As doubt hangs over the future of Remploy, Anabel Unity Sale looks at the options for people with learning difficulties who wish to join the mainstream workforce
The employment spotlight is shining on the issue of disabled people and one organisation squinting uncomfortably into its glare is Remploy, the national agency that provides jobs and support for 9,000 disabled people. A National Audit Office review last autumn revealed Remploy could not continue to operate within its existing budget. And last month, the NAO made four suggestions for Remploy's future. One proposal was to close its 83 factories, which have attracted controversy because they are segregated working environments.
The Remploy issue has reignited the debate about the quality of work placements offered to disabled people and especially those with learning difficulties. Traditionally, people with learning difficulties were employed in segregated or sheltered working environments developed some 30 years ago. Initially, they were provided simply to occupy clients' time, today more work placements are community based.
Government statistics reveal that 53 per cent of disabled people of working age are employed, compared with 76 per cent of non-disabled people of working age.(1)
For Jo Williams, chief executive of Mencap, these figures are no surprise. "Of all the groups with limited access to jobs people with learning disabilities are most disadvantaged. Whatever form jobs take there just aren't enough of them." She says the unemployment rate among people with learning difficulties is about 90 per cent, compared with 50 per cent of people with physical impairments.
Andrew Lee, director of People First Self-Advocacy, is equally unhappy about work opportunities for people with learning difficulties. He says the poor quality of some jobs offered is because of the misconceptions by some staff providing employment advice. "Sometimes Jobcentre staff give people with learning difficulties roles that are not very rewarding because of their own personal expectations of what that person can do." He adds employment advisers may be unaware of the government's Access to Work scheme to help more disabled people into work.
One difficulty that may lead to placements being poorly paid and dull is the benefits system that restricts disabled people to only three-and-half-hours paid employment a week and earnings of £20 before their benefits are affected. The consequence is low-paid work and few openings to improve skills.
David Bailey, employment development co-ordinator for charity United Response, is addressing this by liaising with social services and primary care trusts to develop work opportunities for people with learning difficulties and mental health issues in England. He says: "The effect on someone's self-confidence when they get a paid job is dramatic. They become more independent, more sociable and outgoing."
United Response has created six social enterprises (see "I used top be miserable"), including two mailing services and a cleaning contractor. Social enterprises offer employment opportunities for their clients while they plough back any profits into the business and local community.
A social enterprise with 25 per cent of its workers disabled is classified as a social firm. Kathy Baker, quality support manager at representative body Social Firms UK, last year worked with 40 organisations whose commitment to integrate clients into mainstream work and contribute to the economy qualified them to be social firms.
The concept of "sheltered" employment environments is alien to her. She says: "At one sheltered factory I was told the work provided for people with learning disabilities 'gives them something to do'. This attitude is an anathema to social firms, which are real businesses that will thrive or die in the real world, whereas sheltered factories are heavily subsidised."
Mencap took matters into its own hands when it launched the national WorkRight scheme in November 2005 to find work for people with learning difficulties. In February, Sainsbury's became the first food retailer to join, with a commitment to offering 10 placements within 12 months and the option to increase it to 30.
Matt Walter, Sainsbury's resourcing and development consultant and lead on the initiative, says the supermarket giant joined because "it fits in with our corporate values of respecting the individual." Phillip Mowle was the first person to be employed by the scheme when he joined the Isle of Wight branch in April, followed by Keiran Banting in May in Fareham (see "More exciting than office work").
All line managers and personnel managers working with the WorkRight candidate receive specialist training on top of their disability awareness training, as do the teams the candidate joins. Walter says neither Mowle nor Banting have had any problems and the initiative has proved such a success a guidebook is being written.
So what should social care professionals do to improve the employment options for these clients? Lee says staff should ask the individual what they want to do and provide the support to achieve it. Bailey urges practitioners to identify local supported employment services offering support to clients and contact with them. "If there isn't one, approach the local authority and ask whether it has any plans to establish one."
As for Remploy, campaigns manager Carol Herrity emphasises the organisation's backing for supported employment for disabled people in "a mainstream, non-segregated environment where people are part of their community". It seems the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to promoting job opportunities for people with learning difficulties are numbered.
'More exciting than office work'
Keiran Banting wears his Sainsbury's uniform with pride. The 19-year-old has been employed as a grocery online assistant for three months, his first paid work since leaving school.
He likes his job, which involves fulfilling people's shopping orders online, because he gets "to work with some good people and it's a lot more exciting than working in an office."
Previously he had worked at another supermarket chain but found it boring as he only collected trolleys in the car park. "Now I am working with the public. They appreciate it when I help them and it feels good."
He earns £5.65 an hour and works 16 hours on Thursdays and Fridays.
Having his own income has transformed his life and Banting now feels confident enough to go out with friends instead of waiting for his mother to take him.
'I used to be miserable'
Lesley Kennedy has been working for United Response's professional mailing service UR Sorted since December 2005. She tends to work three-and-a-half hours a week, depending on when the casual work is available, and is paid £5.05 an hour.
Kennedy folds papers, puts them in envelopes and stamps them. She works with 10 other people in the sheltered working environment and says her job makes her happy. "It's more interesting than being at home. I was getting bored in the past. I was miserable."
She has made friends and is now saving for a holiday to Blackpool in October, the first one she has paid for herself. "Everybody should have a job if it makes them happy," she says.
(1) Pathways to Work, Department of Work and Pensions, 2002
Contact the author