Jasmine Henderson (middle) with her colleagues in the optometry department of the North Devon District Hospital. Image: Project Search
If you’re labelled as having a learning disability or autism, the low expectations sometimes placed on you by others can make it easy to have low expectations of yourself. It sounds harsh but it’s the lived experience of many people in the UK who are exploited or ignored.
Across the country, just 4.8 per cent of adults with a learning disability are in paid employment. Many more end up taking part-time or voluntary roles and this is a massive waste of talent, believes David Bridges, program manager of the Devon-based Project Search. It’s just about giving people the right support and helping them find the right opportunities.
Workplaces across the UK are crying out for more hands on deck. Britain is facing a recruitment crisis of around 1.2 million vacancies, and economists warn it’s slowing down growth, just as the country is looking to bounce back from Brexit and the pandemic.
These shortages of labour are being felt most acutely in the NHS, where a cycle of higher pay in the private sector is luring health workers to better paid jobs elsewhere, leaving those left behind short staffed and stressed. On average, 500 nurses and midwives quit every week in 2021, and waiting lists for routine treatments have hit yet another record-breaking high.
But an ingenious training program in Devon is putting people with significant learning disabilities in full-time paid work in the NHS, and filling some vital vacancies.
“I’ve been working with people with special needs for 25 years and the progress people are making on this course is eye-watering”, says Bridges.
The participants, who are usually aged between 18 and 24, are given two weeks of intense training to prepare them for roles with a specific employer, which in this case is the North Devon District Hospital and Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital.
By the end of those two weeks, support workers like Bridges choose a first placement for each person based on their skills and interests.
“It’s a hard transition from school into a pretty serious workplace environment,” says Bridges, so they do everything in their power to make that first placement a success.
Over the course of a year, each participant completes three different 10-week, full-time placements in different roles within the NHS. The support workers stay on site the whole time, offering ongoing support to make sure they’re successful in what they’re doing.
The breadth of jobs available in the NHS and the range of skills needed makes it a great place for the project, Bridges explains, as students can try their hand at a range of roles, from jobbing in the post room or admissions department to working as a health assistant.
Or the program could create a unique role for them. In hospital departments that are in serious need of more trained specialists, Project Search works with the NHS manager to create a new role for someone who may have little to no specialist knowledge by taking the less complex parts from other roles to free up the time of more experienced health professionals.
“It’s about taking a little bit from everybody else’s role that they don’t need to be doing to help them to do the job quicker,” explains Bridges.
Nineteen-year old Jasmine Henderson is a recent graduate from the project, who now works in the North Devon District Hospital optometry department. In the past, she worked part-time at a local restaurant but wanted to do a job that let her help new people every day.
“I struggled a lot with maths and trying to write down difficult words and spelling,” she tells the Big Issue, as well as being “pretty shy” before she joined the scheme.
But she found the ongoing support in each placement really helped her confidence. “You’ve never alone or struggling,” she adds.
Now, she works as an imaging assistant in the optometry department, taking patients’ details, showing them where to sit and taking scans of their eyes.
Thinking about the future, she says: “I probably will stay working in the hospital, helping people to get better.”
And her success isn’t unique among project Search graduates. Almost nine in ten who have finished the course have gone on to find paid work, and three in five did so within the NHS.
“The majority of people on the program bring with them a pretty severe sense of anxiety about failure due to past experiences,” says Bridges.
“It’s about getting them to value their achievements… while giving a realistic view of their abilities,” he adds. And it certainly seems to be working.
Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service, Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.
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