Tag Archives: employment

Art for all: the Surrey gallery that targets a hidden need

Blue Figure, print, by Tendai from Feltham youth offender institution.

Leafy and affluent are default shorthands when describing the English county of Surrey, but the council ward of Westborough, Guildford, has the highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the county. Child poverty is high in Westborough, and around a quarter of all female prisoners in the UK are in custody in Surrey, including a number of lifers at HMP Send.

While the cash-strapped Tory-run council recently grabbed headlines with a threat to raise council tax by a huge 15% , this has done little to shed light on the social needs that exist in Surrey.

The issue of how Surrey’s general wealth hides specific pockets of deprivation is outlined in a new report into the social and community impact of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village (WGAV), in Compton, about a 10 minute drive from Westborough.

The gallery, opened in 1904 and dedicated to the work of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, aims to transform lives through art – “Art for All” (Barack Obama, among others, has cited Watts as an inspiration). The report, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, describes the overlooked needs. It underlines the organisation’s role, for example, running artist-led workshops with prisoners and young offenders – I’m sharing some of the works here – as well as community projects, schools and and youth organisations.

The Journey, water-based oil on canvas, by Dena from HMP Send.

There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.

Close Up, oil on canvas by Samantha from HMP Send, part of Watts Gallery’s community outreach work.

The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).

As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”

Brighton, mixed media on paper, by Jenny from HMP Send.

More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.

The disability and employment gap: interview


Around 49% of disabled people in the UK aged 16–64 are in work, compared with 81% of non-disabled people, according to government figures.

The government has said it wants to narrow this gap (the figure has remained the same for decades) but at the same time its various policies and cuts relating to disabled people undermine this aim. A recent government green paper on work, health and employment, proposes to help at least 1 million disabled people into work, but has met with a lukewarm response from campaigners.

This was the context to a recent interview with Gareth Parry, the chief executive of employment organisation Remploy, which has £50m of contracts from central and local government to help disabled people get jobs or support them back into work.

Parry, who worked his way up Remploy after starting as a trainee almost 30 years ago, has depression, something that he says gives him a more personal insight into his job running employment support organisation (“It reinforced the importance of organisations like Remploy; work gave me routine, structure, focus, when everything else in my life was in chaos”).

He is a forthright speaker about how his personal experience influences his role at the helm of an organisation aiming to support people with mental health issues; he wants more senior executives to be open about mental ill-health, for example.

The organisation, however, has its critics. While Remploy was launched by the postwar government in 1945 to give disabled second world war veterans sheltered employment, the last factories closed in 2013 in line with the idea that mainstream employment was preferable to segregated jobs. Yet many felt the closures abandoned disadvantaged people.

More recently, in April 2015, Remploy was outsourced to a joint venture between US-born international outsourcing giant Maximus – which has come under fire as the provider of the Department for Work and Pensions’ controversial “fit for work” tests – and Remploy’s employees, who have a 30% stake in the business. Critics say that being owned by Maximus undermines Remploy’s status as a champion of disabled people.

Parry rejects such suggestions: “I can understand why people would see it that way, but we have a strong social conscience, the employee ownership keeps us focused on that, the profits don’t go overseas to America, they go back into the [Remploy] business.”

Longer term, Parry believes Remploy could take on international work, like advising other countries on closing sheltered factories. He adds: “Our mission around equality in the workplace has always been and is within the confines of the UK, but if we want to make a real difference in society in the UK, the opportunity we have now is to say ‘why stop there?’” Future issues in employment support, he adds, include sustaining an ageing workforce, with help for issues like dementia in the workplace and other age-related conditions.

In terms of other changes, Parry’s words on the rise of online support (as opposed to face to face advice) reflect a general trend towards more online and digital support: “I’m not suggesting online will replace face-to-face services, but the idea of giving the power of choice to the individual as to how they access services is meaningful”.

Remploy is almost unrecognisable in terms of its remit, ownership structure and operations since its inception more than 70 years ago; as the government and local government contracts on which it once relied are dwindling, it will be interesting to see where the next few years take Remploy – and, most importantly, those it helps.

The full interview is here.

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.

Exhibition: from exclusion to empowerment

Shankarlal in his shop.
Shankarlal in his shop.

Some striking photographs here of the social inclusion work in India and Africa by the charity Sightsavers. Shot by Guardian photographer Graeme Robertson, the images show “empowered lives and the impact of exclusion”, tying in with International Day of Persons with Disabilities and the international charity’s Put Us in the Picture campaign.

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.

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.