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03rd May 2016

The cost of dependency

Having people with disabilities rely on the state to subsist ignores the benefits to society of supporting them to work.

I rarely peruse The Economist (call me an airhead, but that much print and so few pictures......) but my partner alerted me to an article the other week about the chronic waste of employable talent in people with autism. Although the prevalence of the condition has continued to rise, due to better diagnosis rather than any more sinister factors, the world has not caught on to the fact that having an autism condition does not make a person ineducable or unable to contribute.

Some enlightened employers have caught on to this seam of talent and are being more focused on ways to attract people with autism into the workplace and keep them there. Some companies have set up specifically to address this group and only recruit people with an autism diagnosis, with impressive results. To address the challenges faced by people with ASD there are smaller workspaces with appropriate sound and lighting levels, tasks are made more structured and social contact not always a requirement. In these companies, people with autism have proved valuable, dedicated and committed workers.

But not for everyone

Now, before you all protest that the people described here are more likely to be high-functioning individuals, able to cope with complex work situations, I should add that this was not the real reason that the article got me thinking. What really resonated with me was the point the Economist was making at the conclusion; that the growing number of people with disability diagnosis would add to the welfare burden when they could, with support and encouragement, actually contribute to the GDP.

This in turn reminded me of the 1980s when we were closing the big institutions and growing the community care provision for adults with learning disabilities. In the rural hospital I worked at, there were a number of employment opportunities for residents. These included the gardening team, who not only kept the grounds tidy and beautiful but also grew vegetables and soft fruit for sale, as well as flowers and compost, garden ornaments and baskets. There was a fully operational sewing service that mended clothes, labelled linen, collected and delivered these. That included our awful uniform dresses, always needing to have buttons replaced and hems fixed.

During the last weeks of my pregnancy, I was posted to work in the CSSD packing team. This was a group of about 30 residents who operated a production line to produce medical dressing packs for the local general hospital. This work, though monotonous, was very structured and planned and everyone had a valued role in the process. They clocked in and out, received a notional pay packet, but most importantly they were gainfully employed.

Token Gesture

Now, some might say this was exploitative, that these folks were effectively slave labour at cheap wages. I have considered that argument many times. But this much is true; of all of those people who moved from the hospital into the community, not one went into employment. They all went into super accommodation, near the shops, near the pub, but spent the day in idle wandering or watching the TV. And all the while, the state supported them.

I don't know that there is an easy answer, but I do know that The Economist has a very valid point. We may be throwing away the chance to develop an asset by assuming that people with learning disabilities cannot be employed.

Ginny Tyler – QCS Learning Disability Expert Contributor

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