Transition implies a seamless progression from the world of education to the world of work. But as Sal McKeown shows, it can be anything but for those with learning disabilities.

Mencap, the UK’s leading charity for people with learning disabilities, wants to see more action on employment:

We all want to get a job. Aside from the money — which gives us more independence and choices — it’s also a sign of social inclusion and being seen as a full member of society.

A recent Green Paper states its intention to help, ‘at least 1 million disabled people into work’ but critics claim that at current rates it would take more than 200 years to halve the disability employment gap. Stephen Evans, chief executive of the think-tank Learning and Work Institute, said:

Our analysis has found that fewer than one in 10 disabled people receive any employment support at all, with funding for disability employment programmes due to be halved in this parliament.

The figures are appalling. According to Mencap, 65 per cent of people with a learning disability want to work and have the mental capability to hold down a job. Yet only six per cent are in paid employment. Even worse, the figure has dropped from seven per cent in 2014. In other words, things are getting worse — and it is not just in the UK.



According to Mencap, 65 per cent of people with a learning disability want to work.

The picture is the same in the USA. Figures released at the end of October 2016 from the US Department of Labor indicate that the jobless rate for people with disabilities rose to 9.9 per cent, up from 8.7 per cent in the previous month.

The American with Disabilities Act is often seen as a gold standard. It is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities and applies to private employers with 15 or more employees as well as state and local government employers. Yet it is not fully effective in protecting the rights of those with intellectual disabilities.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports:

An estimated 2.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability. The majority of adults with an intellectual disability are either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability, desire, and willingness to engage in meaningful work in the community.

In Ireland, a different picture emerges. A paper published in 2015, Educational and Employment Experiences of People with a Disability in Ireland: An Analysis of the National Disability Survey drew upon the 2006 National Disability Survey (NDS) of over 7,000 people of working age with a disability and found that, ‘compared to people with mobility and dexterity disability, we no longer see a significantly different probability of being in employment among those with remembering and concentrating disability or people with intellectual disability.’

They identified barriers to employment which were not always directly related to disability. The first was education and qualifications: children with special needs found it hard to engage with their school work and ‘Those with an intellectual or learning disability were far more likely to have been affected during their school years (92 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively).’

Younger adults were more likely to find work than older people, those with good health or stamina fared better than those with health problems and those with a moderate level of difficulty were more likely to obtain employment than those with greater difficulty who would need more support. People with a sensory disability did better than those with other disabilities and those living in Dublin had more opportunities than those living elsewhere.

A Canadian study was published in August 2016 by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) called Inclusive Employment for Canadians with Disabilities: Toward a New Policy Framework and Agenda. Michael Prince analysed the employment situation and the policy context for working-age adults with mental or physical disabilities. He found that a disproportionate number of them were unemployed, even those who were willing and able. Many of those fortunate enough to find employment worked for less than the minimum wage and were not protected by labour legislation.

The same is true in Australia. On 16 December 2016 reported that some workers with a disability had been paid as little as 99 cents an hour under a federal government policy. After a 10-year battle, the courts had ruled that these workers would receive compensation worth in total more than $100 Australian dollars. In the lawsuit, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers argued that the assessment tool used to set the wages of workers at Australian Disability Enterprises discriminated against people with intellectual disabilities.

In Thailand, there is a mixed picture. In 2011, solicitors Watson, Farley and Williams produced a briefing on the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act. New regulations placed a positive obligation on employers to hire one disabled employee for every 100 employees. Those employers who did not comply had to pay The Fund for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, ‘the statutory minimum daily wage multiplied by 365 days for each disabled employee who should have been hired.’

The briefing was very optimistic:

The new regulations could result in demand for disabled workers outstripping supply in the short term, so employers wishing to hire the required number of disabled employees should act quickly to access a larger pool of candidates.

However, on 31 March 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reviewed the initial report of Thailand. They felt that measures to promote the employment of people with disabilities had not led to notable improvement, in fact some were worse off, as employment often meant that they lost access to some social services. They pointed out that people with disabilities had little access to public buses and had to use taxis, which were more expensive, and disadvantaged those living in remote areas.



Fewer than 1 in 10 disabled people receive any employment support at all.

While across the globe people with learning disabilities still strive for equal opportunities, there are some excellent small scale initiatives that show what can be accomplished. In October 2016 I stayed at a cooperative in Wallisellen, a district of Zürich. It houses families and young professionals but four apartments are reserved by the Altried Foundation which caters for adults with learning disabilities. The 14 residents act as on-site caretakers, clearing litter, watering the plants and cleaning communal areas with support from professional workers from the charity.

Other people with learning disabilities run the ZwiBack bistro and hotel, again with support from paid employees under the supervision of their group leader Daniela Heise. Most of the trainees have learning disabilities, some have autism, coordination difficulties and physical disabilities, others have drug and alcohol problems.

Potential trainees apply and are interviewed and then have a trial period. They learn how to lay tables and those with poor memory can work from photographs that show a perfect table setting. Some go on to work in the kitchens and others work in the hotel, preparing rooms and registering guests. On Hotel ZwiBack scores 8.3 from 172 reviews and only one mentions that the staff have disabilities:

I like the idea of giving people with special needs work.

Some of the trainees will move on to jobs in the open labour market, while others will always need supported employment.

I had worked in catering for some years, but I had never worked with people with learning disabilities before. It is a challenge but we have found different ways of working. We use lots visuals and practise routines over and over again. Sometimes people do not have a good memory and need prompts but we have a good workforce and we are open seven days a week.

Said Daniela Heise.

Courtesy of fellow Special World contributor Myles Pilling, I have also come across Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. The owners, Amy Wright and her husband, have two children — Bitty and Beau — who have Down syndrome.

Amy said:

There’s a statistic that somewhere between 70-85 per cent of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed — and we just think that’s an embarrassment to our country.

Their shop employs more than 40 people who would otherwise be stuck at home, in danger of becoming isolated, impoverished and unfulfilled.

There are too few schemes such as these, but researchers are beginning to identify some of the reasons why employers are not offering more jobs to this group. Mencap research found that many employers were worried about how customers and staff would get on with people with learning disabilities: 23 per cent of employers thought colleagues would not be happy working with someone with a learning disability; 45 per cent feared it might be difficult for the public to deal with someone with a learning disability but the figure dropped to 30 per cent for employers who had hired people with learning disabilities.

Mencap are taking steps to break down barriers. Since 2013 they have been running a Work Experience Week, where employers have offered week-long placements to 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. Employers can find out more about the scheme here.

For things to change for the better and to change faster, countries need to learn from one another. Governments need to be less concerned with cutting benefits and saving money and become more intent on providing incentives to employers to take on people with learning disabilities and enforcing sanctions on those who do not comply. Only then will ‘transition’ become meaningful for people with learning difficulties rather than the employment black hole it has long been.


About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

Leave A Reply