Work in progress

Social services inspectors have found that
councils’ progress in supporting disabled people in work varies
widely. Natalie Valios explores the reasons behind the

Social services’ key role in supporting
disabled people in employment was set out in the white paper,
Modernising Social Services.1 Objective three
in the 1998 national priorities guidance puts the onus on
authorities to ensure that services are provided in ways that
maximise both service users’ and carers’ capacity to work. And by
April 2001, local authorities should have produced, with other
agencies, a joint investment plan for welfare to work for disabled

So why is it that a Social Services
Inspectorate report last year, examining the progress of eight
councils, found development was varied at best, and embryonic at
worst?2 While one council had launched its draft plan
publicly by October 2000, another was still at the thinking

According to the SSI report, most councils had
simply not seen supporting disabled people in employment as a high
priority. And although they had developed some general services to
support carers, many had not recognised that, if carers were to be
able to hold down jobs, the people they cared for needed flexible

What disabled people need, says the report, is
effective co-ordination between agencies; recognition of their
value and needs as a whole person; expert information and advice;
physical access to services; guidance in making informed choices; a
local training and employment infrastructure to respond to the
diversity of the whole population; and continuing support in

Instead, eligibility criteria leading to an
assessment for services generally make little reference to
employment. Existing employment schemes tended to focus on people
with learning difficulties or mental health problems, with little
attention given to those with physical disabilities or sensory
impairments, it says.

There were several light industrial,
horticultural and catering occupational schemes that provided a
sense of worth to those using them, but they had little success in
enabling disabled people to move on to open employment. “Success
for a few was more by chance than design,” the report suggests.

Why is this? Despite various policy
initiatives over the years, such as the New Deal, there is still a
wide difference in the employment rate between disabled and
non-disabled people. Disabled people make up between 12 and 16 per
cent of the working age population.3 And in 1999,
disabled people made up half of all those who were not employed but
said they would like to work.

As a ground-breaking piece of legislation, the
Disability Discrimination Act 1995 plays a part in ensuring
disabled people’s right to employment. Tania Burchardt, research
fellow at the London School of Economics, believes that local
authorities should take the initiative in promoting and making
employers aware of their responsibilities under the act.

“Setting their own house in order could be a
good starting point as they are traditionally large employers of
disabled people themselves and it is important that is sustained,”
she says.

But she warns that if employment support meted
out to disabled people is regarded as separate to general support
given to employees there is a danger of segregation in the

Running parallel to supported employment
initiatives is the Access to Work scheme – a government fund
providing financial assistance to support disabled people in work,
such as adapting a computer for a blind person. However, a lack of
publicity means few disabled job seekers are aware of it, while few
employers know that they can use the fund to offset the cost of the
adaptation, says Burchardt. Local authorities should make the
scheme more widely known, she adds.

As one of the eight local authorities visited
by the SSI, Wokingham Council is well placed to comment on why
local authorities may not have made the progress expected of them.
Head of adult services at Wokingham Mike Geernaert thinks the
effort of co-ordinating several agencies to make welfare-to-work
schemes succeed has a bearing.

Added to this is the benefit trap, which is a
huge disincentive for users and carers. If disabled people forgo
their benefit for a job but it doesn’t work out, they have to
reapply for benefit. On the other hand, disabled people may
restrict themselves to part-time work in order to keep their
benefit, or an employer might feel they could only employ them part
time. This produces a mindset that isn’t helpful, says

“The SSI report has made us realise that we
have to create the right environment for people so they can access
work, for example, support at home that is flexible enough to allow
them to do work experience.”

The social services department is now trying
to ensure that welfare to work features on disabled people’s care
assessments, irrespective of their level of need.

The social inclusion agenda is critical, says
Geernaert, because work is about experiencing the real world.
Disabled people can fail at work, not because they don’t have the
job skills, but because they haven’t got the emotional and social
skills to cope with the environment, he says. These are acquired in
socially inclusive settings such as going to college where you rub
shoulders with others. To this end, the council’s welfare-to-work
project aims to help disabled people access leisure and education
opportunities as they can lead to job prospects.

“The report has made us think more broadly
than focusing purely on the job. It’s about preparing both their
work skills and their social and emotional skills,” says Geernaert.
“The paths people can follow into work aren’t always a direct

1 Department of Health,
Modernising Social Services, The Stationery Office,

2 G Griffiths, Making
it Work: Inspection of Welfare to Work for Disabled People
DoH, 2001,

3 T Burchardt, Enduring
Economic Exclusion: Disabled People, Income and Work
, YPS,

“Our role is to instil belief…”

Stockport Council’s employment service began
in 1986 as part of the Mencap Pathway employment service. The
closure programme for long-stay hospitals had just begun in the
area, so the service was geared up to helping people move on from
long-stay care from day one, says Doug Cresswell, employment
service manager, and lead officer for the council’s welfare-to-work
joint investment plan for disability.

Its success in helping people with learning
difficulties into mainstream employment led to the service
expanding to cover people recovering from mental illness, sensory
impairments and physical disabilities. In 1988, the service was
taken on by Stockport Council and it also now works with people
recovering from substance abuse.

It operates a supported employment model, with
25 employment officers covering the area when fully staffed.

“We work with people who other agencies will
not work with, either because they believe they aren’t ready for
work or they believe they don’t have enough support available to
help them through employment,” says Cresswell.

Name a national or regional company and the
chances are that Stockport Council’s employment service has worked
with them, says Cresswell, including organisations in retail,
manufacturing, high-tech and catering, as well as hotels and the
public sector.

“We get to know the job seekers really well
and the people in their lives, so that everyone is hooked up on the
idea that they can work. Our role is to instil our belief in those
people,” he says.

The service finds the kind of job the client
is after and which both sides feel they will be skilled in and then
negotiate the job for them. Then they decide on the type of support
structure that will be needed to make the job work for the employee
and the employer. This can be in-work or out-of-work support – for
example, an employer may need help to train the employee and to
interpret training materials for someone with a sensory impairment,
or someone else may need to be reminded to take their

The results speak for themselves: the service
has placed almost 300 people in ordinary jobs since 1986, and in
any one year works with a minimum of about 60 people. Half way
through this year it had already found jobs for 37 people.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.