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Sowing the seeds of equality: creating rural employment for people with learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities find it almost impossible to acquire and then maintain paid work. This situation is even more challenging in rural areas where the work can be more challenging for people with disabilities. Annie Sanders from Natural Ability explains the pitfalls of rural employment for people with learning disabilities and how they can be overcome.

It is well known how difficult it is for disabled people to maintain long-term employment. The Learning Disability Foundation identified that in 2010 – 2011 only 6.6% of adults with learning disabilities were reported to be in some form of paid employment, despite the vast majority wanting to be in work. It is often the case that initial short-term assistance is provided but there is little, if any, real safety net to ensure that people with various disabilities have some level of job security over time.

These difficulties are magnified in rural areas as the employment is often more physical, dangerous and there are fewer jobs to go around. Farming is a high-risk activity and one which can require you to move quickly, therefore making it more challenging for those with significant learning disabilities. It is also a socially focused industry, in that there is a good deal of ‘banter’ and light hearted chat between colleagues, which can be challenging for some people with learning disabilities who may not always detect nuances in conversation.

Another, more complex, difficulty relates to the difficulties of seasonal work and the receipt of benefits. Namely, that if someone receives means tested benefits in the winter months they might lose them in the spring and summer when they are working more than 16 hours a week. They then get locked into an annual cycle of reapplying for benefits when they are out of work which can be strenuous and complicated. I know of several people with learning disabilities who have found the process demeaning and traumatic and will now refuse any kind of payment.

However, despite these problems, solutions must be provided in order to give people with learning disabilities the option of work in rural areas. People without learning disabilities and general disabilities have the option to work in the city or in the countryside, and it should not be the case that people with disabilities are excluded due to a lack of support.

One important solution is that of long term support on a one to one basis. There is no getting around the fact that people with disabilities will need more attention; they will require one-to-one support from staff who can help them to break their job down into smaller, more simple tasks. Staff attention is also important so that all disabled employees are not treated as being the same, so that their individual issues are considered individually.

This support needs to be provided on a long-term basis, potentially on a permanent basis. As much time as possible must be spent building up trust between and employer and employees in order to develop a strong understanding with one another and a high level of trust. This is especially important with rural employment as many of the jobs might require physical work and therefore trust in being told what to do is essential.

There are, in fact, some advantages to gaining employment in the countryside. For one thing, working outdoors on certain physical activities can be very therapeutic and good for physical and mental health. “Care Farming” is a term sometimes used to describe the therapeutic effects of working on farms for people with a variety of vulnerabilities. The University of Essex undertook research into Care Farming in the UK in 2008 and found that ‘working on a Care Farm can significantly increase self-esteem and reduce feelings of anger, confusion, depression, tension and fatigue, whilst also enabling participants to feel more active and energetic’.

It is important that we take the term ‘Equal Opportunities’ seriously. It is clear that some disabled people may require more attention than others in a work environment, and that may cost time and money, but if we are to get the most out of our labour force and create equality at the point of entry into work then this is money, time and attention which must be spent.

Check out the Natural Ability website – http://www.naturalability.org/

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