A chance for the disabled to earn their place in the market

A scheme in the West Midlands is creating realistic job chances for people with handicaps, reports Carolyn O'Grady

This year Newpak Products celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. Housed in a fairly modern industrial unit in Newcastle-under-Lyme, it is an expanding business, which, as its manager says, has a "big market" in education, the police and ambulance service, NHS trusts and with industrial enterprises.

The company's polythene products includes protective book and register covers, folders, carrier bags, aprons, binliners, flip files and art folders; it can also manufacture items to a customer's own specifications.

So far, so ordinary. The difference is that Newpak is a sheltered workshop for the physically disabled which competes on equal terms with other businesses. It is part of a Staffordshire County Council organisation called Sheltered Placements and Sheltered Employment Services (SPASES) which employs or finds jobs for 165 people with disabilities.

SPASES has two branches: there are two factories, both of which are self-financing, and a special placement service, which finds employment for people with disabilities. Besides Newpak, there is a workshop for the blind in Stoke-on-Trent which makes display stands for shops and stores.

Newpak Products has a staff of 30 people and manufactures items out of already extruded polythene. Staff cut it to size using automatic guillotines or cut it by hand. Then heat-sealing machines weld the seams together and it only remains to stick on zips and velcro fasteners where necessary.

Both factories were built with people with disabilities in mind. They have been further adapted with easy access for wheelchairs, a fairly large car park for those employees who drive and white railings leading to the entrance at the workshop for the blind. Machinery has been adapted and includes built-in safety features over and above the normal.

SPASES' second branch is a service which places people with disabilities in other businesses. The service finds employing companies, organises employment contracts and pays a proportion of the disabled person's salary - the exact figure varies according to a person's situation.

It is an unusual arrangement, which in terms of equal opportunities might raise some eyebrows, but Newpak's manager explains it this way. "People have a very odd perception of disability. They are often apprehensive about taking on a disabled person. They're worried about duty of care, special facilities etc. SPASES' contribution, which comes from the income of the factories and from Staffordshire County Council, helps them do these things." Hopefully, having got over the initial hurdles, they will then go on to employ more people with disabilities.

He emphasises that the service is looking for "positive jobs - quality employment with career development and training" and, once the employing company has reassured themselves about the competence of workers placed there, they would be asked to pay a greater proportion of the salary. It is an approach which appears to be working: there are plans to expand the placement service by 20 per cent in l998.

* Newpak Products, London Road, Chesterton Newcastle, Staffordshire ST5 7HT. Tel: 01782 561257. Education Show stand J1

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