Going Places: supporting people with learning disabilities and autism into work and in the workforce

Going Places: supporting people with learning disabilities and autism into work and in the workforce

  • Diane Lightfoot
  • 25 February 2019
  • Posted in: Healthcare, Education

Going Places: supporting people with learning disabilities and autism into work and in the workforce”


Good work transforms lives. And good work for people with a learning disability or autism is a subject particularly close to my heart, having spent 13 years working for United Response, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities and autism to live the lives they choose.


Whilst at United Response, it struck me that for those who can work, employment is the most genuine and form of inclusion that there is. One of the main ways that most of us define ourselves is through our job; one of the first things we ask when we meet someone new is “what do you do?”. Good work isn’t just about income – though of course that’s very important -  but also confidence, wellbeing, skills development, and a social circle. Many people with a learning disability say that loneliness and isolation is their biggest “disability” and yet work creates a natural support network that provides its own “circle of support”.


I’ve seen at first-hand how the lives of people with a learning disability or autism are transformed by getting a job – even if it’s just for a few hours a week – into their 30s, 40s, 50s or beyond. Yet for too many people with learning disabilities or autism, the “what do you do?” question is a very difficult one to answer. The statistics are woeful: only 6% of working age adults with a learning disability are in work. The figures aren’t much better for adults with autism; just 15% are in full time employment, according to the charity Ambitious About Autism.


And too many young people with a learning disability or autism are still growing up without the encouragement to – let along the expectation of – working. It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as Purple Space Founder and CEO, Kate Nash, so eloquently puts it.


At Business Disability Forum, we work with organisations across all sectors to help them get better at recruiting retaining disabled employees and serving disabled customers. Our 300 members employ around 15% of the UK workforce and around 8 million people worldwide. But what we are ultimately here for – I believe – is to transform the life chances that disabled people have as employees and consumers.


It’s been a revelation to me, as (almost) poacher-turned-gamekeeper, to learn what innovative and genuinely ground-breaking practice there is amongst employers. Our Partner Microsoft, for example, runs employment initiatives specifically targeted candidates on the autism spectrum, and the Civil Service runs an annual Autism Exchange work experience programme with Ambitious about Autism.


And it’s been an even bigger revelation to hear many employers saying “we want to recruit more disabled people – but how do we reach them? And how do we convince them we are genuine?”. I’ve noticed a real shift in the conversations I’m having over the past 6 months, from a focus on employee retention (which of course is very important) to recruitment and the need to reach the widest possible talent pool. This is particularly evident in sectors like construction, which are already facing skills shortages and are concerned about what the future will bring in terms of their workforce.


Of course, job readiness and work preparation for people with learning disabilities and autism needs to keep pace with the changing landscape of entry level jobs – the dwindling of supermarket checkout roles being an obvious example - and the changing requirements of employers. Equally, employers need to be open to doing things differently and to understand a work trial is not only a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, but is also, for many jobs, a far better measure of whether someone can actually do a job as opposed to telling you about it.


I am delighted to be joining the “Learning Disabilities and Autism: Promoting Positive Outcomes” conference on 12 March to discuss some of these challenges. I do hope you can join me and that, together, we can shift the dial on those woeful statistics once and for all.


Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

  • learning disabilities
  • Article Author

About Diane Lightfoot

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum, a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports businesses to recruit and retain disabled employees and to serve disabled customers. Business Disability Forum’s 300 members employ around 15% of the UK workforce and range from FTSE 100 companies and central Government departments to transpo…