Companies fear employing people with learning disabilities, survey reveals
Summary: The government wants more people with disabilities working. In a recent speech, the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith said he aims to halve the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people, and criticised businesses for failing to provide enough opportunities.
Yet a new survey by the charity Mencap reveals that many employers remain uneasy about the role they are expected to play in closing the gap. Only 16% of UK employers felt confident that the disability employment gap would be halved.
The survey also reveals nervousness about how customers and staff might interact with people with learning disabilities, a group still facing considerable exclusion.
Almost a quarter (23%) of employers feel their colleagues would not be happy working with someone with a learning disability. And 45% fear it might be difficult for the public to deal with someone with a learning disability (the figure drops to 30% for employers who have experience hiring people with learning disabilities).
“It’s a lack of knowledge and awareness,” says Mark Capper, head of employment at Mencap. “People are often scared of the unknown. But once we actually support people with learning disabilities into work we find employers have a positive reaction and tell us about positive impacts.”
There are 1.4 million people in the UK with a learning disability, defined as a reduced intellectual ability. Although 65% of adults with learning disabilities want to work, just 7% have been able to find paid employment.
Businesses bucking the trend
Capper says there has been progress since Mencap’s learning disability work experience week was launched two years ago. Mencap and Inclusive Employers have arranged week-long placements for those who have never been given the chance before. Major employers including McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s, South West Trains and Enterprise Rent-a-Car have been involved in the scheme.
South West Trains hired eight people with learning disabilities in cleaning roles after last year’s placements. Now the company is trialling six more Mencap candidates as gateline assistants, checking tickets and making sure barriers are working at London stations.
“I felt we were missing talent opportunities,” explains Kelly Barlow, human resources director at South West Trains. “We were happy to put the initial work in with the trainees and give them the skills, and what we got in return were great people with great attitudes. We saw their positive attitude to work became infectious in the team around them.”
Nearly half of employers (46%) remain worried that recruiting people with learning disabilities will involve extra work. Mencap can provide a support worker for each new employee for up to six months, if needed. The charity also offers awareness training, pointing out the ways in which someone with a learning disability might take a bit longer to learn new tasks, or require easy-to-read documents.
A learning disability can be mild or more severe, but affects someone for their whole life. It’s not a mental illness or physical condition that will change over time, so employers need to allow for the extra time someone with a learning disability requires to learn a new task.
“It’s just about some initial adjustment,” says Capper. “But we always stress to companies that there are genuine benefits, too. If people are unhappy doing jobs that can be quite repetitive, then someone with a learning disability, someone who wants to feel part of something bigger, is often very happy to take on those jobs. Also, adjusting hiring practices to be more inclusive can often help businesses understand their disabled customer base better.”
Fear of public reaction
The idea that staff with learning disabilities will have to be kept away from the public is another misconception employers are learning to overcome.
Sharon Pike, 43, works four days a week at a care home in south London, serving meals and helping older people get washed and dressed. Although she has a learning difficulty, Pike gained a NVQ level 2 qualification in health and social care, allowing her to make the step up from back-room caretaker.
“I like being around older people,” Pike explains. “If they need comforting I comfort them. The best thing is making them laugh. My partner tells me jokes that I pass on to the residents and they really enjoy it. I had been unemployed, but I wanted to come off jobseeker’s [allowance] and be independent,” she adds. “I’ve now been working in the care home for over five years and I love it. It’s very rewarding.”
Charities fear government cuts to welfare support will actually make it harder for people like Pike to enter the workplace. A coalition of more than 60 national disability charities has called on the government to reverse cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA), which will see £30 a week taken from new claimants judged capable of working at some point in the future.
In a recent survey, seven in 10 disabled people said ESA cuts would reduce their independence, leaving them more isolated and less able to travel. Only 1% said it would motivate them to get a job sooner.
Source The Guardian
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