NHS data this week revealed a marginal increase (from 5.7% to 6%) in the proportion of working age adults with a learning disability in employment.
The gain, whilst obviously welcome, masks an overall 9% decline in employment in this group over the past 8 years, since data collection began. The downward trend is in stark contrast to employment figures across the wider population.
Not so long ago, the government was making bold promises about halving the disability employment gap. Commentators including Dimensions highlighted that considerable energy would need to be invested in supporting people with learning disabilities into employment for this important ambition to stand any chance of success.
A closer scrutiny of the figures is revealing, and asks tough questions of local authorities as well as government:
Why do authorities like Walsall and Lambeth report employment rates of less than half of one percent when Hartlepool can achieve in excess of 20%? (well done Hartlepool.)
Why have authorities like those plus Camden and Bromley all seen 80-98% declines in employment rates for people with learning disabilities over the 8 year period whilst authorities like Leicestershire, Rochdale, Stockton, North Yorkshire, Essex and Bedford have all manged to double or treble their figures?
Why are authorities not learning from each other?
Could central government be leading more co-working?
This really matters. Work means far more than money and productivity; it means self-esteem, confidence and social opportunities. It means an ordinary life.
Take Mark, who was supported into employment by Dimensions some years ago.
When QPP, a plastics recycling firm, needed a new operative they decided to do something a bit different. They employed Mark, a young man with Aspergers.
QPP had never before employed anyone with autism or a learning disability. But, Mark had a working interview where he showcased his abilities and they were so impressed with his willingness to learn and work they offered him the position.
They didn’t do this as a social responsibility exercise but because he was the best man for the job.
This is not Mark’s first job, but it is the first that looks like being a success. Previous employment has broken down because Mark’s Aspergers manifests as a severe lack of confidence, prompting him to walk out when things get tough.
But, armed with coping strategies from his Dimensions Job Coach, Mark gets on famously with his new bosses. His Job Coach gave his managers specific advice and guidance so they are able to spot any warning signs and address problems head on.
For Mark himself, the job has been transformational. After his last job fell through he spent six months in bed and had to sign on for benefits. But now he’s much happier working and earning his own money.
Mark’s story should remind all of us why that learning disability employment data is so critically important.