Approximately 1.5 million people in the UK have a Learning Disability (LD). Within this population, around 21,133 18 to 65-year-olds with LD reside in Essex. While reliable employment figures for this population are limited, a 2017 estimate asserts that only 7.5% of adults living with LD within Essex County Council’s Adult Social Care services were employed. This figure fell from 9.4% in 2015/16 and 10% in 2014/15. To investigate barriers to employment for this population, Healthwatch Essex undertook a research project examining how adults with LD experience work. The findings of this research have been shared today in our latest report ‘Pathways to Meaningful Lives: How people who live with Learning Disabilities experience employment and the implications for policy and practice’.
For this project, 17 adults who had recently been in employment, volunteering or work-experience were recruited and interviewed. These interviewees shared stories about how their lives were affected by interactions between their identities and social worlds. In doing this, they highlighted that their understanding of and capacity to attain forms of employment were affected by interrelationships between their bodies and the rules and norms that govern our social surroundings. Thus, those who were confident in their capacity to learn, interact and participate were likely to conceive of employment as a means to achieve their aspirations. By contrast, those who felt as if they were fundamentally or conditionally limited regularly viewed work as inaccessible and unachievable.
In highlighting this dynamic, interviewees identified notions of support as enabling them to conceptualise and work towards their career goals. Networks of caring individuals embedded in homes and at schools were, thus, understood to help people with LD explore opportunities, experience new things and dream about their futures. However, many interviews made it clear that they had not been supported to develop aspirations. Their testimony shows that inaccessible environments, discrimination and fears of the unknown regularly diminished their capacity to uncover new opportunities. Despite this, many interviewees were not concerned by these perceived limitations. For them, lives spent volunteering or in insecure and short-term jobs were to be expected. These individuals had never been encouraged or empowered to consider alternative life courses. Yet, they frequently indicated that they were content with their lives, suggesting that notions of aspiration are fluid amongst the LD population.
Interviewees also spoke about their experiences of work. Their testimony shows that workplaces can be highly inaccessible settings, wherein values of efficiency and productivity diminish opportunities to effectively participate. However, in-work networks of empathetic and compassionate colleagues and employers were identified as enabling individuals to learn about their workplaces and meaningfully engage in work-related activities. For example, learning activities, such as shadowing, provided interviewees with on-the-job and practicable information about how their work settings operated and were administered. In this way, they felt as if they had been prepared to actively participate in the many procedures that constituted their workplaces.
In response to these findings, Healthwatch Essex proposes that young people with LD should have access to networks of support aimed at promoting aspirations and the capacity to work. These networks may be embedded in schools, communities, homes and workplaces as a means of enabling members of this population to develop goals, pursue dreams and participate in work settings. However, Healthwatch Essex also recognises that some people with LD are inevitably going to miss out on these vital sources of support. In these cases, we should bear in mind that ambitions are conditional and that, while aspiration raising may be desirable, it is not always achievable without a concurrent commitment to providing the material and social resources needed to help individuals participate in employment.Read full report