Jenny Dimmock works in a pathology lab. She and her scientist colleagues handle between 3,000-4,000 blood samples a day. The 21-year-old is also an ambassador for younger students, speaking about her experiences at conferences, like how part of her job involves placing specimens on a robot. Handling the robot, however, as her workmates say, is probably the easiest part of her working life.
Jenny, who has Down’s syndrome, trained on the job with the Project Choice scheme at City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust before she won her paid post.
As colleagues point out, while she was learning about the intricacies of the path lab, she was also learning about everyday practicalities like getting to and from her job on time or how to interact in the workplace. This week, her achievements are recognised with an award to celebrate Adult Learners’ Week this week.
We are more used to hearing about the failings of the NHS when it comes to its treatment of people with a learning disability. Only today the NHS ombudsman outlined the catalogue of mistakes which contributed to the death of Tina Papalabropoulos, a young woman with physical and learning disabilities.
In March, the government’s Confidential Inquiry into premature deaths of people with learning disabilities found that 37% of deaths of people with a learning disability who died between 1 June 2010 and 31 May 2012 in the South West of England were avoidable. Put bluntly, patients with a learning disability died whilst they were supposed to be receiving treatment from the NHS.
If attitudes are to change among organisations which fail the vulnerable, one way forward is to make them more inclusive as employers so they reflect individuals from all walks of life. It’s one thing to stick up a learning disability awareness sign to help staff recognise vulnerable patients – as I spotted in my local hospital (it’s a good start) – but it’s entirely another to have people with learning disabilities on your radar as potential work experience students, interns or trainees.
Public sector organisations especially are encouraged to be more inclusive and diverse through their board membership and recruitment policies, with the Equality Act binding organisations to develop a more diverse workforce and uphold equal rights. But people with learning disabilities are one of most overlooked groups in the labour market with most employers unaware of – or perhaps put off by – the kind of support that learning disabled employees might need.
As Mencap points out in its campaigning material, people with a learning disability are more excluded from the workplace than any other group of disabled people. According to Mencap, less than one in five people with a learning disability work (compared with one in two disabled people in general), but at least 65% of people with a learning disability want to work. Of those people with a learning disability that do work, most only work part time and are low paid. Just one in three people with a learning disability take part in education and/or training.
Project Choice in Sunderland shows what can happen when employers take a more inclusive approach to recruitment and training. The scheme aims to provide work-based learning and experience for young people with learning disabilities.
The project starts with 16-21-year olds doing half a day a week work experience for six weeks. Students have one to one sessions with a mentor to help develop an understanding of the world of work. Next is an unpaid internship for four days a week in a work place and one day in college. Students, who can have up to three placements in the year, again have a named mentor and progress to working independently. Learning is reinforced in the classroom and interns undertake a work qualification like a Foundation Learning Programme or NVQ.
The final part of the scheme is, hopefully, an apprenticeship, job – as Jenny has proved – or further learning.
Jenny started with work experience under Project Choice and did an internship in 2010 when she left school. She spent a year as an intern in three departments: on a clinical ward where, among other things, she used her sign language skills to communicate with deaf patients, then in the hospital pharmacy and in the laboratory. She learnt on the job but also had one day a week at college learning about things like employment health and safety. As she says, “I have had amazing times since starting my work experience and have fulfilled my ambition of getting a permanent job.”
Project Choice isn’t, of course, the only supported employment scheme of its kind but it’s a pathway to work and training in a sector not usually open to people with learning disabilities. It’s the kind of scheme that can change attitudes both within healthcare and in wider society. We just need more like it.
* New figures released for Adult Learners’ Week, which ends on Friday, showed that the proportion of young people aged 17 – 24 taking part in learning has fallen by seven percentage points in the last year. There has also been a fall of six percentage points in the proportion of unemployed people participating in learning. The survey for NIACE interviewed 5,253 adults, aged 17 and over, in the UK 13 February–3 March 2013.