Learning Disability Week: We must close the employment gap

Process needs to be inclusive

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David Forbes-Nixon of DFN Project SEARCH and the DFN Foundation
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David Forbes-Nixon of DFN Project SEARCH and the DFN Foundation

The latest data about the UK economy paints a gloomy picture. Inflation is soaring, prices are rising, and the Bank of England has warned that the UK may be heading for recession this year.

The statistic I am most interested in is job vacancies. Last week, the ONS announced this rose to a new record of 1.3 million from March to May. This is now higher than the number of people unemployed.

It is clear we need more people in work to boost the economy. In a bleak economic landscape, this figure presents an opportunity. There are around one million people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) out of work, many of whom are keen, ambitious, young adults with an array of talent to offer employers. But stigma, prejudice, or inadequate support too often prevents these individuals from accessing jobs.

We need to stop wasting this talent. National employment data shows that only 5.1% of young people with learning disabilities and autism known to adult services get into paid work, compared to 80% of their peers.

This is a resounding gap. There are, however, signs the Government is taking this seriously. The SEND Green Paper, published in March, set out proposals for a system that offers children and young people the opportunity to thrive, with access to "the right support, in the right place, and at the right time". In particular, it has ring-fenced £18 million over the next three years to build capacity for supported internship programmes.

At DFN Project SEARCH we wholeheartedly agree with this coordinated approach. Our model is to work in partnership across the public, private, and voluntary sectors to create supported employment internships for young adults with learning disabilities and autism during their last year of education. We thereby help them to make positive transitions into the world of work.

As Learning Disability Week begins, I encourage organisations to consider how their recruitment processes could become more inclusive to people with learning disabilities and autism. The benefits of hiring from a diverse talent pool are numerous with significant positive social and economic implications.

First, let us take the macro advantages to the UK economy. According to the Centre for Social Justice, a rise of just 5% in the disability employment rate, which includes those with disabilities other than a learning disability, would lead to an increase in GDP of £23bn by 2030.

Breaking that down into some specific areas, it is estimated that each young person with a learning disability employed could save on average £14,000 per year for local authorities in the form of school and college fees. Helping people into the right job also benefits society. Adult social care can cost £3m over the course of someone's lifetime. However, an internship that leads to employment costs about £20,000, and can be life-changing.

Second, consider the advantages to individual businesses. Studies show that people with a learning disability stay in their jobs 3.5 times longer than their non-disabled co-workers. They also show that a high proportion of employees with a disability have their job performance rated as average or above and have been rated higher than those without a disability in terms of attendance and being on time.

From our experience at DFN Project SEARCH, we have always found that productivity goes through the roof in the majority of roles occupied by our graduates. They are absolutely determined to succeed and bring real energy and commitment to their roles.

Finally, the social benefits to the individual of finding paid work are transformational. You cannot put a price on enabling someone to feel valued, or the sense of identity that comes through financial and emotional independence. When I speak to the interns who go through our programme, the message I hear time and again is that paid work boosts confidence.

Put simply, people in work tend to enjoy happier and healthier lives than those who are not.

Having had a fulfilling career in the City, I am well versed in looking closely at the UK economy. Now, I do it for different reasons as I focus on the work of my own Foundation and DFN Project SEARCH. The impetus for starting my own charity was the growing awareness of the lack of effective provision to meet my son's needs and those of other young people like him with learning disabilities.

Our programme offers a one-year transition to employment model for young adults with a learning disability, autism spectrum condition, or both. Our latest data for 2021 bucks the national trend with 70% of our graduates gaining jobs, and 60% of them achieving full-time, permanent roles. And this was achieved during the pandemic when redundancies were at their peak.

To echo the government's green paper, I firmly believe we are offering the right support at the right time, but there is still much more to be done. With job vacancies at an all-time high, organisations are slowly taking notice of the importance of inclusion. Not only is it morally the right thing to do, but it is also good for business and society.

David Forbes-Nixon is founder and chair of DFN Project SEARCH and the DFN Foundation.

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