Anthony Knight fulfilled a childhood dream when he became an arboretum horticulturalist at Kew Gardens. But it took him nine attempts over five years before finally landing the job in November, despite having done work experience and an apprenticeship at the world-renowned botanical gardens in south-west London.
While in theory Knight, 38, was a strong contender for the job – having previously worked at Kew, at a local nursery and in garden maintenance – he has a moderate learning disability that affects how he communicates, so job interviews were a barrier. “I was not able to portray myself in the best possible light,” he says.
Knight was only successful once Kew adjusted the application process, giving him more information about the general subjects to be covered so he could better prepare for the interview.
Ray Townsend, who manages the 25-strong arboretum team, says: “We couldn’t give the exact questions, that wouldn’t have been fair to other candidates, but Anthony had a bit of time to think, and that made a difference to how he answered. You have to give someone the opportunity to prove themselves … You’ve got to be patient and flexible.”
Knight took longer to familiarise himself with the 300-acre site. But this summer he is responsible for the rosacea area, and his boss describes him as a “reliable and dedicated” employee.
As someone who has a learning disability and is in paid employment, Knight is rare. In the UK, just 5.8% of people with a learning disability who are known to social care services are in paid work, compared with 74% of non-disabled people. But the most up-to-date figures from a 2009 government report show that 65% of learning disabled people want paid work but have been unable to get a job.
Although legislation is in place obliging employers to make reasonable workplace adjustments, this obviously is not happening. Knight’s case demonstrates how just a tiny adjustment plus an open-minded employer can get people with learning disabilities into jobs they want and can do. It also provides them with a wage. An arboretum horticulturalist salary begins at around £19,000 in London.
At Kew, 35 staff (4%) have a long-term disability or physical or mental health problem; six of the 35 have a learning disability. Sarah Donnelly, Kew’s head of human resources, says its approach also helps to change attitudes both in the workplace and with the public.
“If someone’s not working, they’re on benefits … earning money gives independence, helps to raise self-esteem and gives purpose in life.”
The government aims to get 1 million more disabled people into work. But it has cut “access to work” funding that disabled employees may rely on to hold down a job, as it covers the costs of buying special software or other equipment. And the Work Programme, designed to help unemployed people back to work, fails to target disabled people with significant needs.
Diane Lightfoot, chief executive of national network the Business Disability Forum (BDF), says Brexit could offer employment opportunities to disabled people seeking work. According to the British Hospitality Association, it could take 10 years to replace the sector’s EU workers. But Lightfoot is calling for there to be more focus on using this “huge pool of talent” to fill some vacancies left by departing EU workers.
“Many of the jobs and industries which are highly reliant on a migrant workforce are entry-level jobs in the hospitality, retail and care industries which – perhaps with some adjustment – could be highly suited to a person with a learning disability,” she says.
Most recruitment processes are online, which is a challenge, many are filled with jargon and acronyms and long words’
Mark Capper, Mencap
Adjustments, as Kew’s approach shows, can be simple. Mark Capper, business development manager at the charity Mencap (through which Knight got work experience at Kew 10 years ago), describes the general barriers: “Most recruitment processes are online, which is a challenge, many are filled with jargon and acronyms and long words … most people with learning disabilities will have limited or no experience of the world of employment, so won’t be able to contextualise the questions.” His solutions include “verbal CVs”, and using diagrams to explain jobs or replacing interviews with week-long work trials.
Another problem, says Rob Greig, chief executive of the social inclusion charity NDTi (National Development Team for Inclusion) is the incorrect assumption that work experience or low-paid work will lead to a proper job: “Volunteering is a conscious decision to contribute to society, not a substitute for employment,” he says.
Campaigner Gary Bourlet, co-founder and self-advocacy lead at the charity Learning Disability England, believes employers and government could do a lot more to boost employment. “Offer flexible hours and get a better understanding of disabled people … there should be disability awareness training for everyone in a company and more professional development [for learning disabled people],” he suggests. Bourlet argues that learning disability organisations should employ more people with disabilities. “Especially in managerial roles,” he says, “so it’s not just someone sitting on reception.”
According to Mencap’s 2016 annual report, just 91 of its 8,260 staff (about 1%) have a learning disability. A spokeswoman said Mencap is doing a staff diversity survey to get updated figures, but as the majority work in personal support to people with a learning disability (the annual report states 5,193 employees are in “supporting people roles”), “this might not be the right environment for an employee with a learning disability” QUOTE? she says. It states the charity is “focusing on expanding opportunities for employees to inform and influence the successful evolution of the organisation”.
There are some learning disability organisations set up with a specific purpose to employ learning disabled people. My Life My Choice in Oxfordshire (MLMC) is a self-advocacy charity that pays people with learning disabilities on a freelance basis. It says it is “part of how we are fighting injustice”. People work as a “travel buddy” and as “experts by experience”, inspecting support services, or delivering training about having a learning disability to organisations such as the NHS.
MLMC pays Pam Bebbington, who has a mild learning disability, up to £120 a week, with her hours limited because she is receiving employment support allowance (ESA). She also gets disability living allowance.
Bebbington gets help with note taking, and her documents are in large, simple text. She says she likes everything about working: “I like to keep busy, because otherwise I get bored. Before, I used to get depressed.” She wants more face-to-face help for job hunters: “Give them support … you have to go on computers now to get jobs.”
MLMC has 31 freelance workers with learning disabilities. This equates to 74% of its workforce, although benefit rules restrict how many hours they can work. MLMC is creating new consultant roles, so more people on ESA will have what is known as permitted work status and will be able to earn up to £120 a week without their benefits being affected.
Choice Support, which employs experts by experience across the UK, and Dimensions, a Reading-based countrywide support service that has a learning disabled campaigns adviser and quality auditor, are other examples of learning disability organisations employing the people they are set up to help.
Back at Kew, Knight is taking stock of his working life. “I find working at Kew very satisfying – providing work variety, opportunities, work stability, prestige and interest and, of course, a living,” he says. “I enjoy talking to the public, telling people the best way to get to different parts of Kew.” And of his future here? “I want to progress and expand and fulfil my potential,” he replies. His advice for other job seekers? “When you are convinced you can do the job, pursue your dream no matter how many knockbacks – and when you get it, prove how valuable you are.”