People with learning difficulties and employment

The largest employer of people with disabilities is Remploy, the national agency that provides work and support to 9,000 disabled people. Mainstream employers simply do not employ disabled people in the same numbers, and this is especially true regarding people with learning disabilities.

Helping employers understand that they can successfully hire a person with a disability is the role of David Bailey, employment development co-ordinator for the charity United Response. He believes one barrier to this currently happening is employers not having the time to devote to expanding their workforce this way. “The problem is employers are under a lot of everyday pressure and do not have the time to think about this a lot. My job is to show employers there are real benefits of employing people with learning difficulties.”

He adds that once a disabled person has been recruited by an employer, the employer is usually very positive about the decision.

Another barrier stopping some employers hiring people with learning difficulties is the belief about what they are capable of. Kathy Baker, quality support manager for Social Firms UK, says some employers provide work that is “the lowest common denominator” like collecting trolleys in a supermarket’s car park. She says: “These jobs are a bit of a sop to people’s conscious. It doesn’t cost much money to provide and they get government funding when they offer these jobs.”

So what can be done to change the situation? Andrew Lee, director of People First Self-Advocacy, says employers need to be educated about what people with learning difficulties can achieve in the workplace.

He adds the problem needs to be tackled from the top and calls on the Confederation of British Industry to shake up its own act. “The CBI has a lot of restrictive policies about what disabled people and people with learning difficulties can and cannot do. Small businesses go to it for correct information but they don’t give them that information.”

Lee says he has come across cases where employers are not aware of the Access to Work, the government’s scheme to help more disabled people into work.

Sainsbury’s is one employer rising to the challenge and hiring more people with learning disabilities. Although it has always employed people with learning disabilities on a local level, it has now entered into a scheme with learning difficulties charity Mencap to do this across the business. WorkRight was launched by Mencap in November 2005 and Sainsbury’s became the first food retailer involved last February. It committed to hire up to 30 people with learning difficulties over 12 months.

Sainsbury’s resourcing and development consultant and lead on the initiative is Matt Walter. He says employing a person with a learning difficulty reflects who the supermarket is: “We are in the community and many of our staff have disabilities as many of our customers do too. If I walk into any store and see they employ people from different backgrounds I think ‘great, I want to come back!’”.

Walter urges other firms to follow Sainsbury’s lead and employ more people with learning difficulties. He advises companies thinking about this step to “have their own house in order” before forging ahead, and this can be done by gaining support for any plans locally. “They have to consider all the variables about employing someone with a learning difficulty because the moment they don’t, they have let that person down.”

·        See feature on pages 28-29 of Community Care 24 August edition for more information about employment options for people with learning difficulties

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