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Workers with learning difficulties lack support

Low expectations among employers are the biggest obstacle to students with learning difficulties seeking work, research published this week reveals.

Ten years of initiatives, largely by the voluntary sector, have radically changed the attitudes of employers to job-seekers with learning difficulties and disabilities, it suggests.

But most employers fail to give the necessary support to help them into work, the research by the Further Education Development Agency suggests. "It is low expectation rather than negative attitudes among employers that is the problem," said a FEDA research officer, Maria Hughes.

Researchers focused on the work of four schemes set up to support people with learning difficulties in employment. They found that with support many adults with learning difficulties and disabilities could successfully gain and maintain employment.

Before the support schemes began, most of those with moderate or severe difficulties finished up in voluntary-funded craft centres and work creation programmes aimed more at occupying time than giving fulfilling work.

But the FEDA research shows an enormous rise in the numbers entering and keeping "real jobs" as a result of a package of support schemes, not only for the employee but also for the employer and other staff.

The Welsh Initiative for Supported Employment, a voluntary-funded programme, is typical. It started in the mid-1980s with two staff and now employs 18. Last year, it supported 36 people in new jobs and helped to maintain the jobs of 56 other people through more training or crisis intervention.

A further 60 prospective employees joined the Welsh initiative, which has also started a range of support and consultation services for employers and carers.

Cheryl Beer, a worker for the Welsh initiative, said the aim was to secure real work to raise the personal esteem of the trainee. "If someone learns the work within 12 weeks then there is agreement that the employer will offer them a job."

But the picture nationally painted by the FEDA research shows the need for far wider support and a co-ordinated approach of the different groups involved. The FEDA urges FE colleges - responsible for most of the initial training - Employment Agencies, Social Services and others to work together on supported opportunities for work.

"In fact, partnerships between key players is seen as the vital link to ensure that those who seek progression to employment are enabled to do so," says the FEDA report, A Real Job.

The report identifies an urgent need for more resources but adds that existing cash and staff time could be better used. It argues that "a sea-change in attitude and expectation would make a significant and immediate impact" for the individuals seeking work."

The success of the schemes depended on a convincing message coming across from all those in the partnership, says Ms Hughes.

"It is a straightforward selling job," she said. "They market the skills to the employers and must convince them, 'These people can do these jobs for you'. It involves a lot of individual work with employers."

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