CAMERON Smith is smartly-dressed in a pink shirt and blue tie and is sitting behind a desk in the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability (SCLD) in Glasgow, his prized Apple Mac open in front of him. He has genned up for our conversation and answers my questions with an efficiency and affability that belies his youth.
For the past eight months, the 19-year-old, who has both dyslexia and dyspraxia, has worked as a receptionist and administrator at the organisation and his colleagues have nothing but praise for his contribution.
“I don’t want to make him blush, but he came for his interview in a suit. He was on time, he was polite, he behaved in a business-like way throughout and these are the skills young people sometimes haven’t been taught,” says Susan Forrest, SCLD’s learning and development manager, who cites his willingness to learn and his flexibility as two of his greatest strengths.
Smith came to SCLD from Project Search, an initiative imported from the US which aims to help people with learning disabilities prepare for the workplace. Some of that preparation is classroom-based (learning skills such as using a keyboard, filling out application forms and role-playing interviews) and some of it involves work placements at a range of partner locations including local authorities, universities and hospitals.
Smith did his internship at Hairmyres Hospital, where he spent 11 weeks in the orthopaedic and audiology departments and six as a porter. He was still portering when he was snapped up for his current job by SCLD. Now working 20 hours a week, many of them on the front desk, he is the first person many of those who contact the organisation will encounter.
At SCLD, everyone, including Smith, earns at least the Glasgow living wage (£7.20 an hour). Having a regular income has bought him more independence and, of course, his Apple Mac.
“Every month I’ve put money away to buy something. I’ve been very sensible. I am not one of these guys who would blow it all in one weekend,” he says.
Smith is clearly a grafter. Yet last week welfare reform minister Lord Freud caused uproar when he suggested some people with disabilities weren’t worth the minimum wage and appeared to suggest they should work for as little as £2 an hour.
Amidst calls for his resignation, the Conservative peer said he didn’t mean disabled workers should receive £2 an hour, merely that, where they couldn’t secure work at the minimum wage, they might be allowed to work for less, with their earnings topped up through the benefit system.
Even so, his comments sparked fierce debate. David Cameron was quick to distance himself from the minister, ordering him to apologise (which he did), while Labour held up his comments as proof the nasty party was back (though it was Labour which first hired him as an adviser before his defection to the Tories).
Peter Saunders of the think-tank Civitas suggested Lord Freud was merely stating the obvious: “If an employer has to pay a minimum of £6.50 an hour and an employee can only produce goods or services to the value of, say, £2 an hour, then either that person will not be employed, or their employer will go bust.”
But campaigners who have spent the years challenging the discrimination which keeps people with disabilities out of the workplace were united in branding his intervention as offensive and retrogressive. “It is incredibly disappointing that someone who holds such high office has those opinions of people with disabilities,” says Kate Storrow, employment and learning services manager with Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and chair of the Scottish Union of Supported Employment.
“The organisations I represent – we spend every day of our lives trying to get employers to recognise that disabled people can compete in the labour market and can work in the labour market and can offer employers good value for money; that they are the same as everyone else. When Lord Freud says something so negative it makes it so much harder for us to do our jobs.”
One in five of the population suffers some form of disability. Ensuring as many of them as possible are in paid employment is beneficial to society: it’s good for them, boosting their self-esteem; it’s good for their families, freeing up their time for other things; and it’s good for the state as it means fewer people on Jobseeker’s Allowance; but perhaps less obviously, it also reaps dividends for employers.
According to research, people with disabilities tend to stay in their jobs longer, show more commitment and have lower rates of absenteeism. In addition, they bring a fresh perspective which may help companies cater for the needs of disabled customers. This may involve specific skills; for example, deaf workers may be fluent in British Sign Language and be able not only to communicate with deaf customers, but to train other staff members to do the same.
But at the very least their insight can help companies become more disabled-friendly and so tap into the £80bn “purple pound”.
Both the Westminster and Scottish governments say getting disabled people into work is a priority, but there has been a shift in emphasis over the past decade. A network of state-subsidised Remploy factories which at their peak employed 10,000 disabled people had funding withdrawn on the grounds the concept was patronising. Instead the trend has been towards securing work placements and paid jobs for disabled people in mainstream employment.
The statistics remain bleak. Less than half (46 per cent) of disabled people in Scotland are working, compared with 80 per cent of non-disabled people. The statistics are worse for those with mental health problems (21 per cent), learning disabilities (26 per cent) and the partially sighted or blind (33 per cent), with 96 per cent of employers saying blind people would be difficult or impossible to employ.
According to Storrow, much of the resistance – particularly in small firms – comes down to a lack of understanding. Employers may be unclear how capable a disabled person is or how technology has made it easier for them to function in a work setting. They may also overestimate how much they would have to change their working environment or practices in order to support disabled workers.
“At RNIB, we have to go in and persuade employers that it’s only people’s eyes that aren’t working and that they are not going to pose a health and safety risk,” says Storrow.
In an attempt to prove the point, the RNIB runs Café Tiki, a Starbucks-style chain of coffee shops serving hot and cold meals in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Falkirk which employs partially-sighted or blind staff, including a chef. “Ten or so years ago people would have said, ‘You can’t let blind people touch hot things or use knives,’ but attitudes are different now,” says Storrow. “You have to remember that many partially-sighted and blind people will be living independently in their own homes; they will be making meals and looking after their children, so it’s quite insulting to suggest they shouldn’t be in kitchens.” These cafés are run to a commercial standard, so the idea that those who work in them should earn less than their sighted counterparts does seem absurd.
Though discrimination exists everywhere, it is generally more difficult for disabled people to find work placements and permanent employment in commercial companies than within the public sector and within smaller businesses than large ones.
Often a private company’s willingness to employ disabled workers will be inspired by their experience of disability in their immediate or wider families. In 2007, for example, the manager of Ikea in Midlothian was struggling to find anywhere willing to accept his son, who had Down’s Syndrome, on a work placement, so he took him into the store and asked another member of staff, Liz Stanton, to help look after him.
Astounded by the impact the experience had on his son, he decided to offer the same opportunity to others, asking Stanton to set up a Community Team which would take on several people a year. The store now has 42 people with learning and other disabilities in on work experience and has hired 20 disabled workers.
According to Stanton, the scheme has brought many benefits. The enthusiasm of the disabled workers buoys up the rest of the staff and their determination to make it in even in the worst winter weather makes everyone else think twice about taking time off. In addition, the initiative has bolstered the company’s standing in the community, compensating in part for the bad feeling generated by the decision to build on green belt land. Now Ikea is looking at rolling out the initiative to other stores within the UK and beyond.
People with disabilities can also be an asset to smaller businesses. Blossoms Café at the Torwood Garden Centre in Larbert has been lauded for its work concerning disability and equality after hiring several disabled workers because “it made good business sense”.
For many disabled people, however, employment opportunities remain scarce. With discrimination still rife, a large proportion either choose or are forced to set up their own businesses. Figures from the Federation of Small Businesses suggest 24% of disabled people across the UK who are in work are self-employed and 45% of those took this route because they couldn’t find any other work.
It was – Lord Freud insists – a recognition of the dearth of opportunities that prompted his remarks. They were made at a conference after Tory councillor David Scott asked a question about what could be done for severely disabled people who could not secure paid employment but nevertheless would benefit from some form of work experience.
In the aftermath, the councillor told how his late daughter Moira, who had brain damage and was confined to a wheelchair, had been allowed to groom horses at a stable. He wanted to know if there was some way it could be possible for people like her to be paid a small amount for working in addition to their benefits.
For disability campaigners, however, such a move would be stigmatising and create a two-tier system. Moreover, it would reinforce employers’ prejudices that disabled people are worth less than their able-bodied counterparts.
When Susan Forrest sat on the panel interviewing the five shortlisted candidates for Cameron Smith’s post, she says she didn’t feel she was having to make allowances for their learning disabilities, but that they were work-ready and capable of competing on the open market. And – having hired Smith – she feels her belief in his talents has been vindicated.
“Should we value people less because perhaps they do need a little more time or some adjustments to the workplace to help them fit in?” she asks. “If I thought we were going to lose someone of Cameron’s abilities because he needed a little bit of support to read through something or a little more time to process the information, then that would be a real loss.”
Smith, too, is upset by Lord Freud’s remarks. “I don’t think it’s fair that people with learning disabilities earn any less than people who have a normal life. I think we should all be treated the same,” he says. The interview over, I make to leave the SCLD premises. Smith is being ushered away to have his photograph taken, but he hasn’t forgotten his responsibilities as a receptionist. “When you get to the bottom of the stairs, you have to press the green button on the right to get out,” he hollers after me, anxious to ensure my passage out into Bell Street is a smooth one.