Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Employment levels for people with learning disabilities 5-10 times lower than they were 100 years ago

Employment levels for people with learning disabilities are far lower now than they were 100 years ago, according to a new study by historian Professor Lucy Delap (Murray Edwards College).

The study found that in the 20th century in some parts of Britain, up to 70% of people with learning disabilities had paid jobs when demand for labour was high. This proportion dropped during recessions, but still remained at 30% – much higher than the 5% of people with learning disabilities who are currently employed.

Professor Delap says this new research “put’s today’s low rates to shame”, and calls for more “bold ambition” to ensure that today’s “marginal forms of inclusion” do not continue.

People with disabilities were often paid less than their peers

The study provides an alternative perspective to most pervious writing, which suggests that that preindustrial community inclusion gave way to segregation and asylums in the nineteenth century.

Instead, Professor Delap found that, in the first half of the 20th century, many people with learning disabilities had jobs. However, they were often paid less than non-disabled workers.

When Professor Delap first began her research, she found no trace in employers’ records or in state archives which focused on segregation and detaining people. However, when looking at records from 1909, she came across a complex system of rates and inspection which emerged as part of an effort to set minimum wages.

This system led to the development of ‘exemption permits’ for a range of employees not considered ‘to be worth full payment’. This included people with disabilities.

“Once I found these workers, they appeared everywhere and not just in stereotypical trades like shoe repair and basket-weaving. They were working in domestic service, all kinds of manufacturing, shops, coal mining, agriculture, and local authority jobs,” Delap said.

1920s was not a ‘golden age’ of disability-friendly employment

Under the exemption system, employers saw the business case for employing – usually at a significantly lower rate of pay – loyal workers who could be trusted to carry out routine tasks.

While this is a problematic approach, Delap acknowledges, it meant that more people with learning disabilities were able to get jobs and remain independent. She also found evidence that many people with learning disabilities resisted being told to do boring, repetitive work and were able to negotiate better conditions and pay.

However, Delap found clear evidence of some workers being exploited, and being stuck on the same very low wage and the same monotonous task for years.

“We shouldn’t feel nostalgic, this wasn’t a ‘golden age’ of disability-friendly employment,” Delap says. However, she adds that she also found “lots of evidence of love” which is contrary to much of the writing about this period in time.

An economic and moral case for employing more people with learning disabilities

Delap says she sees “concerning similarities” between the 1920s and the 2020s in terms of how British institutions manage, care for and educate people with learning disabilities, and many of the issues that occurred during the early 20th century are still visible today.

“We have a fast-changing labour market and our special schools and other institutions aren’t equipping people well enough for viable paid opportunities,” she says.

Delap now wants to see more opportunities more people with learning disabilities in the labour market, as currently, there is a very narrow range of job types and sectors. She also argues that a focus on credentials and qualifications are preventing people from getting jobs that they would likely be very good at.

Now, with an ageing population, there is a growing economic need to fill job vacancies as well as a moral case for employing more people with learning disabilities, she says.

“I think employers are recognising that they need active inclusion strategies to fill vacancies and that they need to cultivate loyalty. Work remains a place where we find meaning in our lives and where we make social connections and that’s why so many people with disabilities really want to work and why it deprives them of so much when they are excluded. We need to have more bold ambition and stop being content with really marginal forms of inclusion,” she said.

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