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Real Voices: Succeeding at work with a learning disability

Alex is a young adult with learning disabilities. In this week’s Real Voices, she describes her struggle to find full-time employment that could accommodate her needs, and the positive opportunities that a supported internship has provided her with.

Education was a struggle growing up with my disabilities. It was difficult to find somewhere that could accommodate my needs and support me. I had to change schools quite a lot, only spending one year at one boarding school. I eventually settled at Frewen College when I started Year 7. Frewen is a specialist school that supports children with learning difficulties, and that’s where I stayed until Year 12, when I transferred to 3 different colleges.

People with disabilities like mine often struggle to find work. We find certain things hard that come easily to other people, and workplaces are often ill-equipped to accommodate this. If employers and colleagues could simply put the time and effort in to get to know a person with a learning disability, and give them a chance, I think they’d be surprised. For me personally, I struggle when it gets noisy in a work environment, such as in a busy restaurant. I was job searching for over a year with no luck. I was receiving rejection after rejection, never getting past the interview stage. 

I found support from DFN Project SEARCH, which is a charity dedicated to helping young adults with learning disabilities into employment. An interview was set up for me with a job coach, who then helped me start applying for work. She also helped me practice interview skills, so that I felt more ready for the real thing. She would ask me practice questions, and help me improve my posture to look more confident. On the last day of the programme, I found out that I’d been offered a job waitressing at the Marriott hotel. My job involves working front and back of house, so I take orders and bring food to tables, polish cutlery and check stock. I’m coming up to my second year in this job, and it’s going really well.

I think schools should make more of an effort to make it known to young people with learning disabilities that there is help such as Supported Internships and services like DFN Project Search that can help them into work. Some young people are completely unaware that support like this exists, and it could make their path to employment much quicker and easier. I think schools should help young people with learning disabilities as soon as they turn 16 to get in touch with these support services, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in the job market.

Advice I would give to any other young person in my position is to not give up and keep looking, because there will be a place for you. Look into your options, as you don’t just have to go through this alone, and you could do a Supported Internship or there could be services such as DFN Project Search who can help you into employment. 

Maxine is the tutor at Alex’s place of work, who coordinates the supported internship programme on a day to day basis. She explains why it’s so important to give young adults with learning disabilities the chance to work.

The supported internship takes place during the course of one academic year, and we are just coming to the end of our seventh year with the programme. Our current interns for this year are now fully immersed in the workforce here for five hours a day. With Project Search we bring the classroom into the workplace, which allows for a much smoother transition from education into employment. For a lot of special needs young people, if you just parachuted them into a job with no support, the placement would probably fail. With this programme, they come in and we do an hour of employability skills learning every morning and then they can go and start their placement shift and put the theory they’ve learnt into practice.  If they have an employment goal in mind we will steer them towards the internships that are going to grant them those skills for their CV. We’re basically trying to build a CV of appropriate skills to help them move into employment. 

The people I support are often quite shy in the beginning, and lack confidence in their abilities. After a short while it’s lovely to see them begin to believe in themselves a bit more and realise that they can actually work with other adults and cope in a workplace. It’s amazing to watch them thrive. When we get into their “third rotation” which is essentially their third term of the internship, if they feel ready and we feel that they are ready, then we will start helping them with job searching. We prepare them for the interview as Alex mentioned, and then seek out vacancies with them. Our job coaches can also accompany them to interviews if they’d like moral support. If any person requires follow-on job coaching after they’ve started paid employment they can have that too. We don’t just withdraw once they get their first job because that doesn’t work, so we want to support young people as much as they need so that their employment is sustainable. Our first graduates from the scheme are still employed in their jobs six years on, which just goes to show that supported internships create valued and successful employees. Usually over 70% of interns go into full-time employment from our project, whereas the national figure for individuals with a learning disability who are in full-time employment is lower than 5%. Our team has moved 32 young people into paid employment in total, which I’m very proud of. 

Find more information on DFN Project Search.