Learning disabilities: Are organisations really open to employing staff with learning disabilities?

Getting and holding down a job has traditionally been an enormous challenge for people with learning disabilities. The written job application process, followed by a face-to-face interview, can be very intimidating. Many are put off from applying, and many of those that do perform badly in comparison to others.

Their historically low levels of employment has always represented a massive missed opportunity for HR professionals and the organisations they work for. A large proportion of the 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the UK have a lot to contribute in the workplace – if only they could enter it.

They can often match, even outperform, other colleagues, particularly when engaged in routine-based jobs that require high levels of commitment.

Fortunately, the prospects for paid employment appear to be improving, based on ground-breaking research carried out in conjunction with Personnel Today’s sister magazine Community Care. It seems that businesses are starting to realise the potential of people with learning disabilities, but as our separate survey of people with learning disabilities shows, there’s still some way to go.

Feedback from 451 HR professionals across the private, public and voluntary sectors shows that 59% of organisations employ people with learning disabilities. And 77% describe this employment experience as positive.

But one-fifth of HR professionals do not know whether they employ people with learning disabilities and, if they do, the same proportion are unsure whether it had been a positive or negative experience for the organisation.

Additionally, only 12% of employers used specialist recruitment schemes that help those who find normal recruitment methods too challenging. A far greater number of people with learning disabilities would have a job if specialist recruitment schemes were more widely used.

But employers should bear disability discrimination legislation in mind anyway, as this places an obligation on them to make adjustments in the workplace for those disabled staff who need it. This includes recruitment procedures and terms and conditions of employment.

Major challenge

One of the biggest challenges to further progress lies not with HR, but in convincing sceptical line managers of the compelling business case. Seven in 10 respondents believe that their organisation does not employ people with learning disabilities because of a lack of interest among line managers.

And our figures suggest that local charities and advocates are more effective than JobCentre Plus disability employment advisers, which raises questions about the latter’s profile and performance.

There were positive messages, though. Having a learning disability does not prevent people from being the best person for the job. More than 60% of HR professionals say people with learning disabilities are being recruited because they have as much to contribute as anyone else.

The research also reveals that some individuals are working as analysts, consultants and managers, challenging the myth that they can only fill the lowest-grade roles.

However, employers still have a way to go to fully utilise the talents of people with learning disabilities, as our survey of more than 1,000 people with learning disabilities found. For while 66% want a job, only 22% have one – and that is often for just a few hours a week. This high level of unemployment persists despite one-fifth of the surveyed employers suffering from skills shortages in roles that someone with a learning disability could perform.

So, not only do employers need to be more creative in the ways they go about their recruitment, but HR professionals need to convince their managers of the business benefits of a still relatively untapped source of talent.

Sector reaction

Dame Jo Williams, chief executive, Mencap

“I was pleasantly surprised by the results of the survey. One of the most pleasing aspects is the number of different jobs filled by people with a learning disability at last we are breaking away from the narrow-minded view that people with a learning disability are only capable of the most menial tasks.

“It does surprise me, however, that 76% of employers used normal recruitment methods as opposed to the specialist services that exist. In our experience, people with learning disabilities need a lot of help to get through the job application and interview process. The most effective way into work is through work experience.

“On the whole this is great news, but as a cautionary note it does raise a question of how employers define a learning disability.”

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

“Seeing people as individuals, rather then labelling them as a member of a disadvantaged group, is vital to employers seeking to recruit and retain talent.

“Employers need to adopt a creative, positive and solutions-focused approach to making any adjustments that meet both the needs of the business and the person with the learning disability.

“Many people with learning disabilities will worry about the negative stereotypes that employers might attach to them. The survey shows that 44% of organisations agree they do not have any suitable roles. But it is crucially important to an organisation’s own interests that they begin to value all people as individuals and understand that each person has different needs. When employers ignore diverse labour market sources they are fuelling problems for themselves.

“Although the survey provides some good news, the results show there is plenty of scope for employers to pull their socks up and to address the disability agenda.

“More employers need to provide practical ways to enable people with learning disabilities to work and to accommodate people’s personal abilities. The spin-off learning from such approaches may help organisations to be more successful in adopting creative and leading-edge approaches to recruiting and retaining talent and put them ahead of their competitors in the war for talent.”

Rob Greig, national director, Valuing People

“This survey shows some encouraging responses from employers about their willingness to employ people with learning disabilities, and in particular how almost all employers describe their experiences of employing learning disabled people in a positive manner.

“However, it also demonstrates some of the challenges we face. For example, how recruitment processes appear to be an obstacle and that the range of jobs people are currently filling are very limited in their scope and ambition.

“Perhaps most important is the clear message from employers that the major factor that would encourage increased employment levels is the evidence and belief that learning disabled employees will contribute as much as other employees.

“We know this can be the case and so we must focus recruitment campaigns on making this business case, rather than appealing to the charity or sympathy of employers.”

Sherie Griffiths, managing director, Griffiths Legal

“The research highlights the need to understand the Disability Discrimination Act’s (DDA) duties, which span the employment relationship from recruitment to termination – covering direct and indirect discrimination, the removal of physical and procedural barriers through reasonable adjustment, harassment and victimisation.

“Breaching any of these duties can prove very expensive in terms of time, reputation and money. But behind the duties lurk genuine business benefits.

“Any employer who embraces the spirit as well as the letter of the law can steal a march on their competitors, using the wealth of ability hidden behind disability and building the best possible teams. It also improves public profile and helps attract disabled customers – who have more than £50bn per year of disposable income.

“Company directors are now also under a duty to look at their business’s triple bottom line – the measure of environmental, social as well as economic performance. As social performance includes the treatment of staff, proactive use of the DDA can only benefit the business.”

Brian Gregory, service employment manager, Linked Employment

“This research supports our experience and our approach.

“Our approach in Essex can be summarised as ‘place, train and fade’, and differs greatly from the ‘place and pray’ model that many employers will have faced.

“It starts with the person with a learning disability and supports them to identify their skills, abilities and talents, and then moves on to look at the type of jobs that would match these talents. They are then supported in targeting potential employers.

“We gain the confidence of employers through demonstrating how well we know our clients and the skills they can bring to the organisation. We ensure that the potential employee will bring skills that make good business sense, and introduce different talents to create a more rounded and aware team that can develop disability-friendly systems.

“This takes away some of the concern and risk that any new employee/employer relationship holds. We also explain that the package does not stop at interview, that we will also coach the new employee and support the employer.

“The approach works best when the agency can point new employers towards its proven track record and positive client base.

“This is about pure business sense, not tokenism, which has left people and employers feeling dumped on in the past.”

Adi Cooper, strategic director of Adult Social Services and Housing, London Borough of Sutton

“There are still disappointingly high numbers of organisations that do not employ people with learning disabilities or don’t know if they do. This wouldn’t be the same for employee data on physical disabilities.

“But it’s positive that a significant number are employing more than 16.

“Organisations that are driven by socially responsible attitudes, including the public sector, have no excuses. It should be central to their diversity and equalities agenda, as well as part of their business strategy.

“In terms of reducing barriers, committed leaders at the front line and in more senior roles, and HR colleagues striving to change historical practices, are critical to success, as are proper support structures.

“Promoting citizenship and reducing welfare-oriented approaches, raising expectations and ambitions of the people we have contact with all creates ‘push’ factors.

“But without the jobs and appropriate attitudes from employers, we risk setting up people with learning disabilities to fail.”

David Perkins, manager, National Autistic Society (NAS) Prospects

“This survey and the experience of NAS’s employment consultancy, Prospects, demonstrates the broad range of jobs that people with disabilities can undertake, given the right support and understanding.

“NAS Prospects works with people with autism to support them to find meaningful and sustainable employment. There is a business case, not an altruistic one, for employers to recruit people with disabilities. Once the ‘reasonable adjustments’ required by the DDA have been made, people with disabilities can perform as well as, and often better than, people who do not have disabilities.

Disappointingly, though, there is still resistance to employing people with disabilities. Some employers find it difficult to make the reasonable adjustments that would enable people with disabilities to work.

“NAS Prospects works with employers to provide training about autism and information about how to make reasonable adjustments – which are often very simple – that will allow people with the disability to make a valuable contribution to the business.”

Case Study : High and Mighty

High and Mighty, a retail chain selling clothes for the larger man, employs Tom* as a store sales assistant.

A work placement was arranged for Tom, who has learning disabilities, after his programme worker met with the store manager.

It was co-ordinated through personnel manager Nicky Hillier. “His assessor was made aware at the outset that he had learning difficulties and has adapted what is done to suit his specific needs,” she says.

“I would not approach a manager where there might be a degree of resistance – not everyone is open-minded. If you can make it work in one store, and prove it is possible to work well, you can push the idea harder outwards.”

It was agreed that, at the end of the placement last June, Tom would be considered for employment. Tom has now been an employee of the company for 11 months, and has started a retail admin NVQ programme.

“Just because someone is not able to do something specific it does not mean that they are not capable of performing a task to the right standard,” says Hillier. “We recruit people who have the skills for the role their baggage is not relevant.

“Where anyone has had difficulties in gaining employment, they generally become loyal and willing employees and an asset to the organisation,” she adds.

*Not his real name

Community Care

Community Care is the leading magazine for social care professionals. This joint article with Personnel Today is part of Community Care’s new campaign – ‘A Life Like Any Other’ – which is promoting the rights and opportunities of people with learning disabilities.

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