Learning disability isn't a working disability

Mencap wants to rid us of the preconception that people with a learning disability are unemployable...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As part of National Learning Disability Week, charity Mencap has released figures suggesting there are 800,000 people of working age in the UK with a learning disability – but although two-thirds of them want to work, only 10% actually have a proper job. Mencap says there’s an obvious reason for this: according to its latest research, 62% of Brits think all these people are incapable of work. So who’s right?

We should stress that Mencap isn’t talking about dyslexics here, or people with mental health problems. These days ‘learning disability’ is the term used to describe any condition where the brain doesn’t develop in the usual way, making it harder for those affected to learn, understand and communicate – people who in less politically correct times were lumped under the umbrella term ‘mentally handicapped’ (and worse, for that matter, depending how far you go back). And of course there’s a broad range within this: some will need full-time care, but others are perfectly capable of holding down full-time jobs.

So why aren’t they getting them? Mencap reckons there are a few myths that need busting. First of all, it argues, it’s not expensive to employ a disabled person – the average cost is a measly £75 (i.e. about the same as a month of Prêt sandwiches). Co-workers and customers are unlikely to object either – apparently 77% of the public say they’d actually think more highly of companies that employ disabled people, while it can also go down well with your staff. Nor are disabled workers any more likely to take time off – quite the reverse, statistically.

Mencap CEO Dame Jo Williams says people with learning disabilities just aren’t getting a fair crack of the whip - which means they don’t get to enjoy the ‘first job’ benefits that most of us take for granted. ‘They thrive in the work environment, just as everyone else does, but need employers to give them the opportunity to prove themselves’.

Clearly the major problem is that there’s a lot of ignorance around. Most employers would probably agree with all the above in principle, but when push comes to shove they’ll always be inclined to take the more straightforward option – particularly since most will be unaware of support schemes like Mencap’s own Pathway.

But there’s an obvious irony here: in recent months we’ve been hearing about the growing number of young people staying off work claiming disability or sickness benefits. So on the one hand, you’ve got a large group of disabled people who want to work but can’t get jobs, and on the other, a growing group of people who’ve got jobs but want to claim disability instead. Something’s going wrong somewhere...

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