Learning Disabilities And Employment Education Essay

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Over the past decade, a growing body of literature has emerged emphasising the importance of employment in the daily lives of ordinary people (Ridley & Hunter, 2005). Paid employment provides not only the obvious financial benefits and incentives of any token economy, but can also contribute towards quality of life, both personally and socially (Petrovski & Gleeson, 1997). Employment provides a means of contributing back to the wider community, and in so doing can instil a sense of identity, independence and self-worth (Reid & Bray, 1998). However, for no one else is employment more important than for people with learning disabilities. Paid employment provides a means by which such individuals can achieve a degree of normalisation and equal citizenship (Morgan & Beyer, 2005; Fripp, 2005). Furthermore, Forrester-Jones et al. (2001) found that having a job and having friends are most important predictors of quality of life outcomes. According to a Department of Health (2005) white paper, there are currently over 800,000 people with learning disabilities of employable age in the UK. However, only 11% of those are actually placed in paid employment. This is a rise of approximately 1% since the last DoH white paper, Valuing People, was published in 2001a, and shows the current pace of progress (cited in Morgan & Beyer, 2005).

More importantly, the prospect of paid employment and "having friends at work" is often a highly valued life goal of many people with learning disabilities (DoH, 2005). The importance of having friends is illustrated by Ell (1996) who found that having a social network improves health, reduces stress and morbidity. In a study involving the opinions of people with severe and multiple learning disabilities, McConkey and Murphy (1989) found that 39 out of 52 people hoped to find future employment and friends at work. This shows that even people on the more severe side of learning disabilities still value employment. However, this study can be criticized in the respect that the participants were recent leavers of a special school based in Dublin and may have had higher expectations than the respective norm. Another problem here is that the method of collecting interview data from people who have severe communicational difficulties may not be truly be representative of their opinions. Methods such as this are subject to misunderstanding or misinterpreting on the part of the participant and/or researcher. Therefore, these results should not be generalized to people from other ethnic and socio-demographic backgrounds, or to people who may not have access to specialized schooling. Having said this, these findings have been replicated in other regions and with various other samples, which does support the idea that employment is important to people with learning disabilities generally. Interview based research found rates of "employment ambition" to be approximately 84-85% (Jahoda, Cattermole & Markova, 1989; Conliffe, 1989; cited in McConkey & McGinley, 1992).

Furthermore, many of these studies have noted that there is a strong employment preference in people with learning disabilities. Hanna (1992) attempted to gauge the employment preferences of people with learning disabilities using a form of aided augmentative communication with pictures to increase understanding. It was found that preferences were highly linked to individual's perceived ability to cope with work. Most common preferences included dishwasher, domestic worker, cook, and canteen worker (cited in McConkey & McGinley, 1992). This and the previous studies noted all have a common methodological benefit in seeing disability in the light of society (or, the way that society views disability and employment as the problem) which lends support to these findings. The use of interviews allows researchers to gain an understanding of the reality experienced by people with learning disabilities in the realm of work. It facilitates them as a participant, rather than a subject of research, and allows them to collaborate towards a common greater goal.

2. Personal and Interpersonal Benefits of Employment

Much support has been given to the idea that people with learning disabilities should be given the same opportunities for employment as the general adult population (DoH, 2005). In turn, this should give individuals access to the benefits that employment brings. One of the benefits of paid employment is greater access to leisure activities. Fripp (2005) highlighted the trend of leisure activities becoming increasingly popular in the lives of ordinary people as a result of post-war economic development. Leisure activities have been suggested as an important component in achieving Maslow's (1992) hierarchy of needs (cited in Fripp, 2005). In terms of people with learning disabilities, not only would increased disposable income - as the result of paid employment - allow such individuals to gain social inclusion in such activities, it also theoretically aids in the building of self-esteem and self-actualization as outlined by Maslow (1992). Social inclusion through employment and leisure for people with disabilities has been a primary agenda for governments in recent years (Gosling & Cotterill, 2000). Another consequence of paid employment and leisure activities is that this in itself promotes independence and self-sustainable behaviours (Powell & Flynn, 2005). This reduces the amount of people on full benefits nationally, and even helps these people achieve full citizenship by contributing back into the economy.

Life satisfaction is also another widely stated outcome of employment in people with learning disabilities. The spill-over hypothesis states that satisfaction with ones work is directly correlated with overall life satisfaction and even physiological health (Petrovski & Gleeson, 1997). However, the benefits of ordinary employment and psychological factors may be a two sided coin. Self-evaluations have been widely shown to be drawn comparatively from an individual's environment. Studies have shown that people living in institutions rate themselves more favourably than those living in the community - this can be extrapolated to apply to employment settings also (Gibbons, 1985). It is suggested that employment in ordinary settings may lead to feelings of inferiority in self-comparisons to non-disabled colleagues and knowledge of belonging to a stigmatized group (Zetlin & Turner, 1985). Others have rebuked these ideas, stating that people with learning disabilities enjoy this challenge and develop increasingly favourable self-perceptions by attempting to emulate and "pass" for a non-disabled person (cited in Petrovski & Gleeson, 1997).

Petrovski & Gleeson (1997) attempted to link job satisfaction with life satisfaction and physiological health, only finding partial support for the spill-over hypothesis. However, it is unclear whether participants agreed to take part in the research out of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their employment, therefore unforeseen bias may be an issue to the generalizability of these results. Furthermore the methodology of this study used a questionnaire of ten pages long. Although there were measures in place to make sure the individuals did understand what was being asked in the form for pre-questions, there may have been difficulties in comprehending words which did not relate to everyday questions such as "is today Thursday?" or "are you male or female?". Thus it may be premature to abandon the theorised benefits of job satisfaction to other realms of life.

Another theory states that employment is a way of achieving social role valorisation and having more power in a society which judges an individual by what he or she does (i.e. employment role). Wolfensberger (1992) suggested that for people with learning disabilities, who are already widely undervalued by society, work can offer the opportunity to assume valued social roles and develop a sense of adult identity (cited in Lemay, 2006). Such social role valorisation was demonstrated in a recent qualitative study in which 14 people with learning disabilities were interviewed regarding their experiences of work, pay, social opportunities and career paths. Results showed that employment allowed these individuals to become independent of benefits, learn to use public transport, develop wider social links, improve daily routines, increased social activities, improved work ethic and even career goals as a result perceived competence with their current employment (Reid & Bray, 1998). Although this study utilized a rather small sample of participants, it does have the benefit of using a semi-structured interview based methodology. This allows for the perspectives of people with learning disabilities to inform research and the research itself to enhance their future employment prospects by influencing policy.

3. Obstacles, Opportunities and the Right to Employment

Despite the discussed personal and interpersonal benefits to be had, people with learning disabilities have been traditionally excluded from paid employment. In fact they are even more likely to be on benefits than they are to be registered as seeking work (Ridley & Hunter, 2005). There are many reasons why employment "is the single biggest issue or barrier" (pp. 9) to people with learning disabilities (DoH, 2005). Firstly there are practical issues to do with benefits and demand. The benefits system is a large obstacle to people with learning disabilities gaining employment as it creates a "dependency trap" whereby people fear losing their benefits, whilst being offered very low wages (Gosling & Cotterill, 2000). Thus people with learning disabilities are financially better off on benefits and reluctant to seek employment. Studies have suggested that the benefits policy in the UK should change from a rigid incapacity based system, to a more flexible approach in which people are helped into employment (Morgan & Beyer, 2005). However, it is of little consequence for people to be willing to work if there are no jobs available for them. With the development of a tertiary sector economy and a reduction in the amount of labor and manufacturing jobs available, people with learning disabilities are often the "last men standing" in labor market. This trend is exacerbated in times of economic decline, when even the few jobs available for these individuals get taken off the market due to financial constraints (Hyde, 1998).

Policy makers and service planners have recognised the need for greater support in the employment of people with learning disabilities. As a result, additional models of employment provision have been introduced in recent years to compliment ordinary employment: i.e., sheltered workshops, supported employment and social firms. Sheltered workshops have undergone much reform in the past thirty years due to fiscal restructuring (Hyde, 1998). Thus these workshops (formerly known as Adult Training Centres) have fallen out of vogue in the eyes of the government due to their inability to be a competitive presence within the national trading market (Hyde, 1998). Supported employment has become the more popular option as it involves on-site training and support by an individual "job coach". Hyde (1998) found that 53% of people in supported workshops were satisfied with their jobs, compared to only 25% in sheltered employment. This person centred approach to employment has thus proved popular not only for people with learning disabilities, but with employers also. Finally, social firms are businesses set up for the purpose of employing people with learning disabilities (Gosling & Cotterill, 2000).

In conclusion, employment is highly important to people with learning disabilities and provides practical, social and psychological benefits to their lives. However these individuals face many obstacles when attempting to gain work, leisure and social opportunities. Prejudices, low expectation and bizarre benefits policies, which almost encourage people not to work, have hampered them in their goals. Models of employment provision are in place to help people in this respect and studies have shown these to be effective. Much of the research discussed has used methodologies which allow greatest insight into the experiences of those with learning disabilities at work. However one of the consistent methodological failings is that people with learning disabilities from ethnic backgrounds have often not been included in research. This is usually because most are taken care of at home, and not in services. Yet more needs to be done to include these individuals in research to truly generalise these findings.