Down’s syndrome does not shut the door on work

Downs Syndrome Scotland employee Kim Scott addressed MSPs at Holyrood earlier this year about living with the conditionDowns Syndrome Scotland employee Kim Scott addressed MSPs at Holyrood earlier this year about living with the condition
Downs Syndrome Scotland employee Kim Scott addressed MSPs at Holyrood earlier this year about living with the condition
Many people with Down’s syndrome thrive in the workforce, so a new push to help them get there is welcome, says Callum Mackinnon

Government minister Lord Freud last month commented that people with disabilities were “not worth” the minimum wage. While the Westminster welfare minister apologised within 24 hours, his comments do reflect the difficulties many people with Down’s syndrome in Scotland have in finding sustainable, salaried work.

The modern apprenticeship scheme in Scotland is, in theory, “open to anyone aged 16 or over”. Yet despite the demonstrative difficulties people with Down’s syndrome have in finding work, and the obvious benefits such a scheme would offer to them, people with disabilities make up a mere 0.3 per cent of those in apprenticeships. This figure certainly highlights the perception of the capabilities of people with disabilities and their place (or lack thereof) in society.

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Down’s Syndrome Scotland (DSS) works with a lot of individuals who have seen the harshness of this reality. It is not unusual for people with the condition to work in short-term placements or voluntary positions. Nevertheless, despite contributing to the successful running of businesses, permanent positions are much harder to secure. Feedback from DSS members indicates that job descriptions are simply too inflexible to take learning disabilities into account in the long term. This puts a glass ceiling on both opportunities and personal development.

It is, however, encouraging to see the Scottish Government are making some headway in this area. A members’ business debate took place at the Scottish Parliament during Down’s Syndrome Awareness Week in March 2014. The issue of employment was raised, emphasising the lack of opportunities available to people with Down’s syndrome. Further to the debate, DSS met with the Scottish Government to discuss the lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The issue has been raised with other organisations, both public and local authorities, and conversations have been ongoing this year.

Before the summer, a report on Scotland’s workforce was published by the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce entitled Education Working For All! and made recommendations to the government on disability which DSS supports. These recommendations focussed on tailored career advice and work experience; increased funding levels to training bodies and colleges working with people with disabilities; realistic but challenging targets within apprenticeships, and; encouragement of employers actively seeking to employ people with disabilities. In 2015-16, the government will allocate a further £16.6 million to take forward recommendations.

John Swinney, cabinet secretary for finance and employment, vowed “to expand apprenticeship opportunities, establish new regional employment partnerships and support employers to engage with and employ young people”.

Such engagement, and seeing an increased number of people with Down’s syndrome thrive in employment, can only be a positive move.

As well as the obvious benefits to the individual, it should highlight that the additional support needs required in the workplace may not be as drastic as some might think. One DSS member, who wishes to remain anonymous, was recently awarded for ten years of service in his job with an Edinburgh based fast-food retailer. His manager talks very highly of him and gives an insight to how this has been achieved. “Like all of the staff, he has a unique skill set and we are proud to have him on the team. We make the best use of the skills he has, as we do with every member of staff.”

The solution seems relatively simple in this instance – work to the strengths of each individual, disabled or otherwise. As well as a fair wage, this opportunity also secures said individual’s well-being, both practically and psychologically.

In Dec 2013, with this sentiment in mind, DSS submitted evidence to the Expert Working Group on Welfare welcoming the aim of encouraging young people to be “responsible citizens” and “effective contributors” as defined in the curriculum for excellence. All pupils, including children with Down’s syndrome, are therefore encouraged to develop these attributes throughout their education. An inability to participate in society due to a lack of employment opportunities once they leave school or college can only erode these goals for young adults with Down’s syndrome.

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A lot of the work DSS does is in challenging the negative stereotypes. DSS seeks to raise awareness among a broad public to the fact that Down’s syndrome is a condition that exists on a spectrum. Those who have the condition all have unique personalities, interests and talents. It is a great loss to society and to the individual if these cannot be harnessed due to a simple lack of understanding.

• Callum Mackinnon is communications officer at Down’s Syndrome Scotland,

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