Don’t put people in box marked ‘learning disabled’

Efforts should be towards supporting people to enter and stay in mainstream employment where their skills will be recognised. Picture: Rob McDougall
Efforts should be towards supporting people to enter and stay in mainstream employment where their skills will be recognised. Picture: Rob McDougall
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Proper support means everyone wins, says Jamie Rutherford

The past few months saw the the publication of the Scottish Government’s ten-year learning disability strategy, The Keys to Life. The strategy was debated in the Scottish Parliament in late September, and with continuing low rates of employment for people with learning disabilities, employment featured highly as a topic for debate amongst MSPs, as it does within organisations such as ENABLE Scotland.

Recent eSAY statistics from, the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability highlight that, across Scotland, only 13 per cent of adults who have a learning disability are in employment or training. We estimate only 3 per cent will be in mainstream paid work.

With support, people with learning disabilities will make as valuable a contribution to the workplace as any other employee. They want an income, friends, a love life and a reason to get out of bed in the morning like anyone else.

I firmly believe that people who have learning disabilities do not need to be in workplaces exclusively for disabled people to do that. The Keys to Life states: “The Scottish Government is clear that we should focus on helping disabled people enter mainstream employment wherever possible. However, we also believe that there can be a valuable role for Supported Businesses, both as a stepping stone towards mainstream employment and for those who feel unable to progress.”

Supporting people towards mainstream employment

The key words here are “stepping stone”. Supported businesses and emerging social enterprises can be a good step towards employment for people with learning disabilities, enabling the development of new skills and confidence. This needs to include opportunities for transition into mainstream work so they can continue to build confidence and skills.

All our efforts should be towards supporting people to enter and stay in mainstream employment where their skills will be recognised, valued and developed and where they will earn a proper wage for carrying out a job, just like anyone else.

The Keys to Life strategy also references the recent failures of some supported businesses. In 2012 the UK Government announced the closure of many Remploy factories across Britain, arguing that each place at Remploy cost approximately £25,000 annually (employees were not getting paid anything like this as a salary).

I feel it may be because of this lack of transition that the effects of the closure of the Remploy factories were so devastating to disabled people and their families. People had been removed from mainstream employment for such a long time, for many their entire working life. So the reality of gaining employment seemed almost impossible when the factories shut their doors.

Through the Re-Connect programme, ENABLE Scotland has supported people to realise their own skills and ambitions again and become employed in their own right. Re-Connect is an ENABLE Scotland programme funded through the Department of Work and Pensions. We support around 50 people made redundant by Remploy and aiming to re-connect with their community and find a job. We are running this programme in five areas of Scotland and to date 18 people have secured employment.

Highly capable people

When we started working with the former Remploy employees, the overwhelming message coming through was that people wanted to work, mainly full time, and they wanted to earn a proper wage – these are highly capable people with skills and qualifications.

There is also a need to recognise business often needs help in terms of employing people who have learning disabilities. Over the past year we have helped 20 Scottish businesses recruit and support disabled employees through the Remploy Recruitment Incentive. Through this programme employers receive incentives to make modifications to their workplace as well as to provide training and support to employ former Remploy workers.

The Scottish Government have pledged that by 2018 the Learning Disability Implementation Group will work with local authorities, NHS boards and third sector organisations to develop a range of supported employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities. While we welcome this commitment, the timescales are lengthy and employers need to be supported to do more, sooner. Many social enterprises offer another model that gives people first steps to employment, along with a clear process for transition. ENABLE Scotland runs two social enterprises – a coffee shop in Arbroath and a garden centre in Kilwinning and both provide gradual support and planning that enable people to move on into real jobs.

As part of the Scottish Government’s Supported Business Advisory Group, we hope we can share our success across the wider community of Scottish supported business and ensure disabled people are afforded the right support for the same opportunities as any other Scottish jobseeker.

• Jamie Rutherford is ENABLE Scotland performance manager

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