Claire Cookson is CEO of the DFN Foundation and DFN Project SEARCH, a charity dedicated to supporting young adults with learning disabilities and autism spectrum condition prepare for the world of work through on-site training.
When I first started my career with special needs, I realised that people are really low aiming for somebody who has a learning disability in terms of their transition to employment. But I was struck by the skills and talents of these young adults, and I just felt really concerned that the world of employment would never know of their skills. For as long as I’ve been doing this, in the UK, the statistics of people with learning disabilities transitioning into paid employment are woeful. Right now, only 5.1% of those with a learning disability or autism who are known to adult services are in paid employment. I was looking at this trajectory for these young children and young adults finishing their time at my school, and I became really concerned about what their adult lives would look like if they were going to live a lifetime on benefits.
When you train to be a teacher there is very little training around supporting people with learning disabilities – it’s a real gap in our training system. So in truth, I didn’t learn a whole lot about how to support people with learning disabilities, or autism spectrum condition. It was actually in a role that I had in a mainstream college, as part of an internal inspection team. I was inspecting a special education department in the area, and just became overwhelmed by the fact that nobody was being hired and nobody was looking at their future, and that’s when I transitioned to work in a special education school. I think that’s where you learn everything about yourself, because suddenly you are working with these people who have faced such unbelievable challenges on a daily basis, more than I’ve ever had to face, yet they still come to school and give you their best day.
The word disability is so negative, and if you look at the skills and qualities of people with autism, for example, often they have really amazing attention to detail and they’re able to follow standard operating procedure to the letter. People with a disability are incredibly solution-focused because they’re constantly finding workarounds. They’re typically in a world that’s not set up for somebody with a learning disability, so they have to find workarounds to fit in. That translates so beautifully into the world of work – where we need to be resilient, and we need to be reactive, and we need to be able to make changes and work with others, and I just became consumed with how incredible they are. When I started partnering with organisations, I realised they were already employing people with different learning styles, with undiagnosed learning disabilities, and undiagnosed autism spectrum condition. It was really enlightening to be able to say to companies, ‘you are already doing this – you are already making great adaptions’.
In terms of value for the businesses who take part, we know that productivity goes up. What we then see is that staff satisfaction goes up. In organisations that partner with us, people feel more proud to work for their organisation. What we also think is that people working within that organisation start to disclose their own hidden disabilities, because suddenly they feel like they work for an organisation that values diversity and that is inclusive, and that wants people to be open and honest and bring their whole self to work. And suddenly, they feel like they’re working for an organisation that demonstrates in real terms, their social values.
Every single young adult who does our programme, they change. They change the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they feel about themselves, and the way they present themselves, because suddenly, some of them for the first time ever, they’re integrated into society, they’re adding real value, they’re developing their skills, and they feel like they’re giving back to their community.