Employment barriers for people with learning disabilities

Getting and holding down a job has traditionally been an enormous challenge for people with learning disabilities.

The written job application process and interview intimidates many. If they do manage to secure a job, retaining it can be a real challenge if they are not appropriately supported.

Their historically low levels of employment have always represented a massive missed opportunity. A large proportion of the 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the UK have a lot to contribute in the workplace, if only they could enter it.

Fortunately, according to Community Care’s ground-breaking research with sister-title Personnel Today, the prospects for paid employment appear to be improving.

Our survey of 451 human resources professionals, across the private, public and voluntary sectors, shows that 59% of organisations employ people with learning disabilities.

Furthermore, 77% of these employers recruited them through normal recruitment channels, challenging the preconception that they can’t compete for jobs as effectively as the able-bodied.

The same, high proportion of organisations described their experience as positive.

The research also challenges the myth that they are only employed in one or two of the lowest grade roles, with the survey showing them performing a wide variety of jobs. There are examples in the research of people with learning disabilities working as analysts, consultants and managers.

But, we have to keep the progress in perspective. Employers still have a way to go to fully utilise the talent available.

When we surveyed over 1,000 people with learning disabilities a different message came out. While 66% wanted a job, only 22% had one.

This high level of unemployment among this group persists despite a fifth of surveyed employers suffering skills shortages in suitable roles.

If more than 12% of employers had specialist recruitment schemes that made it easier for people with learning disabilities to apply for jobs then a lot more would be in work.

Local charities and advocates are still play an important role. The figures suggest that they’re more effective in securing jobs than Job Centre disability officers, which raises questions about their performance.

There’s also ignorance among some HR teams over the role people with learning disabilities play within their organisation. A fifth of HR professionals didn’t know whether they employed them, and, if they did, a fifth were unsure whether it had been a positive experience.

This is just not a missed opportunity, but represents a risk.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act, employers are obliged to make adjustments in the workplace for staff if they are disadvantaged, including recruitment procedures and employment policies.

One of the biggest challenges to further progress lies not with HR, who are starting to recognise their potential, but in convincing sceptical line managers.

Seven out of 10 respondents believe that their organisation doesn’t employ people with learning disabilities because of a lack of interest among line managers.

So, not only do employers need to be more creative in their recruitment, but managers still need to be convinced of the business benefits of a relatively untapped source of talent.

Expert reaction

Jo Williams, chief executive of Mencap

“I was pleasantly surprised by the results from the survey. One of the most pleasing aspects is the different jobs filled by people with learning disabilities at last we are breaking away from the narrow minded view that people with a learning disability are only capable of the most menial tasks.

It does surprise me however that 77% of employers used normal recruitment methods as opposed to the specialist services that exist. In our experience, people with learning disabilities need a lot of help to get through the job application and interview process. The most effective way into work is through work experience.

On the whole this is great news, but as a cautionary note it does raise a question of how employers define a learning disability.”

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

“Seeing people as individuals, rather than labelling them as a member of a disadvantaged group, is vital to employers seeking to recruit and retain talent.

Employers need to adopt a creative, positive and solutions-focused approach to making any adjustments that meet both the needs of the business and the person with the learning disability.

Many people with learning disabilities will worry about the negative stereotypes that employers might attach to them. The survey shows that 44% of organisations agree they do not have any suitable roles.

But it is crucially important to an organisation’s self-interests that they begin to value all people as individuals and understand that each person has different needs. When employers ignore diverse labour market sources they are fuelling problems for themselves.

Although the survey provides some good news, the results show there is plenty of scope for employers to pull their socks up and to address the disability agenda.

More employers need to provide practical ways that will enable people with learning disabilities to work and accommodate people’s personal abilities. The spin-off learning from this may help organisations to be more successful in adopting leading edge recruitment and retention approaches and put them ahead of their competitors in the war for talent.”

Rob Greig, national director, Valuing People

“This survey shows some encouraging responses from employers about their willingness to employ people with learning disabilities and in particular how almost all employers describe their experiences of doing so in a positive manner.

However, it also demonstrates some of the challenges we face. For example, how recruitment processes appear to be an obstacle and that the range of jobs people are currently filling are very limited in their scope and ambition.

Perhaps most important is the clear message from employers that the major factor that would encourage increased employment levels is the evidence and belief that learning disabled employees will contribute as much as other employees.”

Sherie Griffiths, managing director, Griffiths Legal

“The research highlights the need to understand the Disability Discrimination Act’s (DDA) duties. They span the employment relationship from recruitment to termination, covering direct and indirect discrimination, the removal of physical and procedural barriers through reasonable adjustment, harassment and victimisation.

Breaching any of these duties can prove expensive, in terms of time, reputation and money. But, behind the duties, lurk genuine business benefits. Any employer who embraces the spirit as well as the letter of the law can steal a march on their competitors, utilising the wealth of ability hidden behind disability and building the best possible teams. It also improves public profile and helps attract disabled customers – who have more than £50bn per year of disposable income. Company directors are now also under a duty to look at their business’s triple bottom line – the measure of environmental, social as well as economic performance. As social performance includes treatment of staff, proactive use of the DDA can only benefit the business.”

Brian Gregory, service employment manager, Linked Employment

“This research supports what we have found on the ground. In Essex our approach can be summarised as “place, train and fade” and differs greatly from the “place and pray” model that many employers will have faced. It starts with the person with a learning disability and supports them to identify their skills, abilities and talents and then moves on to look at the type of jobs that would match these talents. They are then supported in targeting potential employers.

We gain the confidence of employers through demonstrating we know our clients well. We ensure that the potential employee will bring skills that make good business sense, releasing other staff to complete their main focus and create a more rounded and aware team who can develop disability friendly systems.

This takes away some of the risk that any new employee/employer relationship holds. We also explain that the package does not stop at interview, that we will also coach the employee and support the employer. The approach works best when the agency can point new employers towards its proven track record and positive client base.”

Adi Cooper, strategic director of adult social services and housing, London Borough of Sutton

“There are still disappointingly high levels of organisations that don’t employ people with learning disabilities or don’t know if they do. This wouldn’t be the same for physical disabilities employee data. But it’s positive that a significant number are employing more than 16.

I think a values base to employing people with learning disabilities is significant. Organisations that are driven by socially responsible attitudes, including the public sector, have no excuses and it should be central to their diversity and equalities agenda, as well as part of their economic strategy.

In terms of reducing barriers, committed leaders at the front-line and in more senior levels and human resources colleagues striving to change historical practices are critical to success, as are proper support structures.

Promoting citizenship and reducing welfare-oriented approaches, raising expectations and ambitions of the people we have contact with all creates ‘push’ factors. But without the jobs and positive attitudes from employers, we risk setting people with learning disabilities up to fail, or being frustrated. This has to be done across the whole system to work.”

David Perkins, manager of National Autistic Society’s employment consultancy Prospects

“This demonstrates the broad range of jobs that people with disabilities can undertake, given the right support and understanding. NAS Prospects works with people with autism to support them to find meaningful and sustainable employment.

There is a business case, not an altruistic one, for employers to recruit people with disabilities. Once the ‘reasonable adjustments’ required by the DDA have been made, people with disabilities can perform as well as – and often out perform – non-disabled people.

Disappointingly, though, resistance continues to employing disabled people. Some employers find it difficult to make the reasonable adjustments that would enable them to work.”

Related article
Learning Disabilities

Contact the author
Mike Broad

This article appeared in the 31 May issue under the headline “Works for me”



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