Service User Voice: Disabled jobs on the line

A few weeks ago, I commented here that Remploy didn’t publicise its services widely enough. But if, as they say, all publicity is good publicity, then Remploy has now exceeded all expectations.

The agency announced that the organisation was struggling to stay within its £111m budget, looking to close some of its factories, and focus on integrating disabled people into the workforces of “ordinary” companies.

In the debate that has followed, there’s been a clash of opinions between two sets of organisations that are both meant to look out for the interests of Remploy’s employees.

On one side, the trade unions have started a fight to save jobs. They point out that many of the employees would find it hard to get jobs where their conditions were accommodated so successfully, and where they were less likely to suffer discrimination.

On the other side, some disability organisations claim that Remploy’s new strategy is the right one: if the integration of disabled people into the mainstream is to progress, then it should be spearheading ways to enable people with disabilities to get the same jobs – with the right support – as everyone else. They argue that we won’t get rid of discrimination in employment until management and (non-disabled) workers are used to working alongside disabled people.

It’s the same argument that has been simmering for decades in special education, and for the last few years in adult day services: segregation versus integration.

People, particularly those with severe needs, can earn a living (if low-paid) in a sheltered environment. They cope with their impairments with the experienced help available, and learn from each other how to deal with the vagaries of working life. This point of view is out of fashion. But that doesn’t mean to say that it hasn’t had its successes.

The integrationists say disabled people will not become equal members of their communities until they can participate in every aspect of everyday life, particularly education and employment, without discrimination or comment.

But, as Peter Beresford points out in his recent blog, we still need some serious work to make open employment “truly inclusive, accessible and non-disabling”, and, as he points out, we shouldn’t get rid of something that works, if only for some people, until something better is in place.

Which is how I feel about changes to special education and adult day services.

 Simon Heng is a wheelchair user and is involved in service user organisations

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