Category Archives: Employment

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews

People with learning disabilities are not scroungers or superheroes

The MBE recently won by Shaun Webster is, he says “two fingers” to the bullying colleagues who tormented him when he worked in a warehouse some years ago.

You can’t disagree with the 43-year-old’s use of frank language – his deeply unpleasant workmates once used sticky tape to bind Webster, who has a learning disability, and stuffed a rag in his mouth. This was done “as a joke”, he recalls in an interview I did for today’s Guardian. Little wonder he has devoted his life since then to fighting for inclusion and equality.

As explained in today’s piece, the international project worker for Leeds-based human rights charity Change is a sought-after speaker and trainer in the UK and overseas. His work includes advising government departments about inclusive employment, promoting access to sex and health education for learning disabled people and recent visits to Thailand and Croatia to train health, social care and charity professionals about independent living and disability rights.

Shaun talks passionately and persuasively about issues like employment rights and independent living for people with learning disabilities, making the point (usually missed by policy makers and politicians) that the two issues must be seen together; earning your own money and having a role and responsibility supports independence.

Shaun’s current work involves a partnership with children’s charity Lumos, supporting young people to leave institutions and gain independence, choice and control. Linked to that piece of work is the report Shaun wrote, Leaving Institutions, a really great example of a publication written with a clear focus on people (not targets or statistics, or a homogeneous mass) by authors who truly know about and have experience of what they’re talking about.

The entire interview can be read here and the film below is worth a watch too:

Employers’ public health role

Working-age ill-health costs the UK economy an annual £100bn, and in a piece for the Guardian online, I give a snapshot of what some employers are doing to improve the health of their staff.

It might be easy to dismiss lunchtime yoga sessions or in-house physio clinics as optional extras (or a “perk”) but the stats on workplace illness suggests a focus on wellbeing makes economic sense. More days are lost through staff sickness in the NHS than elsewhere in the public sector (according to the government’s 2009 Boorman Report) and sick leave costs the health service £1.7bn a year.

Employers are starting to recognise their public health role; almost 400 organisations have, according to latest figures, pledged support for the Department of Health’s public health “responsibility deal”.

You can read the full piece, part of a supplement on physiotherapy, here.

Cutting employment support for learning disabled people is a false economy

Richard Ward has barely taken a day off sick since he started working 15 years ago. His friendly nature and keen eye for detail suit his role at a Boots store in Coventry, date-checking food, stacking shelves and helping customers find what they want. Ward, 33, says: “I like earning my own money, getting on well with the staff, seeing different people every day and it gets me out of the house.” Ward earns £600 a month, just over the national minimum wage.

Ward lives with his parents in Walsgrave, Coventry, and was referred to a local jobs support service by his special school; mainstream job agencies and government-run employment schemes would consider him unemployable. His mother Jane says he would be on benefits without the specialist job advice, coaching and long-term support from Coventry city council’s The Employment Support Service (TESS) for people with learning disabilities or mental health issues.

As I explain in the Guardian, while the general unemployment rate is falling, the number of out of work adults with severe learning disabilities or mental health issues who don’t have a job is on the rise. Last year, only 6.8% of learning disabled people using social care were in work compared with 7% in 2012-13. The corresponding rate for people using acute mental health services was 7.1% in 2014, compared with 7.7% the previous year.

Learning disability is not on most politicians’ radars, despite people who have learning disabilities, or who have someone with a learning disability in their immediate family, making up 10% of the electorate. A recent poll of 100 MPs by social care provider Dimensions suggests 60% do not believe that learning disabled people can be supported into employment.

However, Ward’s job is under threat, along with those of another 100 people TESS currently supports to maintain employment and the 30 it helps annually into new jobs. The Labour-run council has earmarked the nationally acclaimed 22-year-old service for closure, a victim of public sector cuts. Its future after this December is unclear.

Coventry is not unique; supported employment is a Cinderella service, not a local government statutory requirement. A 2011 poll by the British Association for Supported Employment (BASE) of 50 of its members found half face council funding cuts of at least 15% and a quarter fear 50% to 100% cuts.

The situation in Coventry has sparked worries for families of younger disabled people elsewhere. They warn that supported employment cuts are at odds with special educational needs and disability reforms aimed at raising the aspirations of future generations.

In a joint comment Sherann Hillman co-chair of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF) and Sue North from Contact a Family said: “Parent carers of young people with disabilities and special educational needs say fear for their child’s future is one of their top concerns. This is because young people with special educational needs and disability are less likely to find employment and live independently – and face other additional barriers as they grow up. Any threats to provisions such as supported employment schemes, will inevitably compound these fears and worries.

People TESS supports spoke in its defence at a public meeting last week organised by local unions. Among them was Hayley Archer, who has a learning disability. Her mother, Suzanne, stresses the wider impact of supported employment must be recognised: “People like Hayley are changing society’s attitudes by having a role in the workplace and by working alongside people without learning disabilities.”

Archer herself, an administrative apprentice at the council, has a simple request for her future: “I really want to keep working.”

You can read the full piece here.

No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping

Richard Turner and his volunteer befriender, Delia Jones
Richard Turner and his volunteer befriender, Delia Jones

“No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping…”

I saw these striking words on a postcard displayed at a recent event to celebrate volunteering. With the massive cuts in public spending and the unprecedented reform of welfare, it’s not hard to see why vulnerable people might think they don’t deserve any support.

The words, written by someone with experience of volunteering, referred to the vital work of London-based charity the Octavia Foundation. In full, the handwritten postcard read: “No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping and Octavia does such a good job of making sure that doesn’t happen.”

The event was Octavia’s annual volunteer awards, honouring some of the 250 local people who have given their time to others through the charity over the last year. Actor Tamsin Greig presented awards to those who support work with local people affected by ill health, social isolation, unemployment or poverty.

The foundation operates in the west London boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, supporting older people, working with young people, focusing on training and employment and debt advice. It runs regular groups and activities as well as some inspiring one-off projects which I’ve written about in the past.

The foundation works in one of the most affluent parts of the capital, but there is much for the charity to do in the pockets of deprivation that also exist.

I helped judge the charity’s awards, reading some incredible testimonies from people who benefit from the help of volunteers.

Delia Jones, who volunteers as a befriender for example, was highly commended. Delia was nominated by Richard, who she visits and who was involved in a serious car accident almost 40 years ago – both are pictured above.

Richard’s mother Joyce Turner, 95, who also nominated Delia, explained: “What Delia does for Richard is vital. He will tell Delia what kind of book he wants, as we have a lot of different kinds and we arrange them alphabetically so she can find them. Delia seems exactly right, and we love her visits because it gives Richard such pleasure to see her. The importance of her visit every week is that he only goes out three times a week, and if its raining or bad weather, she is the only thing that he looks forward to. She never lets us down and we can trust her.”

With welfare cuts and a squeeze on public sector funding, many support services are under threat so the work of volunteers is vital in helping society’s most vulnerable people. Some of the most innovative ideas – and inspiring, unsung heroes – are found in small, community-based projects that often don’t get the attention they deserve. The recent Octavia awards are an opportunity to put that right and focus on the important work carried out in local areas.

A full list of winners and background to the awards is on the Octavia Foundation website.

Telling the untold stories of austerity


Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites

Do you know what austerity really means?

Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”

But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.

Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.

Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.

O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.

While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.

Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.

People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.

As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”

Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.

Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?

More than one million people with learning disabilities are eligible to vote – so why are they ignored by politicians?

My interview with Gary Bourlet in today’s Guardian explains how the veteran disability campaigner wants to give people like himself, with learning disabilities, a greater voice and presence so they feature in places other than “secret footage on Panorama”, referring to Winterbourne View, where the abuse of patients with learning disabilities was exposed by the BBC in 2011. To this end, he has set up People First England, to encourage adults with learning disabilities, rather than care professionals, to participate in politics and appear on TV and radio discussing stories that affect them.

“We want people speaking for themselves about issues that concern them, rather than the professionals,” he says. “We want greater powers to be seen, to vote, to be included, have the same opportunities in social life, education and employment as everyone else.” Bourlet, 55, has launched the user-led charity with disability rights activist Kaliya Franklin.

You can read the rest of the piece here while my post from yesterday adds some more context to Bourlet’s message.

Raana, a real bread maker

Today is the last day of Real Bread Maker Week, not too high profile as far as awareness weeks go, but it seemed an opportune moment to share a one minute video of the best real bread maker I know – my sister Raana.

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Raana works in the Lantern Bakery at the Camphill community in Hampshire where she lives. You can see and hear her and the other bakers in action in this audio slideshow I did for the Guardian. The video was put together last year as a little token of sunshine for family and friends after we did the slideshow, but following in-depth research and consultation (I asked Raana and our parents), we decided it would be fun to post it here.

Spliced together with not much time (but a lot of warmth and a fair sprinkling of my sister’s sense of humour), we hope it leaves you with at least one of four things:
1. A clear impression that my talents do not lie in shooting video
2. An understanding that my sister – and her fellow bakers – are damn good at what they do (and why shouldn’t they be?)
3. A smile
4. A hunger for (organic, wholesome, additive-free, made with skill) freshly baked bread

The bread maker week that ends today, run by the food and farming charity Sustain, champions “real” bakers’ “rightful place at the hearts of our local communities” and encourages people bake or buy real bread from local, independent bakeries. Just like my sister’s (she bakes a mean chocolate brownie too; if you’re passing by Ringwood, go taste…).

Development and disability: new report urges action

Hazrat Bilal and family, Bangladesh (pic: Sightsavers)
Hazrat Bilal and family, Bangladesh (pic: Sightsavers)

Hazrat Bilal from Narshingdi, Bangladesh, has been blind since birth, but it was only in 2008 at the age of 33, with support from Bangladeshi charity Action for Blind Children, that he was officially registered as permanently disabled. That led to more support from services for the visually impaired; Hazrat got to know other people with sight problems and began to gain confidence.

The 39-year-old now runs his own grocery shop and has helped form a self-help group. It was only after help from the local charity, a partner of international charity Sightsavers, that his life was transformed but if more international development and aid plans were disability-inclusive, there would be many more stories like Hazrat’s.

One billion people all over the world – 15 per cent of the population – have a disability, according to the World Health Organisation. Of that total, 80 per cent live in developing countries.

Despite the fact that one of the eight Millennium Development Goals that world leaders agreed in 2000 was that every child should have a full primary education by 2015, more than a third of the 57 million children worldwide missing out on school have disabilities (see this stunning picture story about blind schoolchildren in Uganda). It seems incredible but disability was not included in the Millennium Development Goals.

Disabilities contribute to global economic, political and social development but it is well documented that development programmes overlook disability issues. That may change if a new report by the International Development Select Committee on disability and development has any impact. Today’s report urges the Department for International Development (DFID) to strengthen its work to include people with disabilities and calls for a focus on disability as a development issue.

The report’s recommendations echoes some of the actions outlined in international charity Sightsavers’ Put Us in the Picture campaign. Launched last year, the campaign calls on policymakers and politicians to include disabled people in international aid and development plans, highlighting the links between disability and poverty.

Specifically, the campaign says the government must ensure people with disabilities participate in, and benefit from, international development programmes and must talk, listen to and work with people with disabilities and their families. It also argues that DFID staff should be trained to include people with disabilities in their work.

You can support the Put Us in the Picture campaign here or follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #InThePicture

Art works explore the world of work

How blurred are the lines between work and leisure, thanks to the impact of technology on our working lives? Does anyone still really work only an eight hour day? And what about the rising numbers of self-employed people in our changing economy?

These are among the questions prompted by a new exhibition about the world of work, Time & Motion: Redefining working life, from FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and the Royal College of Art’s Creative Exchange Hub.

The show uses art and archive materials to look at everything from clocking on at the factory gates to remote, online ways of working.

Among the varied works is a piece from Cohen van Balen about mass-manufacturing, 75 Watt. The video commission focuses on a product with no useful purpose (apart from to choreograph a dance performed by the labourers making it).

75 Watt, from Time & Motion
75 Watt, from Time & Motion

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen – 75 Watt from FACT on Vimeo.

Another piece, Electroboutique’s iPaw, shows a dog who passively scrolls through apps on his tablet, reflecting how technology might trap its users.


Electroboutique’s iPaw, from Time & Motion
Electroboutique’s iPaw, from Time & Motion

Irony dictates that I can’t get to the exhibition due to work deadlines, but, fittingly, I’ve checked out the exhibition online. It’s worth a look.

* Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life is at FACT in Liverpool until 9 March.