In June, the government launched a new employment strategy for people with a learning disability in England.
Figures surrounding the employment of people with a learning disability make for grim reading. Just 17% of people with a learning disability of working age (10% of those known to social services) are currently in paid employment, compared to 74% of the working age population. This is in particularly stark contrast to the employment rate for all disabled people, which has risen 10% since 1998 and now stands at 48%.
Valuing Employment Now, which was promised in January’s Valuing People Now, aims to bridge this increasingly large gap by 2025. Speaking to Viewpoint, disabilities minister Jonathan Shaw was clear about the need for a targeted plan: “Not enough people with a learning disability have a job. Of the population they are the least likely people to get jobs. And people with a learning disability say that they want to work.”
A joint ministerial foreword sets the tone for Valuing Employment Now’s cross-government approach – the launch of which saw Shaw rubbing shoulders with care services minister Phil Hope and third sector minister Angela Smith.
Each chapter of the strategy represents an area that needs action, including confusion around benefits and transport to work. Key points include:
- 400 new jobs at the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus
- guidance for government departments on recruiting employees with a learning disability
- an improved employment pathway for young people
- more training for Jobcentre Plus staff
- pilot internship schemes for people with a learning disability.
Valuing Employment Now supports Public Service Agreement (PSA) 16 – the government’s call for local authorities to increase the number of socially excluded adults in settled housing and employment. Both PSA 16 and the strategy focus on people ‘known to social services’, which excludes many people with a mild learning disability. However, the strategy insists: ‘If we can change attitudes and opportunities for the most excluded, then we are likely to deliver real change for everyone.’
Lack of funding and targets
No new learning disability funding is promised; instead the strategy focuses on reassessing the efficiency of existing streams. Dame Jo Williams, chair of the Learning Disability Coalition, says there’s some concern about this. “It is very good news indeed that employment for people with a learning disability is seen as a real option. But let’s not pretend that existing funding can meet this strategy. We’ve got a £200 million shortfall in social care funding already.”
Another concern is around Valuing Employment Now’s lack of specific targets. It promises these will be set in 2010, once data has been collected. Mencap’s head of campaigns and policy, David Congdon, says: “We agree with the overarching goal for 2025 of ‘closing the gap’. It is imperative, however, that there are tough targets, rigorous monitoring and mechanisms for accountability in place.”
Despite these points, most in the learning disability community welcome the cultural shift promised by the strategy, which states that work should not be seen as optional for most people with moderate and severe learning disabilities. “Rather than focusing on what people can’t do, we should focus on what they can do,” says Jonathan Shaw. “Seeing people in work will be important for improving attitudes.”
This article appeared in the July/August 2009 edition of Viewpoint