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Charities are fighting to get those with learning disabilities hired – here’s how we can help

There are about 1.5 million people in Britain with a learning disability, such as Down’s Syndrome. It is a basic affront to justice that they should be less likely to find paid employment than those without learning difficulties

Amol Rajan
Sunday 23 October 2016 13:24 BST
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Only 5.8 per cent of those with learning disabilities are in employment
Only 5.8 per cent of those with learning disabilities are in employment (Getty)

Since Britain’s referendum on 23 June, one of the main lines parroted by ministers, regardless of which side of that plebiscite they campaigned for, is that employment in Britain is at record levels. There are more women in work than ever before, and changes to the labour market – in particular, the rise of self-employment – mean that the number of workers unwillingly outside the job market has rarely been lower.

All this is true, and would be a major headache to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party if it bothered to refute it. But there is one group for whom employment remains stubbornly and disgracefully low: those with learning disabilities. In 2011/12, it passed 7.1 per cent and seemed likely to continue rising. But since then it has fallen, to 5.8 per cent today. The current trend suggests it will continue falling.

The moral failures here are legion. There are about 1.5 million people in Britain with a learning disability such as Down's Syndrome. It is a basic affront to justice that they should be SO MUCH less likely to find paid employment than those without learning difficulties; not least because there are so many other obstacles that these individuals and their parents face.

To have a child with, for instance, Down's, is an eternal blessing and joy; but it is also an invitation to a lifetime of challenges, battles with officialdom, and frustrations at lack of opportunity. Making it harder for such individuals to obtain work is a further unfairness, and adds to the separation between those with learning difficulties and the rest of society.

It is also bad economics. If there are workers able to provide high-quality labour to meet consumer demand, it is unproductive and inefficient to let needless bureaucracy, or social stigma, impede their employment.

These issues came to the fore a few weeks ago when the actor Sally Phillips’s documentary about being a parent to a child with Down’s ignited widespread discussion. Most of it was intelligent and compassionate, and as a new parent myself, it was impossible not to be moved by the anguish and exhilaration Phillips showed.

Team Domenica is a social enterprise charity in Brighton that is directly addressing the moral and economic issues that I mention above, and which Phillips thrust into the public domain. It is named after Domenica Lawson, who has Down's, and whose father (Dominic) and mother (Rosa Monckton) are friends of mine. In recent weeks the charity has received some publicity, not least after a visit from Domenica's aunt Nigella. My interest, other than through knowing those involved, is really in how the financial model of social enterprises can be leaned upon to achieve wider, often charitable goals.

Team Domenica is in essence a training centre and cafe where 21 people with learning disabilities acquire the skills – and with it the confidence and self-esteem – to lay and clean tables, serve customers and do the basics of hospitality. It has tremendous local buy-in: the University of Sussex, Brighton College, Brighton Pier and Stoneham Pub are all partners. If the cafe becomes financially viable – which is to say, it gets enough customers, controls costs, raises revenues, and has sufficient buy-in from its community, the plan is to launch another four centres across the country in the coming three years.

It is hard for me to convey just how exciting I find this kind of business. Rosa is one of the most inspirational campaigners I know, inexhaustibly working to raise awareness and campaigning for reform. She has done more than most, for instance, to highlight the ludicrous fact that Britain has no minister for learning disability.

The thrilling prospect created by their work with Team Domenica – and other such social enterprises – is that they can emancipate charity from the interminable cycle of funding crises and applications that seems so often to be their fate. And this is where I come in.

I have spent more than a decade working with a few different charities. Their basic state is one of perpetual poverty. Those of us who give time to the sector know that much of it is just remorseless drudgery and administration. Social enterprises differ from charity in that they seek to raise revenues through means other than fundraising: for instance, charging people for a coffee made by someone called Domenica, who has Down's.

In his wonderful new polemic, Charity Sucks – part of the Provocations series edited by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – the restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab argues that just such a model, marrying financial rigour with socially beneficial aims, will achieve the goal of charity work much more quickly. That is not to traduce the work done by those in the charity sector; rather, it is to say that charging for services can help them do good.

In Team Domenica, then, is a happy marriage of several social goods. There's the huge boost to the self-worth and confidence of those with learning difficulties; and a consequent reduction in social stigma towards them. There's an increase in profitability and a reduction in unemployment. The demand of consumers for products sold in the cafe is satisfied. And it is all done in a way that – if financially viable in the medium-term – allows those who run the show (not least the likes of Domenica) to focus on achieving their goals.

In short, if you're in and around Brighton some time soon, Team Domenica would be a good place to stop off for a bite or coffee. I will see you there.

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