How to make people with learning disabilities feel more included in society

Image: Accessible music technology OpenUp Music/Youth Music Network

This guest blog was written by Val Williams, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Bristol.

People with learning disabilities can often find themselves feeling excluded when it comes to making decisions about their lives. This can range from everything, from shopping to making music or even bringing up a baby. Sometimes this exclusion can be exacerbated by the kind of support that they receive from social services – but it can also be countered by sensitive personal assistance or support.

In a recent research project, which brought together disabled and non-disabled researchers, we looked at ways to improve this – and how to include people with learning disabilities in decisions.

Part of the project found that by taking active roles in the arts, people with learning disabilities can lead the way towards meaningful inclusion. Beth Richards, an actress with learning disabilities, led part of the research about people with learning disabilities on TV. She found that actors with learning disabilities are often limited to roles which depict the “disability”, the tragic or dependent life of the character, or their effect on others around them. A successful actor with learning disabilities, for instance, told her:

“I wish TV makers would think more creatively and give people with learning disabilities any role – romantic, fantasy, comedy, shop assistants, office workers. I’d like to play James Bond, Romeo, Dobby in Harry Potter or a detective or many other roles.”

The Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2018 include an MBE to the actress with Downs Syndrome, Sarah Gordy, for her “services to the arts and people with disabilities”. As Gordy said upon receiving the award, “diversity is an opportunity, not a problem”. She is good proof of that.

But there is a lack of accessible information. There is no shortage of talented actors and drama companies supporting people with learning disabilities, but the TV industry and its workings are still shrouded in jargon. Processes such as commissioning, auditioning and scriptwriting tend to exclude those who do not have someone to help them navigate all this.

In another part of the research, my colleague Marina Gall looked in detail at how music making can be transformed by the Open Orchestras approach in which young people with multiple and complex needs are enabled to learn musical skills, play in ensembles and become music makers. A new technological instrument – the Clarion – can be played on computers and iPads, using one’s hand, a small sensor on any part of the body, or via a person’s gaze. It can be adapted to suit most students’ physical needs.

One of the co-founders of Open Orchestras, Doug Bott, told our research team, that the approach is “personalised around the individual young person”. But at the same time, it’s trying to ensure that music is an important part of the curriculum for all young people, and has been immensely successful in changing perceptions of people with learning disabilities. This is not therapy, it’s a route to making music and to performance.

Making decisions

People with learning disabilities also face inequalities and problems in the NHS, as well as in a cash-strapped social care system. For instance, since the Mental Capacity Act 2005 came into force, support staff are legally required to support people with learning disabilities to develop their own capacity to make a decision. What we saw in our data was that people with learning disabilities can be proactive in seeking out this support – and we recorded conversations with personal assistants where people wanted to talk about decisions relating to safety, health or simply about future cooking plans. The skills that a personal assistant needs to have are to listen, look out and be responsive to the people they are supporting.

One of the key messages from our project is that health and social care practices sometimes get stuck. We used the word “institutionalised” for those times when professionals stick to a rigid and inflexible way of doing things, leaving the disabled person without the power to have a voice.

These difficult moments were also highlighted by actors with learning disabilities who helped to interpret our data. Our research benefited from a collaboration with the Misfits Theatre Company in Bristol, showing how sensitive interactions between people with learning disabilities and their personal assistants were often the trigger for good decisions, and giving those with disabilities a feeling of control over their own lives.

But quite small comments can create problems, spoiling an empowering relationship. The theatre company made a brilliant video called A Good Match about their own perspectives and experience of managing relationships with a personal assistant. One of the Misfits actors said: “It’s my house … and I don’t want my (personal assistant) telling me what I can and cannot do.”

 

After looking at a range of activities that can exclude or include people with learning disabilities, we concluded that inclusion happens when three things come together. Sometimes people with learning disabilities are included because of changes to technology, as in the Open Orchestras approach. At other times, they are included better because of new ways of doing something, or through new skills that they may learn – as actors, or as TV performers.

The ConversationBut at the heart of all this is a new belief in the equal value of people with learning disabilities. This is why we recommend that social care services need to focus less on what people cannot do, but instead promote a genuine belief in what people with learning disabilities can do – with the right support.


Val Williams is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Bristol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

The disability employment gap – what needs to be done to change employer attitudes to disability?

Disabled parking (1).jpg

By Heather Cameron

‘Employment rates amongst disabled people reveal one of the most significant inequalities in the UK today’ (The work, health and disability Green Paper, 2016)

The government’s recent green paper highlights the extent of the disability employment gap in the UK, showing that less than half (48%) of disabled people are employed, compared to 80% of the non-disabled population.

Despite an increase in the number of disabled people in work, this employment gap between the disabled and non-disabled population has remained largely static at around 30 percentage points for the past decade. There are nearly four million disabled people in work, but research has shown that more disabled people have fallen out of work than moved into work, while the rest of the population has experienced movement in the opposite direction.

The government’s manifesto ambition is to halve the disability employment gap by 2020 – equivalent to 1.12 million more disabled people in work – but at the current rate of progress, it has been suggested that it would take more than 200 years for the employment gap to halve.

At a time when the UK’s employment rate is at its highest level since records began, with almost 75% of the working population in work, this is a disheartening statistic.

Barriers

This suggests that disabled people continue to face significant barriers to work. Some that are regularly cited, include:

  • physical barriers such as access to transport and accessibility within places of work;
  • a skills and qualifications gap between the disabled and non-disabled population, with disabled people only about half as likely to go to university as non-disabled people, and less likely to take up an apprenticeship;
  • insufficient support for disabled people;
  • insufficient support for employers; and
  • employer attitudes.

Employer attitudes have been cited as an ongoing issue which appears to stem from a lack of awareness and understanding.

A recent survey of recruiters found that 95% said companies are ‘fearful’ or ‘unsure’ about hiring disabled people. And analysis from disability charity Scope, suggests that employer attitudes haven’t improved over the last four years.

A new report from the Work and Pensions Committee found that many employers are not sure of their Equality Act duties, or are unwilling to make adjustments for disabled employees. It also suggested that there may be ‘discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes’ about the capabilities of disabled people.

Employers’ views

Indeed, employers themselves have highlighted the challenges of employing disabled people. Recent research from Disability Rights UK, which surveyed businesses from across the UK, reveals that one in 10 businesses believe they are unable to employ disabled people.

It also found that the biggest challenge to employing disabled people is that applicants aren’t always willing to be open about their disability, with around half of respondents (47%) saying that it would help if job applicants were more willing to be open about their health condition. Other challenges highlighted include:

  • fellow staff or line managers not having sufficient training to support disabled colleagues, and the lack of accessibility of some businesses for people with certain types of impairments;
  • concern that disabled people are more likely to take time off work;
  • difficulties in discussing the management of disabilities;
  • the cost of modifying equipment, making it expensive to employ disabled people; and
  • concerns that disabled people will claim discrimination if the job does not work out.

Such concerns are often misplaced, however. The survey indicates that businesses feel constrained by a lack of information about the adaptions they may need to make, and the support available to them. It seems that not enough people are aware of Access to Work, the government scheme that provides grants for adjustments to support people with disabilities or health conditions in employment.

And not all attitudes were negative. The vast majority (84%) of respondents said that disabled people make a valuable contribution to the workplace; and more than four-fifths (82%) considered disabled people as productive as non-disabled staff.

Final thoughts

The research clearly demonstrates that more needs to be done to tackle the disability employment gap. The Work and Pensions Committee report concludes that the government will stand little chance of halving the gap unless employers are fully committed to taking on and retaining more disabled people.

In particular, a transformation in attitudes to disability employment and support for disabled people will be required.

As the government’s green paper argues, “real and lasting change will only come about if we can also address negative cultural and social attitudes about disabled people and people with long-term health conditions.”


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How to support transgender pupils

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week, Brighton College, a co-educational independent college, announced that it is to stop making a distinction between boys’ and girls’ uniforms. The announcement was made in order to support transgender or dysphoric (a condition where someone feels there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity, and which is unrelated to sexual orientation) students, by allowing them to choose between wearing a blazer, tie and trousers or skirt and jacket. The school stated that the decision was taken in reaction to “a changing society which recognises that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school”.

The school, which is the first in Britain to make such a move, has been praised for its decision by parents, and claims to have received messages from other schools who are considering following their lead. While the school’s announcement has been widely covered by the press as a landmark decision, it was interesting to note that the reaction from the students themselves has been more muted. Speaking to The Independent, one 17 year old pupil suggested that it hadn’t really been seen as a “big deal” among students, who she views as a more “open-minded generation”. A difference in attitudes between generational groups was also evident in the results of a 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1,000 American adults: 54% of respondents aged 18-29 believed parents should allow their children to identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, a statement that only 29% in the 65+ age group agreed with.

Unfortunately, recent research indicates that there is still some way to go in providing effective support for transgender people, including in schools. When taking evidence for their recently published report on transgender equality in the UK, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee heard that transgender, and gender-variant, pupils and their families face particular challenges at school, in terms of:

  • recording a change of name and gender
  • bullying
  • inclusion in sport
  • access to toilets.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also highlighted research which indicates that 91% of boys and 66% of girls who identify as transgender have experienced bullying or harassment at school. This is higher than the levels of discrimination experienced by lesbian and gay students, and can lead to transgender pupils experiencing mental health problems and dropping out of education early.

The evidence submitted to the Committee’s inquiry suggests that the example of Brighton College is very much the exception, with the support for transgender pupils in schools across England reported to be ‘uneven’. Susie Green of Mermaids, an organisation which provides family and individual support for teenagers and children with gender identity issues, suggested that some schools were adopting a “victim mentality”, seeing the transgender student as the problem and wanting to “get rid” of, rather than accommodating, them and addressing the wider issues.

Several witnesses argued that schools should provide better support as part of their Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum. It was noted however, that PSHE is not currently statutory, although the Commons Education, Health, Home Affairs and Business committees argue that this should be changed. The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, contributed her view that just because something is statutory, “[does not mean] it is going to be taught well.”

While political wrangling over the issue continues, the most important thing to ensure is that pupils are being supported as effectively as possible. Concluding their report, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee stated that more needs to be done in order that young people and their families get sufficient support at school, and that schools must ensure they are compliant with their legal obligations towards pupils across all protected characteristics, including that which relates to transgender people, and especially gender-variant young people. The Committee recommended that the government should consider the inclusion of training on these protected characteristics in its review of initial teacher training, and that trans issues (and gender issues generally) should be taught as part of PSHE.

On a practical level, writing in the Guardian, teacher Allie George suggested several ways in which classrooms can be made a safe and inclusive space for transgender pupils:

  • Creating a safe environment whether teachers are aware of transgender pupils in their school or not. This allows pupils who may be questioning their gender identity the space to do so
  • Have a seating plan that reflects pupils’ ability or current/target grades, as opposed to a boy-girl plan
  • Recognise transphobic behaviour and address it, educating pupils why this is unacceptable
  • Respect a transgender pupil’s choice of name
  • Provide safe spaces for transgender pupils, particularly in terms of bathroom access.

 

If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous posts on equalities and diversity issues.

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What’s being done to make our towns and cities age-friendly?

Mobility scooter on cobbled street

Image courtesy of Flickr user stemack_street using a Creative Commons license

By Brelda Baum

European Mobility Week takes place from 16-22 September and is themed around ‘Our streets, our choice’.  But what is being done to make towns and city centres age-and-disability friendly?

According to a recent DWP press release, high street income could be boosted by the £212 billion ‘purple pound’ if disabled people and their families could be attracted back to the high street. While the ‘purple pound’ refers to the spending potential of those with disabilities, the power of the ‘grey pound’ (the disposable income of older/elderly people) should also not be forgotten. Taking these two groups together, many of the reasons that they don’t use town and city centres are the same – urban environments are often not disability or age-friendly.

This also resonates with the ongoing debate about the viability of the high street articulated by Mary Portas and others regarding plans to help address the problem of economic decline on the high street and to help guide future change and development.

But what’s not to like about the current urban environment on offer in the high street? A recent report from Housing LIN ‘A research and evaluation framework for age-friendly cities’ looked at each of the 7 World Health Organisation (WHO) age-friendly domains and offers advice on how to embed them into city strategies.

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Managing mental ill health in the workplace

Laptop and coffee mug photoBy Donna Gardiner

As one in six employees will suffer from mental ill health at some point during their working lives, ensuring the wellbeing of employees is increasingly becoming a management priority (EU-OSHA, 2014). Indeed, the financial cost to British business of mental ill health has been estimated at £26 billion per year – which is equivalent to £1035 for every employee.

A public sector problem?

Mental ill health is particularly prevalent among public sector workers. According to the latest Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) absence management report, 60% of public sector organisations reported an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression among employees over the previous 12 months. This is compared to 38% of private sector organisations and 37% of non-profit organisations. Public sector organisations were also more likely to report that stress-related absence had increased among the workforce as a whole (55% compared to 38% of private organisations and 39% of non-profit organisations).

Considerable organisational change and restructuring was one of the most commonly reported causes of work-related stress, followed by workload. Both of these could be viewed as knock-on effects of budget cuts caused by the economic recession, the current drive towards public sector transformation and the increasing need to ‘do more with less’.

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