The shockingly low proportion of adults with learning disabilities in paid for employment – around 6% – is not news. Social enterprise has helped to change this to some extent. But how have social enterprises run by and/or for people with learning disabilities coped with the equally shocking blows to the economy since March 2020?

Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) describes social enterprises as businesses that aim to make a profit, which they then reinvest and donate ‘to create positive social change’. Many do also receive some level of grant or loan funding, at least in the early stages, but the business element is key.

Unsurprisingly, the approach was taken up enthusiastically by a lot of organisations in the third sector in the 1990s (at one point it seemed that almost everyone was setting up a community café). It also presented some very good opportunities to involve people with learning disabilities, often in a mix of training and employment. A range of enterprises sprang up – gardening was particularly popular – and a number have either continued or been established more recently.

“We see ourselves as a functioning business driven by social purpose,” says Ingrid Webb, chief executive of the Shetland-based Cope Ltd, which was first established about 20 years ago and now runs several different enterprises including the Shetland Soap Company.

“If we’re looking at a new venture or want to improve, we would ask ‘does this business provide a meaningful opportunity for people with learning disabilities to develop their skills’ and then ‘can it be financially viable’. We are generating the vast majority of our income ourselves, because otherwise we will not survive.”

What is the aim of social enterprises?

Some enterprises focus mainly on training, others on business viability: and this does make a difference to how the enterprise decides to progress. Keith Bates is a researcher and practitioner, who has been involved in social enterprise and people with learning disabilities for the past three decades.

“Usually the first thing I talk about with to my clients is the need to decide if the emphasis is on enterprise – making money and employing people with needs – or on developing the training and life skills of those individuals, with the enterprise element coming second,” he says. “If you take an enterprise decision, you may have to make decisions like redundancy; whereas if you take a training one, you may find you have to keep going with grant funding.”

There are also implications for the sector more broadly, Bates points out. “Either we expect people to leave an enterprise every two or so years, and go and work in other fields, or we need more enterprises to create more long-term work.” Either way, however, they play a valuable role in equipping people with learning disabilities with skills and experience – as well as with the pay, social value and self-esteem that come with employment.

The impact of the pandemic on social enterprise

With a workforce or client base that is even more vulnerable to Covid-19 than the mainstream population, social enterprises involving people with learning disabilities have of course had to close for some or all of the time since March 2020.

The social enterprise sector as a whole has had some dedicated statutory and donor funding (including Comic Relief) so the conclusion from SEUK is that it is ‘a period of uncertainty and flux – but opportunity too’. A significant number actually expected to take on new staff in 2021.

However, SEUK’s own findings are that organisations employing staff with learning disabilities are less hopeful about their post-pandemic prospects. Bill Russell of Equal Brewkery in Norwich, which focuses on training in baking and brewing, is definitely of this view. “We’re still brewing, but at some point we will run out of funds and we’ll just have to stop.” This is made worse by the fact that the business is based in premises that may also have to close. “If we could get a shop and run a café and mini-brewery there, it would be different.”

Others are more optimistic. “We will be reopening. It’s been the toughest year ever, but I’m really proud of how everyone has stayed connected, and that has made it possible for us to continue,” says Webb of Cope Ltd.

Ignition Brewery, which is based in south-east London, definitely expects to reopen as an off-licence (though it will not be reopening its bar for a while). We got Covid funding grants, we cut our costs, and have managed to sell beer through takeaway and deliveries,” says founder Nick O’Shea. “Employees have continued on the London Living Wage.” O’Shea is an economist by training (he works for the Centre for Mental Health), and describes himself as “fanatical about reserves”, so the brewery had a ‘rainy day fund’ which enabled it to cope with emergencies.

Sarah Sharlott started as head of social enterprise and community development at the north London-based Kisharon just as lockdown started and, she says, ‘it’s a year I won’t forget in a hurry’. Kisharon runs a number of enterprises offering, training and progression into paid employment, and Sharlott explains how at least two of them have kept going. “The day the first staff member returned to our bike shop, I called in at lunchtime and he told me firmly that he’d already dealt with six punctures already that day. 

"The gift and homeware shop is also open, and as a Jewish charity we had a couple of good seasonal periods of activity – and we also worked with synagogues across London to do activity packs for children to enjoy at home for Rosh Hashanah and Hannukah. Probably the employment and skills element has taken the greatest hit, especially as businesses have downsized, so we’re exploring options around self-employment or employment in small groups. We’ve tried to be as innovative as possible, and we’re now looking to see where we can develop and expand.”

Not everyone will survive; and the business model does seem to play a part in this. But, O’Shea adds, “We’ve realised how much care there is for our team from the local community. It’s become palpable. They’re worried for our team and they care about our team. It’s been a very humbling thing to find out.”