Is the minimum wage restricting employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities?
If you’re an adult with a learning disability living in the UK today, it’s more than likely that you will be unemployed.
Just six per cent of over 18s with a learning disability are in paid work – the vast majority are denied the opportunity of meaningful employment, and with it the dignity that that brings. It’s clear the present system isn’t working and the time for a radical rethink is now.
Disability rights campaigner, and the mother of a daughter with Down’s syndrome, Rosa Monckton earlier this year called for people with learning disabilities to be allowed to work for below the minimum wage. In the past such suggestions have been labelled as controversial and criticised for being discriminatory, but does Rosa have a point?
From an employer’s perspective, they will always be reluctant to take on any individuals who may not fit into the efficient employee model, who can deliver at the right pace while maintaining quality. But there are roles that adults with learning disabilities can take, especially public facing roles where people would welcome diversity.
The minimum wage was put in place to ensure that employers paid a reasonable rate and that employees were not exploited. But if the minimum wage becomes a blockage in allowing adults these opportunities, I believe we should consider dropping it for certain groups. That doesn’t mean we should have a two-tier systems but anything that would encourage employers to take a different view should be welcomed.
Employers should be encouraged to take on adults with learning disabilities as interns. This allows the employer to offer some meaningful employment, not to have to pay the individual initially and if they prove their worth in the work place, to offer them a permanent position.
It does take a mind shift from employers to see adults with learning disabilities as employable and capable of contributing to the financial wellbeing of a company. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, by the response from different employers. Now we need the positive data to demonstrate how this would benefit companies.
Barriers to employment
Many individuals with autism and different learning disabilities are capable of doing very repetitive jobs to a high skill level. These people are often disregarded in the employment stakes because they are different or lack the expected social skills. This certainly doesn’t mean they cannot contribute.
Of course we do not want to dismantle the hard earned achievements of the unions through the minimum and living wages, which are excellent pieces of legislation, but we also do not want the undesired consequences of these becoming barriers to meaningful employment.
To accelerate progress, it is imperative that we ensure employers who do offer internships and employment opportunities gain kudos from doing so and are not seen as just paying lip service to their corporate social responsibility.
People with learning disabilities have so much to contribute to the wider society. It’s time to drop rigid rules and adopt a more flexible approach to employment. Work gives life purpose; why should we deny it to the people who already lead challenging lives?
Stephen Bradshaw is CEO of The Aurora Group, which runs a range of facilities and services for children, young people and adults with special needs: