My Job, My Choice - Sophie and BrianMany people with learning disabilities don't fully understand their rights at work, but a project in London has helped to address this. Nick Clarke reports.

Employment is one of the ways that peoplemeet their core human needs to have autonomy and independence and to relate to others. But all too often the world of work is notopen to people with learning disabilities. Indeed, while mostpeople with a learning disability would like to work, only about 7% are in paid employment - compared to about 50% of disabled people.

What is shocking is that this is the case even though disability discrimination laws have been in place for more than 15 years.There are many reasons why people with learning disabilities findit so hard to get into paid work. One significant reason is thatthey do not have confidence and have not been treated in a way thatleads them to expect to work. From the beginning of their livesmost have not been seen as people with a place in society. Their parents may not have been encouraged to expect their child to work.

Special education, while probably offering intensive specialist support, may not have given children with learning disabilities the expectation of work and may have prevented them from developing theskills and confidence to relate to others without disabilities. But people with learning disabilities also still face discrimination from some employers. Indeed, learning disability charity Mencap says that it is still "widespread". Unfortunately, while there is anti-discrimination law in place, many people do not know their rights and how to fight back against discrimination. 

Legal situation

The Disability Discrimination Act was introduced in 1995 and disability equality is a part of the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act guarantees the rights of disabled people to work. It says that it is illegal for an employer to treat a person with alearning disability worse because of their disability. Also, an employer must do anything that is reasonable to support them towork - called 'reasonable adjustments'. This gives strong rights to people with learning disabilities when applying for jobs and once in work. The law makes it illegal to refuse a person an interview just because they are disabled, or tosack them for that reason. It also entitles them to be consideredfor extra training and promotion and not to be picked on orbullied. The type of reasonable adjustments that people withlearning disabilities can expect include things like:

  • Flexible working
  • Job sharing
  • More breaks
  • Additional support to learn a job
  • Materials in easy read formats
  • Having a friend or supporter at important meetings orinterviews.

These rights are also supported by the government cAccess to Work Scheme, which can pay for disabled people to have things like asupport worker or specialist equipment to manage at work. For example, if a person with a learning disability thinks that theirdisability was the reason that they were not offered a job there is an Equality Act questions form that they can send to the employerasking them about the recruitment process.

The types of things that they could ask includehow many people applied for the job and how many were shortlistedand interviewed. They could also ask for information about thesuccessful applicant and to see their job score sheet and detailsof any reasonable adjustments that they considered in order to makethe job accessible. The employer is required to respond to thequestions and if they do not it can be used to infer thatdiscrimination occurred. Once in a job, if a company is makingredundancies they can be required to show that they followed criteria that treated everyone equally and fairly. The rights inthe Equality Act allow a person to take a case to an employment tribunal if they believe they have been discriminated against and to ask for compensation and their job back. Although Legal Aid willnot pay for a lawyer to represent someone at the tribunal, it is available to help people to prepare their cases right up to thepoint of the hearing, although the majority of cases settle beforeit gets that far.

The tribunal itself is required to makereasonable adjustments so that it is accessible to a person with alearning disability. Trade unions and insurance policies, likehousehold insurance, will sometimes also help pay for a lawyer.Therefore the Equality Act gives a clear message to disabled peoplethat they are entitled to work and to employers that they need todo what they reasonably can to make this happen. But still morethan 90% of people with learning disabilities are not working. Whatcan be done to turn these legal rights into a reality for those whoare able to work? To try and provide some answers to this questionthe Disability Law Service (DLS), a national charity that offersfree legal advice to disabled people and their carers, ran aproject, 'Your Rights at Work' last year with a group of peoplewith learning disabilities to help them to understand their rightsat work.

Understanding rights at work
Working inpartnership with London-based charity Apasenth, which has an employment group for young people with learning disabilities, and arts organisation Green Shoes Arts, the DLS developed a film-making project to help the Apasenth employment group understand theirrights at work. Through this project the DLS hoped to increase thegroup's confidence and help them to appreciate that they have theright to work and to know what to do if they were discriminatedagainst. In 10 two-hour weekly sessions drama and improvisation wasused to help the group to create a short film in which twocharacters with a learning disability have problems at work.Alongside this the DLS explained to the group what their legalentitlements are and what to do if they have problems. This wassupported with an easy read guide. Feedback from workshopparticipants was positive. There was a range of abilities in thegroup, but all found the drama and filmmaking an accessible andenjoyable process to be involved in. Through the process the groupwere able to explore situations that they had experienced in thepast when trying to work. For example, one member of the groupexplained how he had been forced to stop working because of how hewas treated by members of the public. Situations like this wererevisited and alternative ways to respond were explored, and theduties of an employer to protect an employee from this kind oftreatment either directly or by finding alternative work for themwere explained. The DLS also offered guidance about the ways hecould stand up for himself by talking to his employer, making acomplaint and, if all that failed, taking legal action. Finally,the group were able to bring this to life by acting out having aproblem and, using what they had learned, dealing with it. Perhapsmost importantly, the drama and filmmaking itself was a challengethat boosted confidence among the group. Almost none of the groupwere confident that it was something that they were able to do,even five weeks into the project. But by week 10 they managed topresent a stage adaptation of the project to an audience  ofmore than 100 people.                                    The equalities question form can bedownloaded here

About theauthor

Nick Clarke is London development officer at theDisability Law Service. For further information about DisabilityLaw Service and to see the film, download the easy read guideversion of 'Your Rights at Work' and find out how to be involved,visit DLS is interested to hear from other organisations that wouldlike to find out more about the project or share ideas for how totake it further. Please contact with any comments,ideas, questions or suggestions.

This article first appeared in Learning Disability Today, July 2011 issue. For features likethis, as well as columns, research and best practice, subscribe tothe magazine.