OVER the past few years an extraordinary development has occurred in Ireland, which has gone broadly unnoticed. Tens of thousands of people have left the labour force due to disability. This has occurred despite the fact that the workforce, in general, has become younger and healthier on most measures and despite the fact that there have been significant positive steps towards reducing discrimination against disabled people in the workforce.
However, if you drill down into the numbers, the number of people now registered as disabled or citing a disability as the reason they can't find work has gone through the roof.
What is happening?
These people are not included in the unemployed and they are, in effect, invisible from the statistics.
At the outset let me be clear: I do not know why this is happening. As a general rule, you would expect the proportion of those people who state in surveys that they are disabled would progress in line with growth in the general population.
A huge jump in disability – whether physical or emotional – might come if a country experienced a war or a natural catastrophe like Chernobyl. But nothing like this this has happened here, thankfully.
Yet, since 2006, there has been a 37.7pc increase in the number of people who have left the labour force citing a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities.
This is not people who have been unfortunate enough to be born with a disability, but people who have developed a disabling condition. This means 55,000 people – bigger than Waterford, the country's fifth largest city. Between 2002 and 2006, the same figure only increased by 1pc which is less than 2,000 people.
So what has happened from 2006 to 2012 to cause 53,000 extra people to leave the labour force due to physical disability?
Meanwhile, the number of people leaving the labour force citing a psychological or emotional condition has risen even more dramatically – 88,000 people are now diagnosed with an emotional or psychological condition that is bad enough that they can't work. This is a 27,000 rise from the same figure in 2006.
What has happened in the past few years to explain this dramatic increase?
If we look at the chart – taken from CSO data – which plots the growth in the number of people not working due to disability and the growth in the labour force itself, we see a massive deviation. This began in the late 1990s and has continued throughout the past dozen years.
In all cases, these people drop off the economic and social radar screen and politically only become an issue when something like the cut in the carer's allowance becomes a big budgetary issue.
People on disability don't show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the story of these programmes – who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that – is, to a large extent, an undocumented one.
The question for us is whether our population has become dramatically more unhealthy in the past few years or whether the State has recognised conditions which up until now were not regarded as conditions deemed to make people unfit for work.
These are not frivolous questions because if the answer is the former – that the Irish workforce is becoming more unhealthy – it has enormous implications for the effectiveness of the health system, the ongoing nutrition of the people and the emotional or psychological stability of the nation.
On most metrics, the evidence is that Irish people have become progressively healthier over the past two decades.
In addition, having spent so much money on the health system over the past few years, there are legitimate reasons to ask, if health budgets have gone up, why has the workforce become less healthy?
If, on the other hand, the dramatic rise in people being unfit for work is due to the increase in the diagnosis of heretofore unrecognised conditions that are sufficiently debilitating to prevent people looking for work, the dilemma is what to do to help these people improve their quality of life.
For example, once you are diagnosed with an emotional condition, is that it?
Do you remain out of the workforce indefinitely or are there programmes to treat your emotional and mental health so that you can look for a job again?
Of course, there is also the possibility that some people are seeking to have a condition diagnosed in order to stay on benefits indefinitely and to avoid their long-term benefits becoming conditional on having to go out looking for work.
What is clear from the point of view of society is that people who are unfit for work because they develop an emotional, psychological or physical ailment are an economic resource that needs to be nurtured. It isn't enough to give them a cheque every week and forget about them.
If it becomes clear that some cases are not legitimate and are due to fabricated or exaggerated ailments, then life will be more difficult for people who really are disabled because taxpayers will come to think of all people who are stressed, bullied, immobile or injured as faking it.
Discussions on these issues tend to descend very easily into one side screaming "welfare fraud" and the other screaming "legitimate need". These set pieces rarely produce anything other than reinforcing initial prejudices. However, a reasoned discussion as to why an increasing number of the Irish workforce are deemed unfit to work would seem like a sensible conversation to have.