This blog post is part of a series linked to the Evidence & Policy Special Issue (Volume 17, Issue 2): The many faces of disability in evidence for policy and practice. Guest Edited by Carol Rivas, Ikuko Tomomatsu and David Gough. This post is based on the Special Issue article, ‘Exploring a non-universal understanding of waged work and its consequences: sketching out employment activation for people with an intellectual disability‘.
Less than 6% of working aged adults with a learning disability, who receive social care, are in any form of employment – yet studies show that 65% of this population would like to have paid work. Drawing on empirical data, collected predominantly through ethnographic work, the research presented here offers a critical assessment of the mismatch between current policy and available evidence. What this research shows is that the majority of people within this demographic are underserved or excluded from targeted work preparation support in England and Wales. As a consequence, such dismal employment rates are highly unlikely to increase, regardless of government rhetoric.
Work preparation and employment programmes are a firm feature in the UK’s ‘welfare-to-work’ supply side of the employment policy landscape. While there is a body of literature exploring the consequences of such an approach for those distant from the labour market, there is little consideration or research engagement to inform policy for people who face substantial disadvantage, such as people with learning disabilities. Instead, policy for people with a learning disability advocates supported employment as the one size fits all solution to breaking the barriers of employment exclusion.
While this approach may sufficiently serve people with a borderline/mild learning disability, my recently published Evidence & Policy article, ‘Exploring a non-universal understanding of waged work and its consequences: sketching out employment activation for people with an intellectual disability‘, shows how people with moderate to severe learning disabilities with interdependent needs are being overlooked and underserved with current work-related support in England and Wales. While people in this demographic may decide not to explore employment, many people would like the opportunity to explore paid work options.
I spent over a year collecting ethnographic data at a job club that had been set up for people who had learning disabilities, who were in receipt of social care, and were excluded from the mainstream supported employment approach. I also interviewed and facilitated focus groups, for people with a learning disability, their family and workers in the sector. Themes drawn from the study explored not only the impact of work on the lives of people with a learning disability, but also captured the complex, persistent and prevalent barriers to employment inclusion and unpacked the nuanced, multifaceted reality of everyday life for learning-disabled people struggling to access paid work.
One of these themes was captured when scrutinising employment and learning disability alongside my empirical analysis. Here, there is a central paradox between ability, expectations and realistic job prospects for people who have a learning disability and cannot gain entry to specialist support employment sites due to their age and/or ability. Consequently, structural job discrimination and unconventional experiences of work that falls short of national minimum wage legislation was commonplace. Yet, more subtly, ethical and moral considerations of value and worth were brought to the fore. These grey, blurred lines challenge not only the conceptualisation of what work is, but also how it is rewarded, when faced with the broader labour market structures of how employment is organised.
Focusing on the relationship between available evidence and current policy demonstrates how work preparation support is currently funded and best serves those already somewhat closer to the labour market at the expense of individuals far removed. At the heart of this argument is the desire for paid work from a demographic of people who are regularly excluded, marginalised and underrepresented within debates. At the same time, these groups are unable to access the support mechanisms afforded to others, while simultaneously being expected to engage with work through the rhetoric of aspiring towards a framework of ‘contributing’ to society and being ‘responsible’ citizens.
Kim Dearing is a PhD researcher at Cardiff University. Before this, she worked in a third sector organisation supporting adults with learning disabilities for 13 years. As a Community Outreach Manager, part of her role included setting up a work preparation programme.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Dearing, K. (2021). Exploring a non-universal understanding of waged work and its consequences: sketching out employment activation for people with an intellectual disability. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16140992285741.
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