Using an asset based approach to support people with learning disabilities into work

This blog is based on discussions from the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability conference, held in Perth in September 2017.

Introducing an asset-based approach

The term ” asset-based” is commonly used within community development and public health. It is used to mean an approach that identifies and emphasises the strengths and abilities of people within a community.

Instead of focusing on what people are unable to contribute, asset-based approaches instead focus on finding the value and potential of each individual, regardless of their background or personal circumstances.

At the SCLD conference in September, the audience heard examples of how asset-based approaches are being used within the field of employment support. A number of projects across Scotland are creating opportunities for people with learning disabilities to participate and contribute to their local community through meaningful work that recognises their abilities, and not the barriers created by their disabilities.

Facilitating a culture change

Research by Mencap found that although around 8 in 10 working age people with a learning disability have one that’s mild or moderate, fewer than 2 in 10 are actually in employment. Overall employment rates are also much lower than for the rest of the population or for people with physical disabilities – although recent data is lacking, in 2008 a study suggested that only about 17% of all working age people with a learning disability have a paid job.

Enabling people with a learning disability to enter employment is something that requires more than a change in policy or increased funding to improve skills and access to employment schemes (although that is also invaluable). To successfully integrate adults with learning disabilities into the workforce requires a change in employer attitudes. More generally it also requires a transformation in how we perceive learning disability within society.

One of the biggest barriers to participation in employment, are the attitudes and perceptions of other people. Increasing the understanding of how much people with learning disabilities can bring to a job and a workplace is crucial. This is where asset-based approaches can really help. They focus on identifying and making the most of someone’s abilities, and allowing individuals to offer these skills and abilities as a part of a positive contribution to their community through work.

Projects that put people at their heart

The Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD) has supported a range of projects for people in Scotland with learning disabilities. In September 2015, SCLD announced that the Scottish Government was seeking applications for development funding to support the refreshed delivery approach for The Keys to Life (Scotland’s learning disability strategy).

Of the projects awarded funding, two focussed specifically on tackling underemployment among the learning disabled population.

  • Wee enterprizers (a project that aims to increase employment opportunities for adults with learning disabilities) helped a group of aspiring entrepreneurs with learning disabilities to progress their micro business ideas. Events and workshops allowed participants to come together and share business plans, marketing ideas, and resource strategies. It also helped to identify suppliers and trading opportunities. The Yunus Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University conducted an evaluation of the project. It found that as well as helping business ideas to get off the ground, it also helped to encourage personal growth and independence in participants, improved communication skills and provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs to form a network of their own to help support each other.
  • Tayberry Enterprises provided creative art activities, volunteer opportunities and training placements in catering for people with significant health barriers to employment. The Multi-Storytelling Project offered adults with a learning disability, experiential training apprenticeships in techniques that would help them communicate effectively in a variety of different ways.

More than just work

What these projects had in common was their ability to promote the holistic benefits of training and employment. Like anyone else, opportunities to work allow people with learning disabilities to form new and engaging relationships, and to feel that they are making a positive contribution to their community. This in turn helps them to feel valued as people, not limited by their condition or circumstances.

The use of asset-based approaches adds an extra layer, as they often highlight the advantages of bringing people from different backgrounds together. For example, a project that helps to get people with learning disabilities into employment by offering training opportunities, could also double as a centre for older people who suffer from loneliness, with both communities bringing unique perspectives and contributions to the table. This enriches the experience for everyone and helps to create stronger and more resilient bonds within the community.

Final thoughts

Employment opportunities are limited for people with a learning disability. However, schemes which take into account and actively seek to make the most of a person’s assets, can go some way to reducing negative perceptions and prejudice within society.

Everyone should have the opportunity to learn, form relationships and live their dreams and aspirations, while demonstrating how they can thrive and positively contribute to their local communities.


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If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles: 

World Social Work Day: promoting community and environmental sustainability

Tomorrow is World Social Work Day (WSWD), and this year the focus is on community sustainability. The theme is inspired by the third pillar of the Global Agenda for Social Work, which was created in 2010 to integrate the aims and aspirations of social workers across the world. It stresses the important role of social workers in prompting sustainable communities and environmentally sensitive development.

This includes:

  • working closely with other partner agencies – including those beyond social work – to create communities of practice, particularly in relation to environmental sustainability;
  • promoting community capacity building, through environmentally friendly and sustainable projects, where possible; and
  • responding to environmental challenges, including helping communities to be resilient to and recover from environmental and natural disasters, as well as in relation to “human disasters” which includes refugee families fleeing persecution or war.

But how does this play out in everyday practice?

Supporting integration

Across the world, social workers are being asked to address ‘human disasters’ as they seek to support and integrate refugee families fleeing persecution and war in conflict zones. Some of the biggest challenges for social workers today relate to refugee and displaced communities. As well as dealing with the effects of trauma, they also help integrate refugees successfully into existing communities and build bridges with others to promote cohesion, reduce tensions and help them make positive contributions to society. Social workers also have a responsibility to encourage all members of the community to help with this support and integration process.

However, in a UK context, supporting people to make positive contributions to their community is not limited to refugee families. It also relates to intergenerational work, valuing the experience of older people, developing the skills of vulnerable adults, or encouraging children to feel connected to a place and community so that they might better take care of it as they grow up.

Supporting sustainability

The role of social workers in supporting the sustainability agenda may not be so obvious. The ability of social workers to adapt and respond to the needs of communities which are experiencing environmental sustainability issues is of growing importance in developing countries. However, social workers in the UK can still contribute to this element of the global social work agenda.

This includes behaving in a way that recognises the need to protect and enhance the natural environment. In practice, this may mean social work departments having policies on going paperless where possible, recycling in offices, and reducing the use of cars, or car sharing (for frontline social workers, however, this is often impractical).

Social work practice can also consider how it supports sustainable social development outcomes within a community, and maintaining personal CPD, education and training levels to reflect this. There should also, as always, be an attempt to share best practice and learn from others.

Final thoughts

This World Social Work Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the positive contributions that social work professionals are making to their communities as well as to the lives of individuals. It’s also a chance to consider what the future might hold for the profession and how it can continue to promote and support the growth and development of sustainable communities.


If you would like to follow the events going on to mark World Social Work Day or, share any of your own stories you can do so on twitter using the hashtag #WSWD17.

We regularly write on social work topics. Check out some of our previous articles:

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Overworked and under-resourced – ‘mission impossible’ for social workers?

By Heather Cameron

A year on from my previous blog on the emotional pressures facing social workers, have the headlines improved any?

Going by a new Guardian survey of social workers, it would seem that the answer is a resounding no.

The Social Lives Survey revealed that while the majority of social workers enjoy their job, two-thirds say they can’t focus on what really matters and only a quarter feel their workload is manageable. Almost 80% work overtime every day, and 86% don’t get paid for doing so.

Heavy and increasingly complex caseloads was the most common reason given for stress among social workers in last year’s Community Care survey.

Unmanageable caseloads

Unison surveyed social work staff from across the UK about their work at the end of a day in April 2014. Just over half (52%) said their caseload size was affected by covering for staff shortages and nearly three quarters highlighted that there was no formal system in place to help manage their caseloads and ensure they are at a safe level. A significant minority (42%) noted that they left work with serious concerns, the main reason for which was being unable to complete paperwork, followed by being unable to speak to other agencies or professionals involved.

Similarly, in May 2012 the British Association of Social Workers published the findings of its State of social work survey which indicated that 77% of the social workers surveyed said their caseloads were unmanageable. One child protection social worker said “the team I work in currently is working at dangerous caseload levels in terms of child protection work”.

The emotional impact of the challenges of social work were highlighted by a number of respondents, as one mental health social worker described:

It makes me so sad that this job seems only to be possible if you sacrifice your own health and wellbeing

The subsequent inquiry into the state of social work report by the All Parliamentary Working Group at the end of 2013 also emphasised the extent of stress among social workers who are overloaded and under-resourced. It heard from a local authority social worker who said:

 “the more cases we have, the more corners we have to cut, and the more corners we have to cut the more we have significant numbers of children for whom we haven’t had the time to do a thorough assessment”.

Another social worker said that as a result of budget cuts, “the conditions for child-centred practice and safe working are being eroded”.

Impact of austerity

A little over two years on from the inquiry, it would seem there is no let up on the impact of austerity on the social work profession.

A huge majority (92%) of social workers who took part in the Guardian’s survey highlighted that spending cuts are affecting services and putting more pressure on care professionals. And it was felt by 88% of respondents that social work isn’t as high on the political agenda as other public services.

With further cuts to hit local authorities from April this year, following the government’s announcement of a 6.7% funding cut for councils, things may get worse before they get better.

To help offset the impact on social care, local authorities will be able to raise an extra £2 billion through a 2% Council Tax precept and the £1.5 billion Better Care Fund.

Nevertheless, it has been argued that this will not be enough to address the immediate social care crisis or to prevent an estimated £3.5 billion funding shortfall by the end of the decade.

‘Bad press’

As well as spending cuts increasing pressure on social workers, the negative perception of the profession was also raised by the Guardian’s survey:

“The government and media need to stop portraying social workers as child-snatchers and do-gooders. They should sometimes focus on the lives we have saved and positively changed.”

It was suggested that newspapers should also focus on the pressures put on social workers rather than always on when things go wrong, and the government should be supportive of the role and address the lack of recognition and support at the national level.

Way forward?

Perhaps the rest of the UK should be looking to Wales for good practice, where the happiest social workers reside.

In Wales there are lower caseloads, more support from managers and better integration with health. According to one social worker, “it’s a better place to be a social worker. Social work is recognised and valued; in England I don’t think it is.”

Social services in Wales have also been more protected from cuts than elsewhere. And you don’t see the same negative language about social workers in Wales as you do in some parts of the media in England, according to the Welsh Government’s minister for Health and Social Services.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s other article on engaging fathers with social work.

Female entrepreneurship – making it happen!

By Donna Gardiner

On Sunday 8th March, people around the globe will come together to celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women as part of International Women’s Day. The day also presents an opportunity to call for greater gender equality.

One of the great success stories for women’s equality has been the increase in women’s employment rates over the past forty years. Indeed, women’s employment levels are now higher than at any other time since records began.

However, despite this great progress, rates of female entrepreneurship have not matched this pace. A recent report by the Ambassador for Women in Enterprise, Lorely Burt MP, notes that only one in five businesses in the UK are majority-owned by women, and that women are significantly less likely than men to start their own business.

The report looked at the ways in which the government could help to address the barriers faced by female entrepreneurs and increase the opportunities available to them. It makes a number of recommendations, in particular:

  • Making available support, including networking and finance, more accessible to women;
  • Being more inclusive in communications with potential female entrepreneurs;
  • Tackling unconscious basis in the presentation of services to women;
  • Making greater, and better, use of the Great Business website, particularly the section targeted at women.

As well as promoting greater equality and choice for women, the report argues that improving support for female entrepreneurs could have significant economic benefits. For example, it cites research by the Women’s Business Council, which estimates that, if women were setting up new businesses at the same rate as men, there would be one million more female entrepreneurs. Indeed, raising the level of women’s employment to the same as men’s could lift GDP by as much as 10% by 2030.

Signs of progress

There are some promising signs of progress. Since 2008, the proportion of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) run mainly by women has increased from 14% to 19%.

Recently there has also been an increased focus on broadening young women’s aspirations and understanding of career options while they are still in education, partially as a result of recommendations put forward by the Women’s Business Council in 2013.

In 2014, a follow-up report assessed the progress that had been made against these recommendations. Successful initiatives included a pilot project to help female students develop entrepreneurial skills, and use of the Speakers for Schools scheme to enable successful female entrepreneurs to discuss their experiences with pupils and act as positive role models. We also wrote last year about the importance for girls of having female role models within science and technology, when considering career choices.

The government has also stepped up its support for existing and new female entrepreneurs, recently announcing a £1million challenge fund to help women grow their business online, the introduction of Start Up Loans, the Enterprise Allowance and local growth hubs, and the provision of £1.6 million to support women entrepreneurs in rural areas.

Mentoring can help

Karren Brady, a top female entrepreneur, known for her role on the BBC’s The Apprentice, and as vice-chair of West Ham Football Club, is passionate about female entrepreneurs and SMEs. She suggests that “fear and a lack of confidence can stand in the way of women” and recommends that budding entrepreneurs should find a mentor to help guide them.

She is not the only one to recognise the benefits of mentors for women entrepreneurs.  The government recently announced additional funding for a series of ‘Meet a mentor’ events which are aimed solely at women.

The issue of female entrepreneurship has even found its way into popular women’s magazines such as Elle and Red, both of which have recently been promoting female entrepreneurship, through dedicated sections and discussions on business start ups and highlighting advice and guidance from strong female role models.

There are clearly many facets to tackling the low rates of female entrepreneurship. As well as ensuring that potential women entrepreneurs can access practical support and services, there is a need to tackle the underlying notion held by many that business is a ‘male activity’.

By doing so, women who want to run their own business will be better placed to obtain both the resources and the confidence required to “make it happen”.


Further reading

Whether you are interested in entrepreneurship or equalities, the Idox Information Service can help.

The Burt report: inclusive support for women in enterprise Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015

Maximising women’s contribution to future economic growth: one year on Women’s Business Council, 2014

Realising the potential (under-representation of women in Scottish entrepreneurship), IN Holyrood, No 314 17 Mar 2014, pp73-74 (A49229)

Women and the economy: government action plan Government Equalities Office, 2013

Entrepreneurs: what can we learn from them? Inspiring female entrepreneurs Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2013

Women in business: female entrepreneurship – creating growth and dispelling the myths Federation of Small Businesses, 2011

Three options DWP should explore in supporting those with poor mental health into work


Traffic cone with the text "works in progress".

By Steven McGinty

Last week, the UK government announced a new pilot scheme to support those with mental illness back into work. While similar to other government initiatives, this scheme has the unique selling point of offering treatment at an earlier stage, alongside employment support.

Like many of the government’s return to work policies, this might prove to be controversial. Many have expressed concerns over a comment from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that suggests that counselling could become mandatory for those claiming benefits.  One of the most notable individuals to question this policy is Tom Pollard, Campaign and Policy Manager at Mind. He suggests that,

“If people are not getting access to the support they need, the government should address levels of funding for mental health services rather than putting even more pressure on those supported by benefits and not currently well enough to work.”

Although this pilot scheme has caused some heated debate, this is just one of the many ideas available to the government. Others include:

Aim High Routeback (Easington Pilot), County Durham

This pilot scheme was launched in 2005, as part of the Northern Way pilots, and was said to take a ‘health-first’ approach. The scheme was based in an NHS Primary Care Trust building, with participants focusing on the practical management of their health conditions, and employment only being discussed once individuals had started to make progress with their health. The project reported an above average return to work rate, in comparison with the other pilots. Interestingly, one of the key findings of the study was that participants were more likely to return to work if they felt like their health was ‘good or improving’.

JOBS II Model

This model was developed in the US and involves the use of peer led groups. The idea is that these groups can be used to support those with mental health problems back into employment, as well as prevent the negative health impacts which can arise from unemployment. The programme works on improving the jobseekers’ ability to search for work, as well as to cope with the setbacks of finding employment. The model has been found to be successful and has recently been recommended by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mini-ICF-APP

This is a measure for assessing patients that was piloted by a community mental health team in Oxfordshire. The pilot involved asking new patients to fill in a 10 minute survey. This survey allowed medical staff to better assess the support needs of patients, as well as to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The staff were then able to offer more targeted referrals and interventions. For example, the use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or the tailoring of a patient’s medication. The pilot reported that this approach led to an improvement in outcomes for patients.

This is just a small sample of the research on improving the employment prospects of those with mental illness.

At Idox, our database contains all the research highlighted. We also provide an enquiry service, allowing members to receive the support of information professionals, as well as save time on their research.

Further reading (you may need to be a member to view some of these articles):