Big Society, Disability and Civil Society Research

Website for ESRC research project 'Big Society? Disabled People with Learning Disabilities and Civil Society'

60% of MPs believe that learning disabled people can’t work: Big Society research shows that they can

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 A recent report by Dimensions, a care provider, revealed that a poll of one hundred MPs found that 60% believe that people with learning disabilities can’t work . Our research project Big Society? Disabled people with learning disabilities and civil society, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant Ref: ES/K004883/1)[i], clearly shows that people with learning disabilities can and do work.

Take for example, Charlie, a learning disabled man in his fifties. Charlie works five days a week for the city council meals service. He has a range of jobs there from marking up the boards for the drivers, to being responsible for the recycling as well as a host of office tasks. When Charlie got the job at the meals service, he went for a ‘working interview’; this meant he had a work trial, trying out the tasks in order to secure the post. Charlie was also supported by a job coach: a person who specializes in supporting people with learning disabilities into employment.  Charlie’s job coach helped Charlie in his first few weeks in his new job, supporting him to learn new tasks as well as the workplace culture. Charlie has been working at the meals service for seven years, he was forty-seven when he got his first paid job. Charlie’s story shows that with the right support, people with learning disabilities can work, but it also reveals that low expectations and a lack of appropriate support means that many people who can work are excluded from the labour market.

Way back in 1984, The King’s Fund published An Ordinary Working Life that built on discussion in the 1950s about the role and value of employment for people with learning disabilities. And yet, in 2015, fewer than 10% of people with learning disabilities are in paid work. In 2010, the Coalition government endorsed the policy document Valuing Employment Now (VEN) (Department of Work and Pensions and Department of Health, 2009) that recognized the particular experiences of marginalisation faced by people with learning disabilities. And yet, only 4.8% of the Coalition’s Work Programme, the programme designed to support disabled people into work, have a learning disability. In the early days of the new Tory government, reports are already emerging that Access to Work, a fund which offers disabled people up to £25,000 per year on physical adaptation to workplaces, personal aids (e.g. seats, reading machines), job coaches, and money for transport, is under threat with the publication of an Equality Analysis for the Future of Access to Work

Charlie’s story is just one of the stories from our research project that shows that people with learning disabilities can work, and yet the supports in place to support people into and in work are under threat. MPs, and others, need to understand that many people with learning disabilities want to work and have lots to offer as employees.

Our research found that:

  • Few people with a learning disability are in work;
  • Support available to move people into employment varies across local areas;
  • Job coaching can work well to support people into employment;
  • Social enterprises can also create employment opportunities for people with LD;
  • Business circles of support can help people become self-employed;

We suggest that:

  • We need to make what works (job coaching; social enterprise; business circles; self-employment) widely available;
  • Financial and other support for these services should be increased (not cut).

If you would like to find out more about the project visit: or contact

[i] Big Society? Disabled people with learning disabilities and civil society is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant Ref: ES/K004883/1). It is a partnership project between four universities: Manchester Metropolitan University, The University of Sheffield, The University of Bristol and Northumbria University as well as civil society partners: Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities; Pathways Associates; Manchester Learning Disability Partnership; Mencap; SpeakUp Self-Advocacy and Pete Crane, Wendy Crane, Max Neill and Helen Smith, independent living advisors.


Author: Katherine RC

Katherine is Research Fellow in Disability Studies and Psychology at the Research Institute for Health and Social Change at Manchester Metropolitan University

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