The pandemic has certainly pushed us out of our comfort zones and changed the way we live our lives.

"Society has been forced to re-assess what we consider key and essential roles to be and communities have started to value and celebrate people as individuals."

Change can be difficult, challenging and disruptive, we all recognise this.

However, the past few months has taught us that we can adapt very quickly and bring ideas and ingenuity that ultimately improve performance and the way we work.

As one of the country’s leading transition-to-work programmes for students with learning disabilities and autism, we operate 69 internationally recognised programmes across the UK, Ireland and Iberia.

When lockdown was implemented by the UK Government our interns had to work from home too. The move brought uncertainty to many interns well on their pathway to employability and our programme partners throughout the country.

Despite the disruption, we responded quickly, positively and in so many ways we have never felt more connected as a movement and organisation.

Our interns have had great support from our partners and job coaches, everyone has worked so hard to ensure that our interns don’t lose the skills they have worked so hard to gain.  We have also collaborated on the Funding Your Future campaign, a YouTube content channel designed to keep supported interns inspired and focused on employment outcomes.

We have swiftly taken our partner communication and collaboration online, helping to strengthen two-way engagement and inclusion through network meetings, training programmes and virtual webinars.

Our responsive approach has had a huge impact on our culture, bringing our stakeholder community together and driving collaboration to ensure that young people on DFN Project SEARCH supported internships stay on their journey to full time, integrated, competitive employment.

One of the things that I am particularly proud of during this time is the number of DFN Project SEARCH graduates who have been working in and securing key worker roles during the crisis.

Social hierarchy disrupted

It is fair to say that the social hierarchy has been challenged and we have never been more equal: no one can buy protection from the virus. Society has been forced to re-assess what we consider key and essential roles to be and communities have started to value and celebrate people as individuals.

Our interns have risen to the challenge in frontline roles and continue to do amazing work across vital industries like healthcare and logistics.

They share anxieties like all of us, but they have overcome these to be part of a more inclusive workforce.

Their work ethic has shone through and they have shown themselves to be able to understand and adhere to new ways of working and follow stringent health and safety guidelines. With forty of our programmes based in hospitals we had lots of interns already well trained in infection control.

The success they are having is testament to the effectiveness of our pioneering transition to work programme.

Our interns develop so many employability skills and are now applying for and getting themselves life-changing jobs that are making a difference to the country in a time of unprecedented crisis.

These developments and progress are certainly working to create a greater awareness of young people going through supported internships and the value they can bring to society.

Change can be challenging, but it can bring so many transformational benefits and I really believe that the learnings from the pandemic will prove to be a springboard for long-term change and more fairness and equality.

Society is now beginning to better understand the value that people with learning disabilities and autism can bring to the workplace and we now have a huge opportunity to transform workplace culture throughout the country.

Making the move to work from home during lockdown has forced businesses and organisations to open their eyes to new ways of flexible working and are delivering results and performance that they never thought possible. This shows us that we are capable of making huge adjustments to be more inclusive and not let anything get in the way of people being able to do their jobs. So, let us not fall into previous habits and be reluctant to even greater change.

Our job now is to work collaboratively with business, educators and local and national government to give these talented young people further hope and the chance to fulfil their potential.

As a life-long champion of young people with learning disabilities, I think it would be monumental to look back on 2020 as a landmark moment of real progress in helping all young people with learning disabilities and autism secure better learning provision and access to long-term paid employment.

Let’s not miss this opportunity to bring a more fair and inclusive society for all.

On the NHS frontline 

In the most challenging of circumstances, frontline services such as hospitals and supermarkets have been recruiting people to support them in the fight against the coronavirus.

Amongst those new paid employees have been 35 young people who applied for jobs and were successful because of the valuable skills they had developed whilst on the DFN Project SEARCH programme.

The aim of DFN Project SEARCH is to foster and develop the skills of students with learning disabilities and autism and provide them with a pathway to integrated competitive employment.

Based in a host business, interns receive hands on experience in a real work setting. They obtain 800 hours of skills acquisition over an academic year across three job rotations with continual training and feedback.

DFN Project SEARCH works in partnership with 40 hospitals in the UK who embrace the prestigious role of being our host employer as part of their commitment to the learning disability employment pledge.

This means that many of the interns are in a unique position and have been totally immersed in the hospital environment and trained in vital roles such as portering, facilities management, data collection and lab work.

To date, 32 of our talented interns have applied for and secured jobs in six hospitals in England, five in Scotland and one in Wales. They have moved into key roles in portering, waste management, catering, facilities management, domestic services, laundry and in the laboratory.

In addition to the 32 NHS employed interns, a further three interns have been offered roles in supermarkets and food service to meet the growing need for key workers in these areas too. 

Project graduate Bobby Price commented: "I'm happy I got my job, it was an honour to work for the NHS during the pandemic and I worked hard."

Emma Price, Bobby's mother, said: “My son is such an inspiration to me, he’s so motivated to get up every day and he’s always got such a positive mind-set, he doesn’t even like having to take a day off because he loves his job so much. He always says to me - I work for the NHS and the NHS needs me, and I just that find it so inspiring. It just makes me so proud to see him in his scrubs working at the hospital and doing his part for the NHS, young people like Bobby are making such an amazing impact.”

Emma discussed her son’s journey into employment and highlighted how the support he received along the way has been truly transformational.

Emma added: “I’m so proud of him because Bobby’s journey hasn’t been the easiest, but Bobby has always had a clear idea of what he wanted, and that was to get a job and go to work. Without DFN Project SEARCH and the support he got along the way, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Because all he’s ever wanted is to work for the NHS, and now it’s all come true for him.”

Another key worker that was hired through the DFN Project SEARCH programme is Ekene, a laundry technician employed by medical device supplier Arjo. During his hospital rotations, Ekene demonstrated an excellent ability to follow instructions and now works 25 hours a week at Charing Cross Hospital in London.

Camila Majica-Braesyde, Work Experience Project Manager and Project SEARCH Business liaison at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: “Ekene continually delivers a high, quality standard of work and continues to carry out this great work through the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Since becoming a laundry technician, Ekene has not only developed his practical skills, but his social skills have blossomed. He has grown in confidence to such a degree that he was one of the first people to meet Minister Michelle Donelan during her visit to the Charing Cross Hospital programme earlier this year, and has since continued to challenge stereotypes around employing people with disabilities by providing an outstanding service and supporting NHS workers on the frontline.

Ekene thrives on routine and pre Covid-19 he would always turn up for work at 9am and come straight over to give a High 5. As the safety and social distancing measures were implemented, his team sat down with him and explained that he would have to find an alternative to a High 5. He now greets his team members when he arrives for work by saying "Good morning, High 5" without any physical contact.

Ekene said: “I like work, my friends are here; when I have friends around me I feel safe.”

"I really enjoy getting to talk to the patients when I do their tea rounds!"

Six East Coast College students have also been awarded contracts within the James Paget University Hospital amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Having been enrolled on the DFN Project SEARCH internship programme based at the hospital, the students have each taken on valuable roles to support NHS staff.

Students Sam Lowe, Christian Head and Louise Appleton (pictured) have all taken on ward domestic roles, with Kane Amis working as a Waste Porter and Michael Jordan and Hayden Wright working within the hospital’s busy catering department.

Reflecting on her experience of working at the hospital during the pandemic, Louise said: “It was a bit scary at first, but I quickly got used to it. It keeps me busy, and I really enjoy getting to talk to the patients when I do their tea rounds! I really think this will help me in the future.”

Support from dedicated skilled workers are needed now more than ever, young people with learning disabilities and autism are not only skilled workers, they are key workers, and a talent pool that more businesses could be benefiting from.