As a young man, Michael Edwards quit the council-run day centre he attended because he was frustrated with the menial and mind-numbingly dull “work” he was given to do. The final straw was when Edwards discovered the centre staff had been mixing up the plastic components he had spent an entire morning sorting into boxes, just so he would have a job to do in the afternoon.

“Not everyone with a learning disability wants to work in a supermarket".

Knowing that there was more to life, Edwards set up the user-led self-advocacy charity My Life My Choice (MLMC) in Oxford. More than 20 years later, it is an award-winning organisation with around forty people with learning disabilities on its books. They lead and deliver training courses on learning disability, act as consultants for organisations including the NHS, councils, and police.

The impact of meaningful work

The impact of work – real work, not a tokenistic task - on Edwards’ and quality of life is clear. It not only positively influences his own self-esteem but has a direct effect on the lives of others: “I think of myself as successful because I started something that’s still going after almost 20 years and hopefully it’ll carry on for a long time to come.”

Edwards and MLMC feature in Made Possible: stories of success by people with learning disabilities – in their own words.

My new non-fiction anthology reflects how vital work is to us all, and how we are all driven by a sense of purpose and success – usually measured in terms of employment-related achievements. It also questions why society assumes that ambition and aspiration (professional and otherwise) somehow do not apply to learning disabled people.

This is an even more pressing issue now that COVID-19 has intensified the inequalities faced by learning disabled people in everything from health and wellbeing to employment. We already know that successive welfare-to-work schemes have not really helped people with learning disabilities or been specifically aimed at them.

Meanwhile, thanks to the public sector spending cuts there are fewer council-funded supported employment projects to help learning disabled people into work.

65 percent of people with learning disabilities want to work

The figures are stark; less than six percent of people with learning disabilities work (and this figure has fallen over recent years) yet 65 percent want to work. What’s more, most people don’t associate learning-disabled people with job prospects; in a poll of a hundred MPs by Dimensions, 60 percent said they didn’t think people with learning disabilities could be supported into work.

For Shaun Webster, an international project worker with human rights charity CHANGE, the definition of success is “earning your own money and living independently”. As Webster explains in Made Possible: “Being employed gives you power, and having a role and responsibility makes you more independent. And when people are employed and live on their own, they can inspire others.

"The money I earn gives me opportunities to do things I always wanted to do – live in my own place, go to the pub, go shopping, go to the cinema.”

Webster’s words reflect the link between work and wellbeing and how the sense of purpose gained through employment develops skills, boosts confidence, and increases your social circle.

Webster recalls how he moved out of the family home at the age of 21 because “I wanted to do everything like everyone else did – I wanted to cook, clean, dust, pay my bills – just like a normal person.” With help from housing support organisation KeyRing, he says that getting his own place was “the stepping stone to self-belief” which then led to work.

“When I got my own place, one thing I wanted was to be more confident using public transport and to do my own shopping. Over time I became more confident in doing stuff for myself.”

As Edwards' and Webster’s experiences make clear, narrowing the employment gap faced by learning disabled people is not just a good thing to do in terms of the personal benefits to individuals, it reaps wider social and economic rewards.

What is more, as veteran campaigner Gary Bourlet, co-founder of Learning Disability England, says, people should have not just a job but also a career. This, as he argues in in Made Possible, would have a dramatic impact on public attitudes: “Not everyone with a learning disability wants to work in a supermarket, but jobs for learning-disabled people aren’t ever talked about in terms of professions. If they were, it could change how everyone sees us.”

 

Buy Made Possible: stories of success by people with learning disabilities – in their own words, edited by Saba Salman, published by Unbound.