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Helping young people with SEN and disabilities into work isn’t all about learning employment skills. It’s also about building relationships with employers, says Pauline Bayliss-Jones

We all want to be valued in society and to be able to contribute. Paid work plays a huge role in boosting self-confidence, but finding work has never been so difficult. If you have SEN or a physical disability it may feel nigh on impossible.

The recent economic crisis has made employers more cautious and resulted in a rethink amongst those of us who help young people find a job. It is not about CVs or how to cope with a job interview. What many of these young people need is the opportunity to develop practical skills in the work place, not in the classroom. The future is about building relationships with employers, understanding their business needs and creating a role to suit the young person, rather than always finding a young person to suit the role.

If all trainers and support staff do is find a work placement for a young person and leave them to it, they are unlikely to succeed. We need to take account of these young people’s needs and recognise that their pathway into work will be different.

One method which can help a learner to build their potential is training in systematic instruction (TSI). In the UK, it has successfully helped many people into employment. TSI takes the approach that it is the responsibility of the trainer, not the learner, to ensure that the task in question is learnt.

TSI involves having positive expectations of people’s potential to achieve. Young people are trained by breaking down tasks and teaching them step by step. The more we can break down the tasks into manageable chunks, the higher the success rate.

TSI refutes the “job readiness” model, suggesting that people learn best in real environments where the task is to be performed, where they are expected to be successful by the employer and have access to natural motivation and supports.

One young man with learning disabilities gained a job supporting a charity in a volunteer role, working with a driver to collect and deliver goods to shops. Rather than teach the young man the different tasks he would have to do during the day, trainers worked with the driver to educate him about TSI and how he could then instruct his assistant. The approach was a great success and the driver was impressed with his assistant’s commitment.

Helping employers

We need to support employers to become more disability confident. Employers may be missing out on talented potential employees because you are not attracting disabled candidates. The pool of talented disabled people in the UK is large – over seven million people, or 18 per cent of the working-age population. By considering alternative and flexible ways of working and looking at suitable adjustments, if any are needed, employers can have access to this vast range of talent.

A close partnership with employers is crucial if we are to ensure that young people with disabilities gain meaningful employment. According to the Government’s Labour Force Survey, disabled people are now “more likely to be employed than they were in 2002”. However, the improvement is small. In 2002, 42.2 per cent of working-age people with disabilities were in employment. By 2012, this figure had risen, but only to 46.3 per cent. Still, less than half of those with disabilities of working age were in work, compared with 80 per cent of those without disabilities.

TV chef Stacie Stewart and the Star Bistro team take a break from filming.TV chef Stacie Stewart and the Star Bistro team take a break from filming.Real world experience

Gaining access to hands-on experience in the work place is tough. That’s why many schools and colleges are launching enterprise initiatives. One such scheme is the Star Bistro, opened in 2012 by Wiggly Worm and National Star College. Set in the Cotswolds, Star Bistro is a restaurant where young people with learning and physical disabilities learn catering skills and build confidence in the workplace.

Earlier this year, a team from Star Bistro beat cooking enthusiasts from across the UK to make it through to the finals of ITV’s Food Glorious Food. The four students had to cope with the pressures of cooking in front of the TV cameras and at one point, they had to make 150 desserts for judges from the Women’s Institute.

Two team members – Joe Cook and Rachel Janes – have been offered placements at cafes. Georgina Ivins, who is in her final year at college, is further developing her customer services skills at the Bistro. Tristan Blick is taking part in a Skills for Work programme to develop his experience in a commercial kitchen. Thanks to their inspiring efforts, a national company is now sponsoring two trainees for a year at the Bistro.

Ben Hodge, 21, started his bistro traineeship in August. For Ben, who finished college three years ago and has been looking for work, it is a dream come true. “I applied for hundreds of jobs but got nowhere. I always felt my disability was holding me back. Employers didn’t see my skills and what I could offer. They just saw my cerebral palsy”, he says. “My advice to anyone is just be patient. There are days when you want to give up but you have to keep going. Read up about employers and look for the jobs that you are suited for”, says Ben.

Changing attitudes

An integral part of relationship building with employers, is helping them to make the workplace more accessible. A new scheme at our college, WorkAble, has been established by young people with disabilities to enable them to carry out audits for companies, working with them and their employees. WorkAble team member Annie Pear remembers one of her work placements. “Colleagues didn’t know what to say to me or where to put themselves. That made me nervous and in the end held me back on what I could deliver”, she says.

In July this year, the Government launched a two-year advertising campaign to support businesses to become more confident with people with disabilities. Research published earlier this year shows that 42 per cent of those with disabilities described employers’ attitudes as a barrier to work, while 37 per cent cited transport difficulties.

Of course, it is also important to work with students to develop their skills and confidence. Student Hannah Britchford suffered a severe lack of confidence and wouldn’t speak to new people in case she got it wrong. As part of her course, Hannah had a work placement at a department store in Cheltenham. Thanks to the efforts of Hannah, her personal job mentor and shop staff, she has developed her skills to such an extent that she now has a paid part-time position at the store.

One-size-fits-all programmes to prepare young people with disabilities for work are not appropriate. Young people need individualised programmes and to be allowed to develop at their own pace. And we should always remember, as Joe Cook, one of Star Bistro’s ITV contestants says, “It’s not about what we can’t do. It’s about what we can do that counts.”

Further information

Pauline Bayliss-Jones is Director of Studies at National Star College in Gloucestershire:
www.natstar.ac.uk

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