Many people with a learning disability in Wales want to be in paid employment but struggle to find suitable workplaces. What needs to change to make this possible?


Our work on employment

For the last 4 years Learning Disability Wales has been part of the Engage to Change project that supports young people aged 16-25 with a learning disability and/or autism into paid employment. In November 2021 we also dedicated our annual conference to the topic of work and employment.

As part of the Engage to Change project we work with young people, families and employers using a supported employment and job coaching model to find good jobs for people with learning disabilities and/or autism. But in order for people with a learning disability or autistic people to have the same chances in the labour market as everyone else, a lot of other things need to change too. We talked about some of these changes in the final session of our conference with a panel of experts:

  • Sara Pickard, Disabled People’s Employment Champion, Welsh Government
  • Joe Powell, Director, All Wales People First
  • Daniel Biddle, Managing Director, Legacy in the Community
  • Kim Killow, Lead Officer for Integrated Structures, North Wales Together
  • Dr Steve Beyer, Researcher, National Centre for Mental Health
  • Zoe Richards, CEO, Learning Disability Wales.

You can watch the recording of the whole session here.

We discussed several of the changes needed to make Wales a country in which every person with a learning disability who wants to work can find a job.

Changing attitudes in society and the workplace

Often people who do not have a learning disability underestimate what disabled people are capable of and think people with a learning disability should not have ‘proper’ jobs. At our conference, Sara Pickard told us that the best way to show what people are capable of is for them to be visible in society, in the media, in schools – everywhere. This is important not just for employers, but also for people with a learning disability themselves, who are often not encouraged to seek paid work, even when they are keen to do so. Kim Killow explained that the “culture of low aspirations” for people with a learning disability is possibly the hardest barrier to tackle. Changing the culture and making sure that people with a learning disability are included in all aspects of society will be vital in overcoming these barriers.

Increasing understanding of the social model of disability

Too many people still think of disabled people as not being able to do things because there is something wrong with them – this is known as the medical model of disability. The social model of disability, on the other hand, states that people are disabled by barriers in society rather than their impairment or difference. As Sara Pickard pointed out, reasonable adjustments to enable a disabled person to do a job well are often much easier to set up than employers may think. Educating employers about the social model of disability is likely to make it easier for them to consider ways to increase accessibility in the workplace for people with a learning disability. This also means making sure that they can easily access advice on issues like reasonable adjustments, Access to Work, supported employment or disability awareness training. Daniel Biddle added that this also means understanding the Equalities Act better. Employers may think that if they treat everyone exactly the same they are not discriminating against anyone. However, in order to achieve equality of opportunity for disabled people there is often a need for reasonable adjustments and not providing these could be considered a form of discrimination.

Making applications more accessible

The job application process itself can often be inaccessible for people with a learning disability, for example having to complete complicated application forms. Employers should make sure the application process is as simple as possible, so that people who might be perfectly capable of doing a job do not get excluded simply because they cannot navigate the application process.

Ensuring support is available everywhere and for everyone

There is often a ‘postcode lottery’ around who can access support. At our conference Kim Killow explained that “we have some of the pieces of what we need in place. But it’s just not all coming together”. It is important that local inequalities in Wales are addressed and people with a learning disability can access support from wherever they are. It is also important that support is available for people of all ages. Employment support (including the Engage to Change project) is often specifically aimed at young people up to the age of 25. However, people with a learning disability of all ages might need support in order to find and keep paid work. At our conference Dr Steve Beyer stated that job coaching should be available across Wales for those who need it as well as at every stage in the process. In terms of funding this means that money needs to be ringfenced for supported employment and job coaching to ensure that people with more complex support needs are not left behind.

Protecting legacy benefits

A big problem for people with a learning disability who want to try paid employment is that they risk losing their benefits if the job does not work out for some reason. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should change the rules so that if you try work for a few months and then go back on benefits you should get the same benefits as before without having to wait weeks or months. As both Steve Beyer and Joe Powell pointed out, we need a benefits system that encourages people to work by removing the risk of losing their benefits and ending up worse off than they were before.

Making education inclusive

The difficulties people with a learning disability face in the workplace often start before they are even old enough to work. Our CEO Zoe Richards described how in order to create inclusive workplaces we must also create “inclusive learning environments”. This means making mainstream schools accessible for all children and making sure all children get the education they need. It also means making progression normal instead of making young people with a learning disability believe that they can never achieve paid employment. Daniel Biddle discussed the importance of making a true “culture of inclusion” in schools. Joe Powell added that “many people with a learning disability effectively retire at 18”. We have to make sure that young people are not denied having the place in society they want and deserve from the start. Making education inclusive also means making sure the people who work in schools and sit on school governing boards are as diverse as their students.

Empowering people with a learning disability to stand up for themselves

People with a learning disability and autistic people are often discriminated against in the workplace and in other parts of society. They are often not given the same opportunities as others or not given the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to. In order to change this, we must empower people with a learning disability to understand their rights and how to fight for them. They need accessible information as well as advocacy support when things do go wrong. Daniel Biddle also explained how important it is for parents to have the information they need to fight for their children to get an inclusive education. It is only if people have the tools they need to fight for their own rights that they can drive change for all children and adults with learning disabilities.

Rethinking our understanding of work and employment

We know that most people with a learning disability in Wales want to be in work, not just because of the money they will earn but also because it gives them a purpose, independence and a way to contribute to society. With more and more jobs being done by machines we have to start thinking about changing the system so that everyone gets a chance to have a meaningful life. Wales is currently trialing forms of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in which people will be paid an income regardless of whether they work or not. If a UBI is more widely rolled out, this might offer people with a learning disability the chance to explore their strengths and skills outside of what we understand as work at the moment. If this is the case, then it would be important for things like Access to Work or supported employment to still be available to support people with learning disability to participate in society.

The road ahead

We will keep working to make supported employment and job coaching available to people with a learning disability and autism throughout Wales with our partners in the Engage to Change project. We have heard from many of the project’s participants that taking part in the programme has made them happier and more confident. But in order to make employment really accessible we need these bigger changes too.