Access is inadequate

When it comes to learning disabilities, the workplace is simply not up to scratch

The other day, I heard a staggering truth.

Less than 6% of adults in the UK with learning disabilities are in paid employment.

Around 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability. So clearly, we are failing a huge part of society. And more than that, we’re failing to notice their potential.

By learning disability …what do they mean?
Mencap is an organisation that is urging the government to address the barriers that people with a learning disability face when attempting to access employment. They define a learning disability as a “reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities which affects someone for their whole life.” This includes conditions such as autism, Down syndrome and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

Although this statistic shocked me, when you step back and look at the world of work, you can quickly see why it’s the case.
So many jobs are dependent on fast performance and profit-making; even in the public sector, success at work rests on how much you can get done. Teamwork, meetings, competition, demand. Oh, and all of this is well and good but if you don’t nail the interview, you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

It’s safe to say, society has created a ‘minimum standard’ for employment. Failure to meet this standard often means kissing any opportunity for a job goodbye.

Think about any job advert you’ve seen recently.

We must be FAST and comfortable in HIGH-PRESSURE environments.
We must be socially competent and ooze CONFIDENCE.
We must have EXCELLENT communication skills.

Think independently.

Be a problem-solver…

Quick learner…


Sound familiar?

These are all qualities that most employers are looking for. But in reality, not everyone is the same. And more importantly… not everyone learns the same.
Frankly, this one-size-fits-all approach is where we’re going wrong.

The word itself has not helped the situation. Disability is very often met with the assumption that said person is unable to do the task or job at hand. But in actual fact, these people have learning differences, who, when given the right support, can be just as able as everyone else. Like anything we’re not used to, difference requires time and patience to understand, qualities our society is desperately lacking.

If people can’t meet the standard, then we must change the standard. Or at the very least, create an alternative.

Capitalism, the dog-eat-dog mentality, scoffing at any sign of vulnerability. We are constantly being fed the narrative that when it comes to working, anything less than ‘perfect’ is unacceptable.
But do we not need to adapt to people’s needs and abilities?

Or have we really evolved into such a Darwinian fantasy in which only those who reach the ‘standard’ can reap the benefits of paid employment?

As much as I wish this wasn’t true, the facts don’t lie. Whilst most of us have been trying to get a job ourselves we seem to be forgetting that these standards directly exclude a large portion of society. We don’t often think about it, because we don’t have to.

There are things in place to help to address this disparity. Access to Work began in 1994, as a government grant scheme to help disabled people gain or maintain employment.
Whilst it offers a great deal of support, the figures show it’s still massively underutilised. In 2018 for instance, the scheme helped 36,240 people. Now there are way more people than that who meet the criteria and what’s more, this figure includes those with a physical disability as well. Harder to see and therefore harder to support, learning disabilities are often not treated as their own category, which needs to be done if there is any hope of closing this gap.

People’s needs are complex, and here we see that even government support takes a one-size-fits-all approach.

Another way to describe the minds of those with intellectual, developmental, or learning disabilities, like the ones mentioned, is neurodiverse. Although on a vast spectrum, autism can sometimes cause a person to struggle socially. So, an interview may not be where they shine. But often, their technical and mathematical abilities are exceptional, and they are naturally inclined towards detail. Part of seeing the world differently means they often recognise patterns others don’t see. It’s vital we as humans see the possibilities that neurodiversity can bring. To both our lives and the workplace.

People with learning disabilities often get dismissed and underestimated, but they have the right to work as much as anyone else. It’s clear that the services currently available are not yet up to scratch, so more needs to be done. Mencap say the biggest issue here, along with a lack of understanding and support, is employers’ attitudes. Education is a crucial part of this.

Part of becoming an inclusive society has to include addressing this problem. Marginalisation based on race, gender, and class are all beginning to be addressed; we can’t leave out ability.

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