People with learning disabilities can and do work

It was with some disbelief that I read about the case of a man in Wigan with learning disability who had his benefits cut because he was late for an appointment despite not being able to tell the time.

The reported response from one MP? That people like him needed to learn “the discipline of time-keeping” and suggested the education system needed to improve to cure the constituent’s learning difficulties.

This was quickly followed by the report published by Dimensions, a care provider that says in a poll of one hundred MPs, that 60% believe that people with learning disabilities can’t work.

That disbelief quickly turns to frustration do these MPs not know that thousands of disabled people do in fact have the potential to be hard working and enthusiastic employees, bringing new skills, talents and perspectives to employers? Don’t they know that with a bit of support, a few adjustments or technical adaptations everyone can work? They should.

Whilst the rate of employment amongst disabled people is acutely low at around 50%, people with learning disabilities are disadvantaged even further, with approximately 7% in paid work. Yet employment is an ideal way to ensure that people with learning disabilities contribute, are included and are valued by society. It offers the opportunity for people the ‘chance to get on, with the dignity of a job’ as the new Government promises. This is why at the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities we run several projects with the aim of increasing the number of people with learning disabilities in paid employment.

One such research project we are involved in at the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilties is with partners at Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan Universities. Entitled Big Society? Disabled people with learning disabilities and civil society, it's funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and clearly shows that people with learning disabilities can and do work.

Take for example, Charlie, a learning disabled man in his fifties. Charlie works five days a week for the city council meals service. He undertakes a range of tasks there from marking up the delivery boards for the drivers, to being responsible for the recycling as well as a host of other office tasks. When Charlie got the job at the meal’s service, he went for a ‘working interview’ this meant he had a work trial, trying out the tasks in order to secure the post. Crucially, he was also supported by a job coach: a person who specialized in supporting people with learning disabilities into employment. Charlie’s job coach helped Charlie in his first few weeks in his new job, supporting him to learn new tasks as well as the workplace culture. Charlie has been working at the meals service for seven years; he was forty-seven when he got his first paid job.

Charlie’s story not only shows that with the right support, people with learning disabilities can work, but also that low expectations and a lack of appropriate support means that many people who can work are excluded from the labour market.

In the early days of the new government, reports are already emerging that Access to Work which offers disabled people financial help with workplace adaptations, personal aids (e.g. seats, reading machines), job coaches, and money for transport is under threat with the publication of An Equality Analysis for the Future of Access to Work.

We know that evidence based Supported Employment works in assisting people with learning disabilities into work, we know what it costs, and actually we know what savings it offers. However, what we see is that local funding for people with learning disabilities and mental health problems is being cut; with fewer and fewer people able to access what is left whilst existing Department of Work and Pensions schemes continue to miss people with higher support needs.

Charlie’s story is just one of the stories from our projects that illustrate how well people with learning disabilities can work with a bit of support.

The Government has already placed employment at the top of its agenda with the Prime Minister saying that he wants to give everyone in the country a chance to make the most of their life. We need to start early, giving the right messages to individuals and families but we also need to recognise that people need support. Relatively modest investment in supported employment pays huge dividends, to individuals, to local authorities and to the country as a whole. I do hope one nation includes everyone.

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