Yesterday there was the headline “Fakenham woman chosen as role model for those with disabilities” in my local paper. It details how a young woman with Down’s syndrome has secured employment through a joint scheme involving several agencies. I’ve got a couple of issues with the promotion and reporting of this which I’ll go into below.

Before I do, I want to make it perfectly clear that in no way do I decry the efforts of Brogan Johnston and her family in securing employment and a more rewarding life. It’s not easy and they must be congratulated.

The article called Brogan a role model for disabled people as regards employment before going on to discuss the project that has helped her find meaningful work.

As far as I can tell, Brogan is just like the vast majority of disabled people I know. She wants a job, a life, the same things as everyone else. The real story in the article is Project Search. The Sayce Report summarises Project Search as:

Project Search The Project Search model has been adopted by 14 (mainly public sector) employers across England to offer people with learning disabilities the opportunity to move beyond the mundane work usually assigned to them – clearing tables, moving shopping trolleys – and instead trains them in more complex, but routine, tasks, such as assembling medical equipment. Individuals learn different roles, in rotation. The approach requires the employer to ‘carve’ jobs in new ways so the individual has one essential job, that they learn thoroughly, and offers support to both employee and employer, alongside training. The initiative is still young in the UK and formal evaluation evidence is not yet available, but the four sites that have been running for over one year report that they have successfully supported people into employment and are saving money in recruitment costs. The Employers’ Forum on Disability aims to involve five private sector companies in adopting the approach, so it may be set to grow.

This is a laudable project if it gets disabled people into meaningful long term employment.

I have two main concerns with the reporting and the project.

Firstly, while I see there is a good ‘human interest’ element to Brogan’s story, it perpetuates the myth that disabled people need ‘inspiring’ into work and should follow the example of such ‘role models’. There is also the unspoken flip side that those disabled people not in work are lazy and need to take after these ‘paragons’ when the reality is much more complicated than that. Access to transport, appropriate adjustments and employers that comply with the law are needed for starters.

My second concern is why do large employers need these special projects to employ disabled people? Why aren’t they embracing the qualities that a diverse workforce brings? Time and time again it’s been proven that disabled people in employment take less time off sick and are as productive (in appropriate roles) as non-disabled people.

I’d like to see more mainstreaming of the employment of disabled people and fewer value judgements in reporting these issues but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Finally congratulations to Brogan and I wish her every success in her working life. I look forward to the day when a disabled person having work like this is the norm and not a news story.

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