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Learning disability – the hidden employment gap and how we can close it

Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive, Business Disability Forum

At Business Disability Forum we talk a lot about the disability employment gap. Approximately 47% disabled adults of working age are in employment as compared to 80% of non-disabled people. However, those statistics conceal the further and enormous gap when it comes to the employment of people with learning disabilities, which is estimated at less than 6% of those known to local authorities.

It’s a figure which hasn’t moved in more than 20 years – except to go down a percentage point over the last 12 months. And yet numerous studies show that most people with a learning disability want to work. So what’s going wrong? And what can employers do about it?

It’s a subject dear to my heart; before joining Business Disability Forum I spent 13 years at learning disability charity United Response where I saw time and time again the hugely transformational effect that getting a job – often for the first time – can have for a person with a learning disability. It’s not just income; the benefits of working – if it’s good work – include gains in confidence, social networks, health and wellbeing. It also helps to keep people safe; the sad fact remains that people with learning disabilities are often vulnerable to bullying and harassment and having a natural “circle of support” – by being visible in the community and having people who look out for you – is another important benefit of the workplace.

 So what do we mean by a learning disability?

According to the charity Mencap, 1 in 50 people in the UK have a learning disability. Mencap’s definition of learning disability is “a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life”.  Within that description though, there is a very broad spectrum from mild learning disability which may mean someone needs help with budgeting, paying bills, travel or a complex and severe learning disability with multiple and complex disabilities.

 What are the barriers – and what can we do about them?

Supermarket worker assisting a customerRecruitment and indeed attraction can be a big barrier so changing processes and/or being flexible in how someone can apply for a job can make a real difference. That could mean changing what you ask for in person specifications, making sure that only really essential criteria are included and being open to alternative ways of a candidate demonstrate this rather than insisting on prior work experience or academic qualifications. The application process itself can also be a barrier so being flexible on how to apply – giving options other than an online portal for example, and making sure any portal you have is accessible. Many people with a learning disability may not have a traditional CV so allowing people to demonstrate or evidence their skills in a different way can really help.

It could be changing how you interview. Many people find panel interviews intimidating but for some people with learning disabilities they can not only be a complete barrier but also fail to test the skills that will actually be needed in the job. A working interview – also called the “place and train” model – where someone has the opportunity to show that they can do the job, rather than being asked to talk about it, has been proven time and time again to be the most effective way of supporting people with a learning disability into work.

It’s absolutely crucial though that it’s a genuine placement – with a real opportunity of paid work at the end of it – and not just unpaid work.

Once in the job, training and induction is really important, with support provided – either a paid support worker or an in house “buddy” to help the person learn the job. Approaches such as TSI – Training in Systematic Instruction – can be really helpful in breaking a job down into its component parts and teaching these in a clear and consistent order. Bearing in mind that most learning disabilities are not visible, a Disability Smart employer will also be attuned to the fact that someone has a learning disability and to consider this first in addressing any difficulties with e.g. performance or timekeeping; it may well be that the employee has not understood what is expected of them and so the initial induction and ongoing line manager relationship is key. Simple good practice like providing information in easy read format (simple text supported by relevant pictures) can also make a real difference.

Why does it matter?

Visitor arriving at reception of an officeWell firstly, a person with a learning disability could be the best person for the job! There are lots of examples of people being really well matched to jobs that that employers have struggled to fill and doing them really well. There is also the documented effect on staff morale – numerous employers come back and say what a hugely positive impact it’s had when they’ve employed someone with a learning disability. One study showed that 72.2% of employers regarded the impact on company morale as an important factor in deciding to employ people with a learning disability. 97% of employers said they were likely to hire this group again. Business Disability Forum Member National Grid runs a supported internship EmployAbility Programme for young people with a learning disability. They found hugely positive outcomes not just for the young people who took part but also for their staff who took new pride in their jobs as a result of teaching them to others.

The hard stats support the business case too. One study revealed that people with a learning disability stay in their jobs 3.5 times longer than their co-workers (though it’s important to remember that in some cases that could be around a lack of opportunities to move on). The same study showed lower costs around sickness absence and reliability.

There’s lots of support out there to help employers.

We at Business Disability Forum have just updated and refreshed our Briefing on learning disability which is free to Partners and discounted to members – if you like a copy, please get in touch with us by emailing

You can hear my podcast on learning disability here

You can read a piece I contributed to in the Guardian here

I’ll also be speaking at a Fringe event at Conservative party conference on Tuesday 3 October, alongside United Response, Channel 4’s Health and Social Care Correspondent Victoria MacDonald and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Learning Disability, Mark Harper MP. It’s at 4pm in the Midland Hotel. Do come and join us if you are there.

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