As we recently marked World Autism Day, where people are encouraged to provide opportunities to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, I’d particularly like the business community to consider the benefits of employing people with a learning disability, autism spectrum condition or both.
The pandemic hit young people in the job market first and hardest, with people under 25 accounting for three in five of the jobs lost during the crisis. For young people with learning disabilities and autism, getting and holding on to a job is even more of a struggle.
There are 1.4m young people in school with Special Educational Needs. Yet, today just 5% of this population move into secure employment (compared with 80% of their peers), which means an astounding 95% will be forced to live a lifetime on benefits. That can lead to many feeling socially isolated, living in poverty and poor housing and ultimately having a shorter life expectancy. At best their skills and talents simply go unrecognised, or overlooked, by society. At worst, they face complete social and economic exclusion at a huge personal and economic cost.
While the UK has made welcome progress on the diversity agenda in recent years, albeit with much more work to do on issues like the gender pay gap, disability feels like the final frontier. I see three specific reasons why business should give an opportunity to those with learning disabilities or autism spectrum conditions.
Firstly, it is morally the right thing to do. To my mind, there are two key indicators to judge how advanced a society is, based on the following principles: every life is equal and the provision of high quality of care for those in need. All organisations have a responsibility to champion diversity in the workplace and adhere to the Equality Act, but research has shown the public also agree and expect it. A large study from 2017 showed that 92% of consumers felt more favourable towards companies that hired people with disabilities, with 87% of them specifically agreeing they would prefer to give their business to companies that did so.
Secondly, it’s worth considering the significant social value. Evidence shows that being in employment improves health and wellbeing and is central to individual identity, social roles, and social status. People in work tend to enjoy happier and healthier lives than those who are not in work. Transitioning people from education straight into competitive employment also saves money for health and social care by creating opportunities for people with learning disabilities to become net contributors rather than recipients of adult social care and health services.
Finally, employing people with learning disabilities makes good business and financial sense. Studies show that people with a learning disability stay in their jobs 3.5 times longer than their non-disabled co-workers. They also show that a high proportion of employees with a disability have their job performance rated as average or above, and have been rated higher than those without a disability in terms of attendance and being on time.
I have seen numerous organisations dramatically improve performance and retention in some high-turnover or hard-to-fill posts by employing people with learning disabilities. There are also plenty of financial advantages to other sectors, including education, health and social care, where each young person with a learning disability employed could contribute to savings in college fees, employment benefits and healthcare. According to the Centre for Social Justice, a rise of just 5 percentage points in the disability employment rate (not only those with learning disabilities) would lead to an increase in GDP of £23 billion by 2030.
Having had a fulfilling career in the City, I am now focused on the work of my own Foundation and DFN Project SEARCH. The impetus for me was the growing awareness of the lack of effective provision to meet my son’s needs and those of other young people like him with learning disabilities. We offer a one-year transition to employment model for young adults with a learning disability, autism spectrum condition, or both. We have 75 programmes in the UK and currently support over 600 young adults a year, which is set to rise to around 120 and 1,000 respectively from September as we continue to positively engage businesses around the country with our work. Around 70% of DFN Project SEARCH interns secure employment and nearly 90% of all jobs are full-time.
While I am proud of our work, there are still much more to be done. Last year’s report by the CSJ’s Disability Commission, “Now is the Time”, which I was delighted to Vice Chair alongside Lord Shinkwin, made recommendations to improve employment prospects for disabled people, as well as in other areas like education, housing and transport. There is much to do and business should be at the vanguard of progress. I am encouraged that the IOD has set up a commission looking at how business can harness a diverse workforce, again chaired by my redoubtable friend Lord Shinkwin.
Employing people with a learning disability can add real value to a workplace culture. But more importantly, employers who do so are enabling people with a learning disability or autism spectrum condition to feel valued and achieve financial and social independence. That is something we all crave, and we shouldn’t need an international day to remind us of its importance.
David Forbes-Nixon OBE is Chairman and Founder of the DFN Charitable Foundation and DFN Project SEARCH.