Why councils should employ more people with learning difficulties

Employing people with learning difficulties is a social duty and local authorities should be setting a good example, says Blair McPherson

Supermarkets put most of us in social services to shame with their policies on employing people with learning difficulties. Perhaps it is because we provide services such as day care and supported housing to people with learning difficulties that we see them as clients rather than prospective colleagues, and so we do not offer employment opportunities.

The first barrier may be attitudes and prejudices. I once worked in a large social work office some distance from the shops. There was a day centre for people with learning difficulties on the same campus. An enterprising manager at the day centre had the idea of getting some of the day care attendees to make sandwiches to sell to the office workers.

A varied selection of sandwiches was offered but the venture failed because staff wouldn’t buy sandwiches from people who looked like they had learning difficulties. When pressed, one person cited hygiene reasons.

The second barrier may be our difficulty in identifying the type of jobs that people with learning difficulties can do. This is more to do with our stereotypes than a lack of job opportunities. We just can’t imagine how someone with learning difficulties would be able to do the type of jobs we have. Often this thinking applies to work experience placements where staff anticipate the individual will be a bit of a liability, but it is only for half a day a week for a few weeks and it’s a “kind thing to do”.

However, often the experience challenges and changes attitudes. Like our experience with Geoffrey.* The admin team has taken to Geoffrey in a big way. Friendly, smiling, eager and helpful, he does the less popular jobs such as photocopying, shredding, franking the post and filing. The other day he went round the office asking whether anyone needed something doing because he had finished his work – no wonder he is popular. But moving from work experience to paid employment in a permanent job presents another barrier.

There is a view that local government human resources policies make it difficult to recruit people with learning difficulties due to the requirement to fill vacancies through a competitive interview process.

The London Borough of Sutton has used the “reasonable adjustments” provision of the disability employment legislation to treat trial work placements as an alternative to the competitive interview in the recruitment process. However, it is not necessary to make special provisions for people with learning difficulties or spare them the experience of a competitive interview.

Recruitment and selection practices can be modified to make employment opportunities more accessible. Such an approach involves reviewing specifications for basic grade posts to better match the skills needed to do the job. For example, if we want someone to do the photocopying, shredding and filing then that is what we should recruit for, rather than expecting the person to be multi-skilled in order to do multiple tasks. Such a post would be a scale 1 administration post, as opposed to a scale 1 to 3.

Although the post would be open to anyone, the low-grade, repetitive nature of the tasks and the limited responsibility would restrict who was attracted to apply. In addition, we know that most people with learning difficulties looking for permanent work are seeking part-time posts. This allows them to continue attending social centres and does not affect their benefits so that they are worse off financially. These part-time positions can be for as little as seven hours a week. The aim must be to provide opportunities for full-time employment for those who want this.

Posts would be advertised in Jobcentres and local press as usual but would also be targeted at day centres and the employment service. Candidates would be shortlisted and interviewed in line with the organisation’s recruitment and selection policy. The interview questions would be set at a level suitable for the post. In making an appointment, weight should be given to previous experience, evidence of good work attendance, punctuality, reliability and being conscientious. People with learning difficulties could acquire this experience through work placements.

Our experience of work placements for people with learning difficulties reflects the findings of national research which shows that they have lower levels of absenteeism and are exceptionally reliable and conscientious. In general, once they have familiarised themselves with a task, they need less supervision as they are less likely to become bored with routine tasks.

Typically, managers describe employees who have learning difficulties as “wanting to learn”, “gets on with the job”, “popular with customers and staff” and “never late”. Don’t assume from my example that people with learning difficulties cannot carry out complex tasks. Mencap has produced a DVD, endorsed by the Confederation of British Industry, which gives examples of those who can, including a forklift truck driver, a baker and someone who teaches computing.

The impact on a team when someone with a learning difficulty joins them should not be undervalued. A successful placement turns sceptical staff into advocates for employment opportunities. They want placements to turn into permanent employment for the individual because they have seen them grow in confidence. They have come to realise how important the job is to the individual, and the feelings of self-worth and value the individual gains from having a proper paid job for the first time. As one member of staff said to me: “Now I understand why it was so important to Geoffrey to have a staff ID badge.”

Local authorities are large employers and should be leading by example. But all large employers should accept they have a social responsibility to their local communities and set recruitment targets for employing people with a learning difficulty, identifying suitable posts, revising person specifications, creating opportunities for part-time work and offering work placements. CC

* Not his real name.

BLAIR McPHERSON is director of community services at Lancashire Council. He is also chair of the ADSS north west equality and diversity group

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article challenges the view that there aren’t suitable employment opportunities for people with a learning difficulty in social services. It also dispels the myth that human resources policies prevent this client group having paid employment, provides examples of best practice and shows the positive impact on staff that can result from having a colleague with a learning difficulty.

Further information
Mencap Understanding learning disability DVD


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