, employers are (ultimately) responsible for purchasing support and delays in the procurement process mean that disabled employees have to wait longer for the support to be put in place.

Outcomes and impacts

AtW recipients were generally happy with the range of AtW support put in place, and reported reduced levels of sickness absence and being able to stay in work as two of the key impacts. Employers also reported that AtW had helped them to gain a better understanding of the needs of disabled employees, had improved employee wellbeing, increased productivity, and improved staff retention and the ability to recruit disabled people.

The research also examined the issues of additionality and deadweight in relation to AtW funding – ie the extent to which support would or would not have been provided in the absence of AtW. It found that this depended largely on the type of support provided: travel to work grants seemed to offer the greatest additionality. Partial deadweight seemed much more common than full deadweight, with employers saying they would have put the support in place if AtW was not available but it would have been of a lower quality than that provided by AtW and would have taken much longer to put in place.

There was general widespread support for increasing awareness of AtW amongst disabled people and employers by improving marketing materials and making information about the programme more widely available. It was also suggested that application forms should be available in alternative formats. In addition, the research highlighted the need for improved communication between AtW staff, recipients, employers and assessors, together with the provision of interim support measures, to minimise the risk of delays in support.

Ministerial government departments (MGD)

The MGD strand of the evaluation explored the effects of the decision that MGDs should directly fund workplace support for their own disabled staff, instead of using AtW. The decision followed recommendations made in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit report Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People, published in January 2005, which stated that the public sector had a role in promoting employment opportunities for people who were socially excluded, including disabled people, in order to promote regeneration and social justice. Central government departments were charged with covering the costs of AtW-type support from their own expenditure baselines and freeing-up additional funds for disabled people working in small and medium sized businesses. The research was designed to explore disabled employees’ experiences of accessing support through MGDs, examine how MGDs had chosen to provide support to their employees, and identify areas for improvement.

IES carried out in-depth interviews with four groups of stakeholders: human resources (HR) managers in all MGDs, disabled employees (most of whom had been in receipt of AtW before the transfer and continued to work in the MGD), line managers of disabled employees, and trades union representatives.

Most disabled employees knew in advance that funding arrangements for in-work support were going to change and all continued to receive their support once the MGDs assumed responsibility (although a few experienced some delays). Although most MGDs were aware of changes prior to them taking effect, many HR managers felt they lacked the time to implement alternative systems and data protection issues made it difficult for them to identify staff in receipt of AtW to assist a smooth transition.

The types of in-work support provided by MGDs after the change were the same as under AtW and information on how to access support was usually available on internal intranet systems. However, the research found no standardised procedures for making decisions on what support to provide to disabled employees and decisions seemed to be made on a case-by-case basis. Funding models for in-work support were either centralised (with budgets usually held by central HR departments) or decentralised (with line managers or business units). Some questions were raised about the consistency of decisions made between and within MGDs, and a few disabled employees were starting to experience problems with funding for their ongoing support needs at the time of the research.


The research made a number of recommendations for improvements to the funding of in-work support in MGDs, including: issuing comprehensive advice and guidance to MGDs on how and when to support disabled employees in the workplace, improving the consistency of decision-making within and between Departments, and improving awareness of in-work support for disabled staff.

 Footnote [back]

[1] Individual budget pilots were set up in 13 areas to enable recipients of social care to directly fund their care needs. See Evaluation of Access to Work: Individual Budget Pilot Strand report.

For more information on this work, please contact Jim Hillage at IES.