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Keys to enlightenment

Maureen McTaggart and Val Hall (below) report on European boosts for equal employment opportunities. No one can doubt Jane's sympathy for the underdog. Hardly a month goes by without her collecting for some good cause.

But last week she seemed rather agitated. "Do you know what happened to me? I had to hop up and down in a public loo because the only empty cubicle had one of those little orange disabled signs. And to make matters worse, when I went to collect my car, a ticket was stuck on the windscreen because I had parked in one of the spaces left for the disabled."

Disabled people usually elicit sympathy and compassion. But if stories like Jane's are anything to go by, underneath the compassion there appears to be some lurking resentment towards the "disability industry".

"A lot of people see disability in terms of a wheelchair, a white stick and a financial burden," says Julie Khan of Outset, a charity that trains and employs disabled people. "In fact, only a small proportion need wheelchair access. And disability can be categorised as physical (wheelchairs, crutches), sensory (sight, hearing and speech) or invisible (heart condition, sickle cell anaemia, HIVAids)."

In recognition of the determination of disabled people to work, Outset was launched in 1970 with financial help from local authorities and, later on, the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), to research their needs in terms of employment and training.

Outset's members saw a gap in the market and branched out into the training arena. For 25 years the charity has been quietly building up a network of 11 training centres nationwide, focusing on information technology - seen as an equaliser in terms of disability.

All the steps in Outset's programmes represent progress towards employment, and now the charity has joined forces with centres doing similar work in several European countries through the newly-launched European Disability Employment Network (EDEN) funded by the European Social Fund. The network is affiliated to the Confederation europeenne pour l'emploi des handicapes (CEEH), an umbrella group set up to promote employment for the 15-20 million disabled people of working age throughout the European Union. CEEH consults directly with the European Commission on education and training issues.

It is hoped that by joining this network, organisations like Outset will gain financial help without being seen to be receiving special treatment.

Julie Khan says: "It is still a job convincing employers to take on disabled people, especially if they have had no personal contact with people with disabilities. A lot of companies are proud of their equal opportunity policy, but unfortunately, in reality their policy and practice tend to differ. "

There are some excellent employers such as the BBC, LWT, and health and local authorities who regularly take on disabled people. But unfortunately few match up to them.

According to Julie Khan, Outset's southern network manager, "a disabled person can use a computer as well as an able-bodied one. And as an organisation it is our job to provide them with the skills to compete on an equal basis".

The rapid rate of technological advance has put an end to the traditional approach to office work. Therefore it makes sense that, in order not to fall even further behind in the job queue, disabled people need to have the right skills.

Students taking part in any of the free courses run by Outset do not have to understand computers or even be able to type. "All we need from them is to be open-minded about learning and motivated to work," says Alan Langton, local manager for Outset in the North London borough of Islington.

"However, most students do come with a fear of computers and see them as monsters that will attack if they touch the keys. But within a couple of days that fear is replaced by enthusiasm."

During the six-month courses, which are tailored specifically for the disabled person, they will be given the opportunity to develop general office techniques, specialised computer skills and the personal confidence to find a job.

Qualified trainers work closely with students, who are allowed to progress at their own pace, to develop the right training programme for each one.

At the end of the training period they are expected to have mastered the basics of typing, word-processing software, desktop publishing, databases and spreadsheets (using programs such as Lotus 1-2-3, Venture, Word Perfect and WordStar).

And every year between 600 and 700 people pass through Outset's national network of training centres. Many go on to use their new skills to gain permanent paid employment; others go into further education to complete National Vocational Qualifications, City Guilds or RSA qualifications.

Outset's members have also become involved in another EC-funded programme, Combat. It is a three-year project that they hope will help disabled people across Europe get jobs in teleworking.

Information technology benefits employers and employees alike. Outset Wandsworth in South London has been selected as the UK pilot site. It will host a central business unit which will bring in business and feed it out to local units employing disabled teleworkers.

In a perfect world the so-called disabled lobby wouldn't have to be fighting against discrimination. As Alan Langton concedes, disability is self-defining. But he adds that the attitudes of some employers and their lack of awareness are bigger barriers than the disabled person's working ability.

"We wish we could say we get people jobs. But we only arm them with the necessary tools, because at the end of the day they get the jobs themselves. Nevertheless, we are constantly looking for friendly employers who are prepared to see the person, not the disability".

* Information on Outset's coursesis available from Claude Rennert at 393-395 City Road, London EClV lNE. Tel 0171-837 7020 or the Disability Employment Adviser (DEA) at local job centres.

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