Yesterday, George Osborne delivered his Autumn Statement – and it was met with the now-expected storm of criticism.
All in all, it’s been a difficult few weeks for the Government – only last week for example, we learnt that its flagship welfare to work scheme failed to meet its main targets.
The political brouhaha surrounding this failure only served to hide the very real issues and lives that the Work Programme touches and affects. Buried in those figures was a startling statistic – only 1,000 disabled people receiving employment and support allowance (the key benefit that people with a disability claim) had found a job through the Work Programme. That’s a shocking figure and underlines the extent to which people with disabilities are being left out in the cold when it comes to employment opportunities.
There are bound to be people who read this and mutter that the current economic climate is making it hard for everyone to find work, so why should we be singling out one section of society for special attention? This misses the point.
At the National Autistic Society we see a simple case of unfairness. People with disabilities can be an asset to the workplace and we know that an initial investment in supporting adults with disabilities into work can make huge long term savings to the public purse.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and how they make sense of the world around them. But it’s a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some are therefore more than able to hold down jobs and contribute to society.
Take for example the data entry clerk who has worked at a Russell Group university for four years, or the information adviser at a busy London train station who has been helping commuters for the past eight years – that’s to say nothing of the florists, theatre ushers, software testers, school science technicians, marketeers and traffic wardens who are working across the country and who are on the spectrum.
And yet, research shows that just 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full time employment. Finding work and keeping work is a particular challenge for young people with the condition. In a recent NAS survey a third of those 16-24 year-olds who responded were NEET (not in education, employment or training). That’s more than double the number among the general population. In addition, 37 per cent of adults with autism had never been in paid employment after the age of 16, with 41 per cent of people over age of 55 spending more than ten years without a paid job.
Among those who aren’t currently employed, 59 per cent don’t believe or don’t know if they will ever get a job.
These are catastrophic statistics. The Work Programme was meant to be addressing these issues, but we hear of many cases where it is failing.
For example, we know of one case where someone with autism took part in a "Work Ready" session led by an employment agency who could offer the Work Programme. None of their staff had mental health or autism training and yet had been commissioned by Job Centre Plus to commission services for people with disability related employment needs. At the end of the session, people were asked to decide whether they were going to sign up for a programme which they would be tied into for two years which is a lot of pressure for anyone, never mind someone with autism who has difficulties with social interaction and communication.
Since the Work Programme came into being, we’ve been calling on the Government to make sure that all its employment initiatives recognise the specific and varied needs of people with autism. Only by really taking their needs into account can we ensure that people get into work and most importantly, stay in work.
Simple adjustments like making job interviews more accessible by using plain English and providing assistance to understand the unwritten rules of the workplace can make all the difference.
Sarah Lambert is Head of Policy at the National Autistic Society