Learning Disability Today
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The UK employment rate is currently estimated at around 76%, almost 15 times higher than the 5% rate for adults with learning disabilities. In data released by MCG Healthcare this month, shockingly, some areas of England had zero adults with learning disabilities in paid employment last year. This disparity is known as the learning disability employment gap.
There are a myriad of reasons why this gap exists, including a lack of understanding from employers and inaccessible processes. Fortunately, there are numerous local authorities, employers and organisations who are beginning to make concerted efforts to address the problem in a material and holistic way.
However, so far, progress has been slow, and a recent survey by Indeed revealed that two-thirds of disabled people believe employers should be doing more to support them into employment.
Indeed, Public Health England recently reported that, at a national level, paid employment rates for adults with learning disabilities “do not seem to be increasing over time”. So, what is currently being done to address the learning disability employment gap and is it happening at the pace and scale required to make real change?
Many care providers, employers and local authorities are using Supported Employment programmes to increase the number of adults with learning disabilities in paid roles. The British Association of Supported Employment (BASE) describes the scheme as ‘a partnership strategy to enable people with disabilities to achieve sustainable long-term employment and businesses to employ valuable workers.’ The model typically involves intense support at the beginning of employment which is gradually phased out as both employer and employee grow in confidence. Job coaches can provide support throughout the employment and can give guidance as to what adjustments are required.
Within the Supported Employment model, there are three key areas which are integral to increased learning disability employment: adequate policies, adapted processes and an inclusive focus on people. In all three of these areas, there are exciting developments as well as scope for more ambitious change to address the gap in the most sustainable, positive and effective way.
The Supported Employment programme takes a highly individualised approach; the emphasis is on finding out what each person wants to do and where their talents lie. This focus on people extends to the environments that people with learning disabilities are working in. Social inclusion is a cornerstone of Supported Employment and there is a focus on increasing contacts and relationships with people who are not paid carers. As such, it is key that the colleagues of people with a learning disability are inclusive and contribute to a successful environment and culture. This can be achieved in part through Learning Disability Awareness (LDA) training.
Many Supported Employment programme providers, such as Mencap’s Three Ships and Down’s Syndrome Association’s (DSA) WorkFit, offer LDA training to inclusive employers to address perceived barriers to work, develop an understanding of learning profiles and ensure that the person in work is well-supported long-term. This in turn leads to increased confidence amongst employers when hiring job candidates with learning disabilities.
However, the use, content and quality of LDA training varies across the country between employers and organisations, and as of yet, there is no standardised scheme to address the lack of knowledge regarding learning disabilities and employment. As a result, employers’ confidence and their willingness to take on people with a learning disability differs from region to region.
Other measures can also be explored to ensure that people with a learning disability feel empowered to begin their employment journey should they wish to. The Social Care Institute for Excellence has argued that more can be done and has recommended that further education colleges give greater emphasis within their courses to employment outcomes for people with learning disabilities, rather than simply focusing on achieving qualifications. They propose that this will broaden the horizons of people with a learning disability who want to and/or can work, and will positively affect the learning disability employment gap.
The Supported Employment model also acknowledges that for many people with a learning disability, the main barrier to employment is the recruitment process. Mencap’s Big Disability survey found that around a quarter (23%) of adults with a learning disability do not know how to access jobs and had difficulties filling in application forms. This is echoed by Matt Boyd, founder of neurodiverse recruitment agency Exceptional Individuals, who noted that “shifting everything online over the past few years has made things especially difficult for our community”.
Through the increased prevalence of the Supported Employment model, more employers are becoming aware of how to alter their recruitment process in order to make it more accessible to people with a learning disability. This can include: permitting people to bring a supporter to an interview, interviewing via telephone or video chat, allowing additional time to take work assessments and using alternative assessment methods beyond interviews, such as work trials.
However, to fully address the learning disability employment gap there needs to be far more awareness of processes which help people with a learning disability keep gainful employment. One such initiative is the Access to Work scheme which is delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) through Jobcentre Plus. It provides financial support for the extra costs of being in work which go beyond the reasonable adjustments that are required by law e.g. special equipment, adaptations, a support worker or job coach. Access to Work is a highly useful process but too few local employers and families are aware of its benefits.
To tackle this, there needs to be a coordinated national approach to sharing information on appropriate recruitment processes and Access to Work. This would maximise the confidence and capability of employers so that they can develop their own management practices and processes to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.
Several large organisations have made their own commitment to fighting the learning disability employment gap through their own internal policies and programmes. One example of this is NHS England’s Learning Disability Employment Programme (LDEP), which supports the development of local and national solutions to remove barriers and increase employment opportunities for people with a learning disability and/or autism in the NHS. City Hospitals Sunderland took part in a supported internship as part of the LDEP and noted that “it has made us much more aware of how we communicate with people, and it has given a great boost to everyone in the department.”
There have also been some recent strides in policy from central government. Announced earlier this month, the Local Supported Employment (LSE) initiative is providing grant funding to 24 local authorities in England and Wales, representing an investment of £7.6 million over the next three years. Each local authority area will support between 60 and 140 adults with learning disabilities and/or autism to move into competitive employment and provide the necessary help to maintain that employment.
However, there are questions whether the above policies and schemes are happening at the pace and scale that is required to make real change. To meet the government’s own target of supporting one million more disabled people into work by 2027, there would need to be a growth of around 7% on current levels.
As a result, many are now calling for more coordinated policy solutions on a national scale to ensure equality of support. BASE has also called for the government to recognise that local, specialist supported employment providers have a clear role in ensuring people with a learning disability get successful employment, as they are well placed to develop clear links with local services.
Thankfully, an increasing number of employers are recognising the benefits of the diverse and unique talents that many adults with a learning disability can offer.
Through the model of supported employment, more people with a learning disability who want to or can work are being prepared for paid roles. However, standard recruitment processes and policies are still not consistently catering for people with a learning disability.
A renewed focus is needed on strategies designed to equalise employment rates so that all disability groups achieve parity in economic participation. As noted by former Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Chloe Smith MP: “Disabled people deserve the same opportunities to start, stay and succeed in employment as everyone else.”