19 August 2008

The chance to live a full life

Young people with learning disabilities need better options when they leave school, writes Janet Murray
Janet Murray
The Guardian

When Sam, her daughter, left school, Carol Robbie hoped she would continue her education. But when her college application was turned down, her mother didn't know where to turn. Sam, who has severe learning disabilities, dyspraxia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, had very limited options.
"I could understand why the college said no," says Robbie. "Given her needs, they felt they couldn't guarantee Sam's safety. Still, I was absolutely gutted."
Robbie needed to continue working full time, so day care was the only option. But Robbie was unhappy with her local respite centre: "The carers were nice, but the activities on offer were totally inappropriate. There was no progression. It seemed more about keeping Sam occupied than helping her move on."
There are an estimated 210,000 people with severe and profound learning disabilities in England. Many young people, like Sam, end up in inappropriate adult day centres once they have left school or find themselves isolated, without any services. Fewer than one in 20 go into paid work.
A government white paper called Valuing People, published in 2001, promised greater rights, inclusion, independence and choice for young people with learning difficulties. It recognised the need to start planning their transition to college or work from the age of 14.
Research carried out by the Norah Fry research centre a year later suggested a fifth of young people had left school without a transition plan. Almost half had little or no involvement in planning for their future. There were few options available to them, particularly when it came to employment.
In Valuing People, the government recognised that some college courses and some day-care provision were unsuitable for young adults with learning disabilities. Inappropriate courses and day care were cut, but in many cases they have not been replaced with something better.
A recent Learning and Skills Council (LSC) report shows college places have been cut by almost 15%.
Provision is patchy and access to opportunities can be a postcode lottery. But there are examples of good practice.
The Leighton project in Camden, north London, helps 16- to 25-year-olds move into paid work, training or further education.
The two-year programme, currently funded by the LSC, offers life skills, vocational training and a three-month work experience placement, one day a week.
Work placements
Yagmir Onglu, 22, has just finished a placement at Highgate library, helping with shelving, tidying and issuing books. She says: "Since I started the course I feel like a grown-up person. I'm an adult now, not a baby."
Kevin Riley, 21, did his work experience at John Lewis on Oxford Street. He shadowed another employee, helping to put stock on the shelves. With the support of project staff, he was able to travel independently to work from his home in Tottenham.
Before this, both Onglu and Riley had completed various college courses, typical of those available to young adults with learning disabilities. These may suit some, says project manager Jenny Pounde, but for many, there is a lack of progression.
"The frustrating thing is that after two years with us, some of our young people do get to the point where they are ready to work," says Pounde. "They need some support to get started, perhaps for someone to work alongside them for a few weeks or months, but there is no funding for that. Fast-forward a few months, and they can be back to square one."
Employers can be reluctant to provide opportunities for young people with learning disabilities, particularly as some can only manage part-time work and often need to work close to home.
Rabbi Yitzchak Freeman, chief executive of the special-needs charity Kisharon, which provides care and education for members of the Jewish community with learning disabilities, agrees there is very little funding for supported employment.
He cites an example of a pilot scheme in north London that had £150,000 worth of funding to employ 15 "job coaches" to support young adults with learning disabilities. "The funding dried up after a year, and that was the end of that," he says.
Low expectations
Freeman believes employers are missing out. "Unfortunately, as a society, we've developed low expectations of people with learning disabilities. It's not uncommon to see people with learning disabilities working in your local supermarket, but that's not the only job they can do.
"They can be such a great asset. They are highly motivated, reliable, have a positive attitude, a good work ethic and can offer a good length of service."
At Kisharon's Asher Loftus business centre, a social enterprise for young adults with learning disabilities, positions are on offer in a variety of businesses, including a bike shop, repair workshop, print shop and wood turning.
"In our print shop, they are creasing, folding, stapling, packaging and stuffing envelopes. In the cycle shop, we've been able to train young adults with learning difficulties to do routine bike servicing - dismantling, lubricating, reassembling the bikes," says Freeman.
He believes the government has a responsibility to support the commercial sector to provide suitable employment opportunities, perhaps providing tax breaks or other incentives.
Employers, too, must face up to their responsibilities. According to the Disability Discrimination Act, employers are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled people to work. "For those with learning disabilities, a reasonable adjustment might be to offer a verbal application process and a trial period," says Freeman.
Government promises
Valuing People Now, a white paper published last December, has acknowledged the shortcomings of Valuing People. The government is promising £19m in funding for transition support and a transition plan for every young person, with the aim of getting them into college or employment when they leave school.
After a year in an unsuitable day-care centre, Sam Robbie's mother heard about a residential centre for young adults with similar levels of disability.
"Some people think that I'm heartless putting my daughter into residential care, but actually I'm giving her some independence, moving her on.
"She's in a more stimulating environment, she has friends. She's been to see Mamma Mia!, had a caravan holiday, gone bowling, and learned circus skills. She's learned to make her bed, she's done ironing. I'd never have been able to do that with her at home.
"What is important at this stage is that she is progressing, becoming more independent and leading a full life, which she has every right to do. I realise we are lucky. If we lived in a different part of the country, it could have been a completely different story."
· The charity Enable Scotland has produced a free CD-rom to guide young people through the transition to adulthood.

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