We can do more to support people with learning disabilities into work
The needs of those with learning disabilities to prepare for and find work are too often overlooked, Kate Green writes, as she encourages MPs to set up placement programmes
Monday 3 December marks the UN International Day for Persons with Disabilities, a day when we focus on disabled people’s rights. So there couldn’t be a better time to be thinking about what more we can do to close the so-called disability employment gap. Today, the difference in the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled people stands at over 30%. 44% of working age disabled people are not working, though many would love to do so. For those with a learning disability, the picture is even bleaker: fewer than a quarter are in paid work.
I’ve always championed a right to work. It offends and upsets me that we deny so many people with learning disabilities the chance and dignity of a good job. It not only damages them economically, it harms their self-esteem, and excludes them from the social engagement that so many of us find at work. But despite numerous government initiatives, and the efforts of some excellent charities, the support needs of those with learning disabilities to prepare for and find work are too often overlooked.
This injustice starts early. A few years ago, I attended a Disability Confident event at which teachers from the local secondary school for students with special needs spoke about how hard they were finding it to obtain work experience for students with learning disabilities. It was a wakeup call for me. Students at other schools in my constituency regularly undertook work experience in my office. It was easy for us to arrange, and my staff and I were proud that we made a special effort to reach out to schools with more disadvantaged intakes. But as the teacher spoke, I realised we had never approached this particular school.
So we contacted the school to ask if they’d be interested in work experience placements in my constituency office. Our offer was greeted enthusiastically. Staff came in to help us design the programme the students would follow. The first group of young people were prepared carefully by the school, with discussions about how they’d travel to the office, the tasks they’d perform, and the office team they would meet. On their first day, their teachers accompanied and remained with them. On the next occasion, they escorted the students to the office, then left them with us for the rest of the morning. After that, the students travelled independently, undertook tasks allocated by my office manager, and set off happily at the end of the morning for the local McDonalds, where they’d decided they’d have lunch.
Since that initial programme three years ago, we’ve welcomed dozens of students from the school. I can’t begin to describe the pride we take in their achievements. Teachers report improved attendance, concentration and behaviour in class. The students become more independent and more confident, and all have gone on to further study or into work. We are especially thrilled that one has begun an access course and hopes to go to university.
Encouraged by our positive experience in the constituency, we next decided to offer a placement in my Westminster office. This took more thought, the office is only staffed part-time, and we undertake fewer routine tasks there. We teamed up with Mencap to think through what we could offer, and it was agreed that we would support an older student as part of an established study programme. Again, we received help to plan suitable tasks and support, and Lucy undertook an attachment with us late last year, becoming a highly popular member of the office, attending meetings, welcoming guests, and managing the post.
The young people we have welcomed into my two offices have clearly benefited from the experience, but so have my staff and I. It’s made us more imaginative, more creative, and improved our communication skills as we seek to explain complex concepts in simple language. Best of all has been the warmth and appreciation of the young people, many of whom arrive shy and withdrawn, and yet months later will greet us in the street, or get in touch to tell us about their progress. It’s been such a rewarding experience for all involved, and now, as we mark International Day for Persons with Disabilities, I want to encourage my parliamentary colleagues to try it too.
From my experience, I can say there’s excellent support to enable you to do so, from charities like Mencap and United Response, and from special needs teachers in your local schools. The government is also developing programmes, including supported work experience and internships, so talk to your local Jobcentre Plus. There’s plenty of flexibility to design a programme that works for each office, in your constituency or in Westminster, from longer, paid placements or apprenticeships, to short taster sessions for school-age students.
We have had a great experience, and the young people we have worked with all tell us they have too. Young people in your constituency, their parents and their teachers would love it if you could offer a placement, and I’d definitely recommend you do. As we mark the rights of disabled people this week, I can’t think of a better time for colleagues to give it a try!
Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston