Aspiration and expectation:Employment for people with learning disabilities

I have a good job that pays me well, I have money in the bank, I have a home and I eat. I also get to do what I want with my spare time for the most part. Occasionally I’m too tired or stressed out from work, or maybe a bit unmotivated on the weekend. What I expect from a normal week is pretty much to not be too worn out, it doesn’t always work that way but I can’t complain.

I feel privileged to be where I am, I don’t have a university education but have managed to develop a career. I never studied music but I am a prolific self-taught musician, I’ve written books and I get to go kickboxing twice a week. Life is pretty good.

I never thought about my aspirations yet I constantly think about others. A large part of my job is to help people with disabilities achieve theirs. We currently work in a world where people with disabilities can achieve much more than in the past, we believe in their ability first.

As with many other aspects of the lives of people with disabilities employment has always been a problem. People with learning disabilities weren’t valued as it was thought they couldn’t contribute to their societies or were a burden on others. Or just a lack of belief in a person’s skills. Even when given jobs to do they were the lowliest, the worst that others didn’t want, or people were put into “workshops” to stuff envelopes or put stickers on jars. As we have improved our understanding and views of people with LD we now know that they can contribute in their own unique ways to society and can work.

Young people with disabilities now also believe in themselves more, they aren’t growing up in the same institutions as some older people with LD, and many aren’t even aware of that past. They are also growing up in a world where we understand learning disabilities more than ever. A disability isn’t a death sentence or meaning that someone can’t aspire and achieve.

There are many barriers still. Many employers are focused on outputs, which might mean staff are required to do X amount of work within X amount of time, something which we can’t necessarily expect a person who learns slowly, or has communication or sensory difficulties to do. Awareness of disability is still an ongoing campaign and I meet many people who have not been exposed to people with learning disabilities and really don’t understand anything about them. It is part of the job of all people who work in support to do this, the duty of working with people is to help spread awareness. If your values are in the right place your job doesn’t end when your shift is over.

Employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments when interviewing or for any person at work whether it be wheelchair ramps, flexible hours or support for dyslexia. These are expectations, and very little of it is legal responsibility, employers can easily find ways to reject a person without it looking like discrimination. If they do discriminate then that should be addressed, but these are not places we want vulnerable people to work.

For many people with disabilities their dreams and aspirations are modest, too modest. Some people might say firefighter, or movie star but most would say they wanted some new clothes, or to move to the country or work in a supermarket. The modesty of these ambitions do directly relate to other people’s expectations, many people with disabilities are maybe not told they can’t achieve but are told they need help with everything.

The way we should support people is to enable people to believe that they can achieve. The truth is a disabled person is not going to be a firefighter or an astronaut, but there’s no reason we can’t get someone a job with the fire service, or with the police. In addition to that it’s about how we talk to people about work and finding out if they really understand what their career ambitions are. If someone is happy pushing trolleys in a supermarket who am I to decide they can do “better”. I mentioned this lack of aspiration to a University Professor teaching Psychology, he related this to his students as they also had a lack of ambition and used the story I told to motivate his students to push harder. Lack of aspiration or ambition isn’t limited to those with disabilities as the messages many of us get in life are that we shouldn’t aim too high, but we all should.

People have a right to follow the vocational path they want and its society’s job to help them achieve that as best they can. For some people with disabilities it may mean working less hours, or doing some less complex tasks but that’s the same for everyone, not everyone can do every job.

Statistically in the UK, only about 6% of people with disabilities are in paid employment, and a great deal of those are part time jobs. Many more are in work experience or voluntary roles. We should aim much higher for people in paid employment and we must be careful around work experience positions as some people are essentially free labour and are in an endless placement with no progression. Ticking boxes for a company to say they are helping isn’t good enough, it can be a great starting point though.

One young women I work with had been in a 2 year work experience placement, we had constantly asked the company about getting her paid, as that was what she wanted. They continuously found reasons not to.

“Not yet”

“We’re not currently in the position to do this”

“She needs to develop her skills more”

Yet, they didn’t support her to develop her skills. Eventually they agreed if she met some objectives they would offer her a paid role. When they did, the offer was vouchers… Literally tokens, which meant that she wasn’t really getting paid. Needless to say, I told them this was wrong and she ended her placement. They didn’t hesitate to use her in their media to show their “diversity and equality” but weren’t willing to treat her as an employee.

There are a few factors we need to consider carefully when supporting people with their vocational goals. Making sure they don’t get stuck in work experience is one, in addition we should think carefully about how ready someone is. Preparing people for employment may take years in some cases, it’s easy to get excited and push people into situations that seem great, but if the person isn’t ready they will fail. We can’t expect a person with a disability to understand all the connotations of working.

We should aim for more paid employment, but we must view employment or vocation in a different way.

It might be that getting money doesn’t matter and more importantly the person is engaged in something meaningful and constructive. That should apply to any person whether or not they have a disability. The old “workshop” model was created as a kind of facsimile of a working week. Some people were quite happy with this, they felt they were doing something constructive and were safe and were happy with the level of demand put on them. For many though, these were tantamount to slave labour and were a way of hiding people away and saying they were working, very little choice was involved. People with disabilities and their carers were often led to believe this was the only choice.

Being present in a community is important, and for the benefit of everyone, people with disabilities should be out in public engaging with everyone else, its 2018 and people shouldn’t be scared of disabled people.

An employer may dislike that a person may over-salivate a bit when they talk, or they are slow at completing tasks or they think their appearance may put off customers. These employers usually don’t want to put in the effort to support a person and often underestimate their customers, most people will see it as positive that a business is employing disabled people.

A recent move has been to help people create micro-enterprises. This is both good and bad. Some people want to make some things (art, t shirts, and cakes) and sell them, this is great and if we can support someone to do this we should. But simply giving someone a screen printing set and expecting them to make their own t shirts, arrange a market stall and sell them is only going to fail, there’s a great deal more support involved. Some people want to be able to chalk this up as “employment” when often it isn’t. Many without learning disabilities would struggle to start their own business so why do we expect this to succeed without support.

Most people with disabilities in the UK receive benefits, despite many cuts and problems this is still in place supporting people to live. When gaining paid employment there are restrictions on this, and people fear losing their benefits. This is a reasonable fear as once hitting the thresholds they will lose money, but they will be earning. This fear stops many people from taking opportunities that could lead them to full time employment. This is a person’s choice and the benefits are there to support people who cannot work.

In the past people with disabilities were thought to not be able to contribute to society, we know this isn’t true now. Maybe their contribution won’t be working, maybe it will be in other ways, advocacy for others, performing as athletes. People with a variety of disabilities have achieved great things which inspire many others. We’ve moved in a positive direction we just need to do it the right way and businesses can definitely do more to support this.

This may require training for staff, using some communication tools, or making some adjustments to contracts and environments. There’s plenty of people, like myself, that can help businesses do this.

Everyone has the right to dream and have ambition, the rest of us have a duty to support that but we must ensure the expectations on people are reasonable. A positive society is one that helps each other, and it’s very easy to think primarily about your own needs but I can assure you that employing and supporting people with disabilities will make you a better person.




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