Dreams won’t work unless you do

Early this morning, I was approached by Channel 5 News to go up to their studio in London to talk about whether people with learning disabilities should be allowed to earn less than the minimum wage. The reason they asked, was because today an article has been published in The Spectator Magazine, written by a lady called Rosa Monckton who has a daughter, named Domenica who, like Oscar, has Down Syndrome.

Last year Rosa set up the charity – Team Domenica. The purpose of the charity is to get young adults with learning disabilities into employment because she found, as have so many other parents, that there was nothing for her child to do to once she had left college. The charity has 21 trainees and it runs a year’s course in supported employment, in partnership with Brighton City College. They also have a training café which is open to the public, where young men and women can hone their practical and social skills. They have an on-site business, where they weigh and package spices, stick on labels and parcel up the goods. Their kitchen is also a mini-business: they select items they would like to see sold in the café, make the shopping list, do the shopping, cook, price up and deliver to the café. But Rosa is asking, after they’ve completed their course, what happens next?

The journalist wanted to find out whether I would be available to come and talk about this topic on their show live this evening, and whether it is something I could see the benefits of as a mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome, or whether I thought allowing young adults like Domenica to be paid less than minimum wage, is an exploitative proposal.
Sadly I was unable to do so, as I had a prior commitment but the subject they raised got me thinking – How DID I feel about this?
If i’m completely honest with you, my immediate reaction before I’d read Rosa’s article, was that I felt that if Oscar was in work in the future and he was being paid less than someone doing exactly the same job as he, then I think i’d find that hard to swallow. Was it not just showing the world that people with Down Syndrome or other learning difficulties are of less worth than the next person? And that’s surely going against everything we fight for as a parent in this “modern” world, that everyone of us should be equal.
I was shocked to hear though that of approximately 1.4 million people in the UK that have a learning disability, 1.3 million of them are unemployed. Now i’m under no disillusion that some of those, for various reasons won’t be able to work, but i’m imagining that a large percentage of that statistic is due to the fact that there just aren’t the opportunities for them to go out to work sadly. The October 2016 Department of Work and Pensions Green Paper, Improving Lives, states: ‘The evidence is clear that work and health are linked.’ It says that there are 1.5 million people in receipt of the Employment and Support Allowance benefit, yet acknowledges that there is little practical support to help them into work. It accepts that ‘the longer a person is out of work, the more their health and well being is likely to deteriorate… so every day matters’. With that in mind, why can’t we do more for young adults like Domenica? Why can’t we, when so many like her want nothing more to work, can’t we accommodate?
Rosa says “Pay is the really thorny issue. The single thing that makes it most difficult to get people with learning disabilities into work is the ratcheting up of the minimum wage, which from 1 April goes up to £7.05 per hour if you are aged between 21 and 24, and £7.50 if you are older. On the whole, employers are not charities, and it is difficult for them to employ people if their output amounts to a loss. Most of our graduates will manage only eight to 15 hours a week. Yet even to raise the subject of exempting disabled workers from the minimum wage, letting employers pay them less, is to be considered brutish and inhumane”
I get that. If I was an employer and I was about to employ someone with a learning difficulty, I wouldn’t want to be seen to pay them less. It’s a perception thing right? Who wants to be seen as the arsehole employer who pays someone with Down Syndrome less than someone who doesn’t have the condition?
A while ago a friend of mine, who manages a business, told me of a young man called Jake that he’d had on a work experience placement in his office for a few days. Jake was in his early 20’s and had Down Syndrome. One of the jobs they’d asked him to do was stuff and seal a bunch of envelopes that needed to go out as a mail shot. My friend told me that although it was fab to have Jake in the office, he had spent most of the time singing One Direction songs at the top of his voice and although the envelopes got stuffed … he was a little apprehensive to tell me they’d been done at a painfully slow rate and perhaps with less precision (a lot were crumpled) than perhaps they would have been if someone else had done it.
I wasn’t in the least bit offended by the tale of Jake. For I know that although so many people with learning difficulties are more than capable of holding down brilliant jobs, there are some, perhaps like Jake who might need that little bit more time and patience spent of them teaching them exactly how an employer might like the job done.
I guess the point is that employers aren’t a charity either and why should they expect less from an employee?
On that note, Rosa also talked about the fact that just over two years ago, Sigmund Freud’s great grandson Lord (David) Freud, then a minister in the DWP, was asked a question on the subject by a Tory councillor, David Scott, who said: ‘I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the minimum wage, but want to work… but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the minimum wage. How do you deal with those sorts of cases?’
Freud replied: ‘I know exactly what you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage, and I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally.’
The backlash was spectacular. Ed Miliband declared ‘The Nasty Party is back’; and various disability charities, such as Mencap, denounced Freud. Esther McVey, a fellow-Tory who was the disability minister in the same department as Freud, said on the BBC Daily Politics programme that ‘Those words will haunt him… he will have to explain himself.’
It’s a tough one. I can see both sides. The employers/companies don’t want to be seen to pay our children less and I understand that they’re not a charity. Why should they expect less for their money? But can people not see that by not allowing people with learning disabilities the chance to get out there in the community and work, it will lead to a group of people being depressed and isolated.
Would it be such a bad thing to pay these people a bit less in some cases, rather than right off a whole corner of society? Could we not work with charities like Rosa’s and give these young adults the opportunities to thrive?
I’m thinking about Oscar now and when it’s his time to head out to work. Would I be happy for him to be paid a bit less than average, in exchange for him being happy, him feeling like he’s achieved and feeling like he has some self worth? I think i’d probably be ok with that. Does that mean that I’m doing him a disservice in allowing that to happen? I don’t think it does. Would I be happy for him to get to the end of his education and feel like that’s it? That there’s nothing more for him? An existence rather than an actual life? Absolutely not.
I’m confident that with people like Rosa in the world, championing our children and giving them further opportunities in life, things will hopefully change. I say this all the time but even just a few years ago, children with Down Syndrome were institutionalised and were all but written off. It’s only been since the late 1970’s that children with Down Syndrome have been deemed “suitable to educate”. With early intervention what it is now, I am also confident they will only go on to do bigger and better things. That’s my hope anyway.
Oh and one final point… I’m pretty sure the likes of Daniel Laurie and Sarah Gordy (the english actor and actress who’ve both stared in “Call the Midwife”), Madeline Stuart (the Australian fashion model), Isabella Springmuhl (the Guatemalan fashion designer), Tim Harris (the American owner of ‘Tims Place”, the restaurant) and Pablo Pineda (the first european man to complete a university degree) all of whom happen to have Down Syndrome, might have something to say about the minimum wage. In fact i’m almost certain that all of these brilliant young men and women earn well over and above it, paving the way for the next generation for sure.

1 comment

  1. Nancy Farrell   •  

    I have a number of friends with learning disabilities who work and get paid the minimum wage or more, I even read about a man who works at ASDA and gets paid more than the carers who care for him at the supported living facility he lives in. I have to say though, the people who work tend to be people high functioning autism, so they have less problems with social interaction and learn faster than less high functioning people. I do feel though that charities like Rosa’s could perhaps focus on funding assistants who accompany less high functioning people with learning disabilities to work for the first few months, to help them focus and train them in what the employer wants them to do. This would mean no extra cost or stress to the employer, and the same wages as anyone else. I feel as you do that offering less money only enforces the idea that people with learning disabilities are worth less.

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