Learning disability: shifting the dial on employment

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

Diane Lightfoot

Diane Lightfoot

Identity means very different things to different people and it can change many times in a lifetime.

Our Identity is shaped by our experiences and the world around us.

It’s also shaped by what we do every day; one of the main ways that most of us define ourselves is through our job and one of the first things we tend to ask when we meet someone new is “what do you do?” or even “where do you work?”.

For too many disabled people, that’s a really difficult question to answer. But for most people with a learning disability, it’s impossible. Though the figures for the employment of disabled people overall have crept up to 51%, those for the employment of people with a learning disability remain at a woeful 6% – as compared to over 80% employment for working age adults as a whole.

So, to mark this year’s Learning Disability Week, I wanted to shine a light on what’s needed to change this.

A confession: I have a particular interest here, having worked for a learning disability charity for 13 years before joining Business Disability Forum. During those 13 years, it struck me that work – good work – is, for many people with learning disabilities, the most genuine form of inclusion there is. It’s something many of us are lucky enough to be able to take for granted and so we probably don’t think of all the myriad benefits of work when we begin our commute each morning. It’s not just about paying the rent or mortgage (though few would argue that’s pretty important!) but also a social group, emotional support – a natural way of building the “circles of support” that are so often talked about for people with learning disabilities), self-esteem and yes, identity.

At Business Disability Forum, we work with organisations across all sectors to help them get better at recruiting retaining disabled employees and serving disabled customers. Our 300 members employ around 15% of the UK workforce and around 8 million people worldwide. But what we are ultimately here for – I believe – is to transform the life chances that disabled people have as employees and consumers – and includes people with a learning disability.

I’ve been at BDF for 2.5 years now and one of the things I am pleased to see is increased interest and focus on recruitment rather than just retention. Skills shortages in sectors such as construction mean that employers are recognising the need to reach the widest possible talent pool.

So how can you get better at employing people with learning disabilities?

When recruiting, think about what you really need for the job. We’ve all been there when someone in our team leaves and we think we must get the vacant post filled as soon as possible; yesterday, ideally. So it’s all too easy to dust down the old job description and person spec and even the old advert, give it a quick once over and do exactly what you did to recruit last time.

But what if you took a step back?

What if you paused for a moment to think about whether you really need those qualifications or three years’ experience or a driving licence or whether someone might be able to demonstrate to you that they can do the job another way? What if you thought about the outcomes you need from the job and whether they might be achieved differently? It’s also about challenging your frame of reference; the Maynard Review made recommendations to the entry level for apprenticeships to open them up to people with learning disabilities by waiving the requirement for Maths and English GCSE. That’s great news. But I’m willing to bet that the people who originally set the entry criteria weren’t trying to set them high to exclude people with a learning disability! They probably thought they were setting them at a really attainable level. So, its’ worth challenging yourself about what you really need.

Then, when you advertise, make sure you offer alternative formats including easy read (simple text supported by pictures). It’s also vital to make sure any sifting process – whether automated or human – doesn’t automatically screen out people with a less traditional CV or one that has gaps as this may well exclude people (not just with a learning disability) who for whatever reason haven’t had the opportunity to build their portfolio.

And once at assessment, it’s about testing the right skills. I don’t know many people who actively love interviews but for some people with a learning disability (or indeed who are neurodiverse) may really struggle with the traditional panel format. Offering a work trial – which is legally a reasonable adjustment – gives people to demonstrate the skills they will need to show in the workplace.

Once in the job, inclusive onboard such as buddying schemes of “week one mentors” for new employees with a learning disability can really help with orientation and helping someone get used to their new role and environment. And other approaches such as job carving (where you remove an aspect/s of a job that someone may find a barrier – for example dealing with money) or Training in Systematic Assumption (TSI) where a job is taught by breaking processes down into individual component tasks – can make all the difference in an employee with a learning disability thriving at work. Our Advice Service recently worked with a large employer to understand why people with learning disabilities were being recruited into the organisation but not successfully completing the probation period. We found that passing the probation period was dependent on every employee scoring well in a comprehensive health and safety training exercise. The health and safety training was generic and not tailored to job roles. When we tailored the health and safety assessment to the employee’s specific role, the employee passed his probation and remained successfully in post.

There are still challenges; people with learning disabilities are among those most impacted by the Access to Work cap. Whilst the cap has been raised, it still remains a barrier for people who require “human support” a work – and that might be the difference in being able to afford a job coach for an employee with a learning disability or not.

There are challenges too in raising aspirations, well before the workplace. Far too many young people with a learning disability are still growing up without the encouragement to – let along the expectation of – working. Job readiness needs to keep pace with the changing landscape of entry level jobs – the dwindling of supermarket checkout roles being an obvious example – and the changing requirements of employers. Equally, employers need to be open to doing things differently and to understand a work trial is not only a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, but is also, for many jobs, a far better measure of whether someone can actually do a job as opposed to telling you about it.

This Learning Disability Week, let’s work together and shift the dial on those woeful statistics once and for all.

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

 

To mark Learning Disability Week, we are offering a 25% discount on two year intranet licences on a resources bundle to include our Learning Disabilities Briefing, Managing Difficult Conversations and Line Manager Guide on Non-visible Disabilities. Please contact our publications team on +44 (020) 7089 2430 or email publications@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk” to find out more and to order your bundle.

Blue Monday’s dirty secret (and why it doesn’t matter)

By Christopher Watkins


Today is the third Monday of January; so-called Blue Monday, apparently ‘the most depressing’ day of the year. It’s around this time of year that I get a glut of companies phoning me up to ask if I could speak at their mental health awareness event, run a workshop, or advise on the health & wellbeing activities they are planning to ‘celebrate’ the big day. And it makes a great deal of sense to do so: performance dips and sickness absence peaks are a well-recognised phenomenon in January, and such wellbeing exercises can minimise the effects of these on overall business performance. An eye-catching ‘day’ to attach an agenda to can also be a useful tool to raise larger issues across large organisations and promote cultural change.

I must confess, however, that I have mixed feelings towards the ubiquitous mass of awareness days at the best of times. My cynical side is frequently frustrated by the idea that by simply ‘raising awareness’ of an issue we somehow make a meaningful difference to society or individuals’ lives. And then there’s so many of them! Did you know that next month is not only National Heart Month[1] and Raynaud’s Awareness Month[2], but Cholangiocarcinoma Awareness Month as well[3]? Within the first week of February alone, we have World Cancer Day (4 Feb)[4], National Doodle Day (for Epilepsy, 5 Feb)[5] and ‘Wear it Beat it’ (for the British Heart Foundation, 6 Feb)[6], before a week of Tinnitus awareness starting on 8 Feb[7]?

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

‘Blue Monday’ might just wind me up more than the rest put together, not only because it is an issue close to my heart, but because it hides a dirty secret; one which, I fear, those working in the area are embarrassed to admit lest it promote cynicism towards the wider agenda. I have taken to asking organisations planning their Blue Monday events what they understand the meaning of the day to be, and have heard responses describing it as anything from the day on which people are most likely to be off sick with depression, the annual peak for deaths by suicide, the day in which people are most likely to self-report as being depressed…

Unfortunately, the reality is that Blue Monday has about as much to do with credible research into the seasonal prevalence of mental ill-health as the 1983 New Order masterpiece by the same name. The third Monday in January is, in fact, the day on which is it easiest to sell you a summer holiday.

Or, more specifically, it is a widely discredited invention peddled by PR company Porter Novelli on behalf of Sky Travel about ten years ago. It claims to be based on an entirely nonsensical formula based on metrics including ‘travel time’, ‘delays’, ‘time spent packing’, and a number of other factors without defined units of measurement[8]. To be fair, by a 2009 press release the formula seems to have been reviewed to consider slightly more reasonable factors like ‘weather’, ‘debt’ and ‘time since failing new year’s resolutions’, again without any defined units of measurements but reassuringly (or miraculously) coming up with exactly the same day[9].

I’m not, to be clear, passing judgement on any of the causes or issues behind these awareness events and don’t for one minute want to suggest that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s easy to see, however, how well-meaning businesses and diversity teams can get bogged down in a relentless calendar of ‘awareness raising’, to the extent that they might lose sight of what’s really important: the benefits to business, individuals and society as a whole delivered by diverse workforces and inclusive practices. My message is simply to take a step back and consider the purpose of any event or wellbeing exercise you are taking part in today, and specifically the value these activities add for the time, effort and money invested.

So, have I been turning down these Blue Monday speaking engagements on principle, then? Of course not. After all, almost every awareness day is essentially ‘made up’, and it would be foolish to dismiss them on this basis. If you are currently investing in mental health in your organisation, it makes great sense to attach your activities to a (rightly or wrongly) recognised ‘awareness day’. It’s also perfectly sensible to invest in mental wellbeing at this time of year because you have identified that performance or sickness absence issues peak in the winter months. But for the sake of not just pedantry but transparency and credibility, please let’s stop calling Blue Monday ‘the most depressing day of the year’ and rather see it for what it is: a potentially useful tool to promote meaningful cultural change and reap the benefits of a healthy and inclusive workplace and society, with no need for a fabricated ‘meaning’ beyond that. Let’s have the courage to be led by tangible and empirically-founded diversity and inclusion priorities based on business and cultural need, not the unrelenting calendar of awareness events!

[1] http://www.bhf.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[2] http://www.raynauds.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[3] http://www.ammf.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[4] http://www.worldcancercampaign.org/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[5] http://doodle-day.epilepsy.org.uk/

[6] https://wearitbeatit.bhf.org.uk/

[7] http://www.tinnitus.org.uk/#sthash.TroBQktw.dpuf

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/science/2006/dec/16/badscience.uknews

[9] https://web.archive.org/web/20100221213456/http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/media/news-releases/news-releases-2009/13-january-2009


You can talk to Christopher at christopherw@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or Tweet him at @chrispydubbs

Event round-up: Technology Taskforce Film Festival

By Dean Haynes

Monday December 7 saw the fourth annual Technology Taskforce event take place, generously hosted by KPMG at their Canary Wharf offices. This time, forgoing our tried and tested quiz show format, we decided to hold a film festival with a difference, and not forgetting the popcorn! The delegates were each issued with wireless two-channel headsets, which would allow them to hear the films’ original soundtrack, or with added audio description.

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The space at KPMG was transformed into a silent cinema, where attendees had the chance to see a range of films on disability-related perspectives. From short films by disabled filmmakers about their experiences, to thought-provoking videos produced by members of the Taskforce, the evening aimed to challenge assumptions and attitudes, and open eyes to the reality of living with a disability.

The evening got underway with an introduction from Taskforce manager Lucy Ruck, before she handed over to Walter Scott, the Assistant Head of Communications at the Ministry of Defence, who introduced the first film of the evening “My War With Words”. This profiled a number of military staff and their experiences working with a stammer, a non-visible disability that rarely gets the coverage it warrants.

Our next film came from American filmmaker Jenna Kanell, who gave us a video intro to her film “Bumblebees”, about her disabled brother Vance, who compares himself to a bumblebee in that according to the laws of physics it shouldn’t be able to fly. Leena Haque from the BBC was next on stage, describing her own neurodiversity and introducing her film “A Day In The Life”, which used a video game-like point-of-view to show how someone with neurodiversity tackles their day-to-day work life.

Next, our most intriguing film of the evening came from Gallaudet University in Washington DC, with a statement from Dr. Dirksen Bauman. The film revolves around the students and staff at the university, which caters for the deaf and hearing-impaired and itself is totally silent, which did cause some confusion for some, but made full use of the audio description channel!

The fifth and sixth films came from disability charity Scope, covering the fight for disabled rights with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, and how it has impacted the lives of disabled people and the continuing struggle for equality some 20 years on (including a star turn from our very own Lucy Ruck).

Our final film of the night came from Hilary Lister, a quadriplegic record-breaking yachtswoman. Using a system of straws and “sip-puff” switches, Hilary has sailed single-handed across the English Channel, circumnavigated Great Britain and sailed the 1,500km across the Arabian Sea.


 

You can catch up with the evening’s proceedings by following BDF on Twitter (@disabilitysmart), and feel free to view a selection of the films here:

Jenna Kanell’s “Bumblebees” – http://sproutflix.org/all-films/bumblebees

Gallaudet: The Film – http://disabilitymovies.com/2010/gallaudet-the-film