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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Young people’s quest for work experience hampered … by lack of work experience

By Stacey Dingwall

The UK Commission for Education and Skills has released a new report, Catch 16-24: youth employment challenge, which suggests that today’s young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience.

According to the UK Commission’s analysis, most English regions are lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of the number of employers offering work experience opportunities to young people. The Humber, with one of England’s highest youth unemployment rates, is identified as being a particular work experience ‘blackspot’, with only 29% of employers offering placements.

The new report comes a year on from the publication of another report from the UK Commission, Not just making tea: reinventing work experience. This outlined the vital importance of work experience not only for young people, but for employers themselves, and dispelled common myths that often deter employers from offering opportunities. Multiple case studies showed the benefits enjoyed by companies, large and small, when they invest in young people through work experience.

Why then, a year on, does the UK Commission’s latest research still indicate that only 20% of employers across the UK currently offer work experience to schools, and only 12% to colleges?

A barrier to social mobility

The report suggests that location is not the only factor hindering young people’s chances of obtaining work experience – personal contacts also play a significant role. The need to ensure that employment outcomes for young people are not constrained by their social or ethnic backgrounds (“it’s not what you know, but who you know”) has also been raised by both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in the last year.

The Sutton Trust’s Internship or Indenture? briefing supports the UK Commission’s description of London as the “internship capital of the country” and places the total cost of undertaking a six-month unpaid internship in the capital at £6,081 (including transport costs) and £5,078 for doing so in Greater Manchester. The importance of undertaking internships and work experience placements in order to gain entrance to professions such as law and finance is highlighted, alongside the fact that only those from wealthy backgrounds are likely to be able to bear the costs of working for free for any significant period of time.

In order to tackle ‘elitist Britain’, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recommended that both schools and employers should do more in order to ‘close the gap’ in the provision of work experience opportunities to pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

Employers want new recruits to have work experience

The ‘catch’ for young people in terms of work experience is laid bare in the UK Commision’s new report: 66% of employers rate experience as a ‘critical’ or ‘significant’ factor when it comes to recruitment decisions yet less than a third of this figure are currently prepared to offer opportunities.

The impact of this on the UK’s continuing high rate of youth unemployment is highlighted – the UK has “German levels of adult unemployment but Eurozone levels of youth unemployment”. The UK Commission has previously used case studies of the work experience systems of countries including Australia and the Netherlands to show the positive benefits of integrating work experience into education for youth employment rates.

So, what will it take for UK employers and educational institutions to adopt closer relationships in order to improve the work experience offer for young people?

Improved collaboration

Despite indications that the number of employers taking on apprentices is increasing, and encouraging examples of collaborations between schools and employers, Katerina Rüdiger of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) believes that the government should do more to facilitate employer-education relatationships. Reacting to the new UK Commission report, Rüdiger called for the government to “create a role in local authorities so they can work with the National Careers Service to provide resources and broker relationships between young people, schools and employers to generate routes into work”. The involvement of government in facilitating this type of collaboration has also been described as vital by the UK Commission.

The UK Commission has described the December 2014 announcement of a new careers and enterprise company for English schools (with the aim of encouraging employers to link directly to pupils throughout their education) as “promising”. This follows its previous call for the rest of the UK to follow the lead of the Scottish Government which, through its commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce, is aiming to achieve links with employers for each of the country’s secondary schools over the next three years.

Whether these initiatives will have the required impact on the UK’s work experience offer for young people remains, of course, to be seen in another year’s time.

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on work experience and youth employment. Items of interest include:

Work experience: benefits and impact (Series briefing note 44)

Undergraduates’ memories of school-based work experience and the role of social class in placement choices in the UK

Making work experience work: top tips for employers

Work experience doesn’t work, says Wood Commission

The effects of work experience during higher education on labour market entry: learning by doing or an entry ticket?