By Maura Lynch, Depute chief executive, Scottish Commission for Learning Disability

RECENTLY, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested, controversially, at the Treasury Select Committee that disabled people were in part responsible for the UK’s lagging productivity. His remarks, all too briefly, shone a light on a significant problem for people with learning disabilities. They don’t get to work.

Research commissioned by the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD) estimates that the rate of employment for people with learning disabilities may be as low as seven per cent, well below the disability rate of 43 per cent and the overall rate of 80 per cent.

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This is not acceptable. It makes no sense when evidence shows that providing the right support into employment can be a win-win for them and employers. Project SEARCH, an initiative exported from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, supports people with a learning disability into long-term employment by providing them with hands-on experience of working life, together with classroom sessions geared towards reinforcing learning.

When making his remarks, Mr Hammond said increasing the levels of disabled people in the workforce was “something we should be extremely proud of”.

Although his comments were probably based on good intentions, such language risks reinforcing a wider narrative that employing disabled people is a virtuous thing for employers to do, in a sort of philanthropic way, rather than good business sense. Our research highlighted that low expectations and negative attitudes are major barriers for people with learning disabilities seeking employment. Aspirations among parents and teachers are often poor and mean people with learning disabilities face obstacles in early life they are unable to clear later. The SCLD Employment Task Group brings together organisations focussed on improving these employment prospects: a positive example of research being used to make a difference.

Real, sustainable employment is achievable for people with learning disabilities. It is not their fault, or always that of employers, that barriers are put in the way. Politicians and policymakers should be as ambitious for people with disabilities as they are for all citizens. We all need to avoid language that can limit ambitions and reinforce out-of-date stereotypes about what people with learning disabilities are capable of.

The Scottish Government is due to host a major congress on disability, employment and the workplace soon. This will consider the development of the Fairer Scotland for Disabled People delivery plan, including seeking to reduce by at least half the employment gap for disabled people, opportunities to promote initiatives such as Project SEARCH and the provision of supported employment contracts through new Fair Start employment contracts across the country. At SCLD we facilitate the Scottish Government’s expert group of people with learning disabilities. At its last meeting a member said: “Working is not just about me getting money, it is about putting something back in and paying my taxes.” It was a timely reminder that reciprocity sits at the heart of decent, sustainable employment. Many people with learning disabilities do not want a job only because of what it gives them, although it can be life-changing, but what it allows them to give back. As we think about what we can do to enable people with disabilities into work, we should be positive about what they can do for themselves, and for wider productivity and wellbeing.