Tim Cooper United ResponseIn this guest blog, United Response’s Tim Cooper calls for the government to put in place more specialist measures to help people with learning disabilities and autism if it is to achieve its aim of halving the disability employment gap.

The government makes much of its success in sustaining high employment rates and its commitment to halve the employment gap experienced by disabled people during this parliament is welcome. But the figures used are potentially misleading. We know that nearly 80% of non-disabled people are in work as are just under 50% of disabled people, but less than 10% of people with a learning disability or autism have a paid job. These figures have sadly remained static for the past 20 years, with successive governments failing to recognise and tap into the employment potential of these marginalised groups.

United Response therefore welcomed the inquiry into this by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which closed last week. The inquiry examined the progress made on meeting the commitment and provided the opportunity for us to highlight why the government’s current broad brush approach to resolving such a complex issue will simply not work and how instead they must look to address the component needs of the different sets of people of who have a disability.

For too many years the assumption has been that people with a learning disability or on the autistic spectrum wouldn’t want to work and indeed shouldn’t be at work. That was well-intentioned but wrong.

Our starting point should be a ‘presumption of employability’ – most people want to work and with the right support can. At United Response we presume that all of the people we support are capable of some form of work-related activity. As a result, 1 in 3 of the people in our supported living services take part in activities of this kind. It is important that the government, Jobcentre staff and employers share in this culture of presumption and sow the seeds for wider societal change. 

But for this to happen the current view on the function of employment must change. Rather than viewing the creation of paid work opportunities first and foremost as a way of reducing the welfare bill, employment, in all its forms, must be regarded as a route to independence. As such, it is something that every adult of working age should have the right to access, including those with learning disabilities.

It is also vital that the presumption of employment is created at an early age. How many people with learning disabilities do you know who have a ‘Saturday job’? At present, far too many young people with learning disabilities and their families face a cliff edge when they transition between children’s and adult services. While the introduction of Education, Health and Care plans is a welcome move, they must be coupled with access to employment support specifically designed to meet the needs of young people; delivered locally, in partnership with colleges and employers and resulting in real work opportunities. 

Access to targeted employment support for people with learning disabilities and autism, delivered by specialist providers, must also become an integral part of the government’s new Health & Work programmes, if it is to meet its manifesto commitment.

While the existing disability-focused employment programme Work Choice has supported those people with disabilities who have been able to access the programme, it has provided less well for those with more substantial support needs, including learning disabilities. In our experience, people with higher support needs have found themselves effectively excluded from the programme due to a lack of safeguards in place to ensure that it provides for this group, and contracting of the necessary specialist providers to deliver this support. 

As the existing programme has not met the specific needs of learning disabled jobseekers, it is difficult to see how this group will be any better served by a more general programme, such as the Work and Health Programme. The new single programme will amalgamate Work Choice with the Work Programme and will seek to halve the disability employment gap with seemingly fewer resources. 

United Response believes that far from cutting specialist employment provision, the government should follow earlier recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee to expand this support. It should provide a clearly signposted route into employment for people with learning disabilities and autism, with person-centred support delivered by specialist providers.

We await the findings of this most recent inquiry by the Work and Pensions Committee, but hope that like us it concludes that to meet its commitment to halve the disability employment gap the government must take into account the differing needs of people with disabilities. All future support must be specific, targeted, and readily accessible to everyone including those who need higher levels of support such as people with learning disabilities and autism.

About the author

Tim Cooper is chief executive of United Response