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Breaking down taboos about employing a person with a disability

PUBLISHED: 14:58 16 September 2019 | UPDATED: 16:39 19 September 2019

Management team at Realise Futures (left to right) Jane Sutton, Jenny Brick, Sally Butcher  Picture: Ross Bentley

Management team at Realise Futures (left to right) Jane Sutton, Jenny Brick, Sally Butcher Picture: Ross Bentley

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Organisations in Suffolk and Norfolk are working to help people with physical and learning disabilities into work.

Realise Futures offers fulfillment services  Picture: Realise FuturesRealise Futures offers fulfillment services Picture: Realise Futures

Most businesses are interested in retaining their staff but for one company based in the region, an employee leaving to take a job elsewhere is often a cause for celebration.

That's because community interest company Realise Futures helps match vacancies at local employers with people who have some kind of disability. Many of these people will have worked at one of Realise Future's businesses, either in fulfilment services, horticulture or retail, where they are able to gain the skills and confidence to enable them to go into the world of work with another organisation.

Shocking

The team at Realise Futures, which has its headquarters in Ipswich, is on a mission to get more businesses to consider taking on a disabled person, which they say is something that seldom makes it onto companies' radars. They point to recent research by Public Health England (2015), which revealed that only 6% of adults with a learning disability known to their local authority in England are in paid work.

It's a "shocking" statistic, said Realise's director of business development. Jenny Brick.

"If there was the similar figure for any other group in society - by age, ethnicity or gender - there would be an absolute outrage," she added.

Realise Futures team at St Lawrence Cafe in Ipswich  Picture: Realise FuturesRealise Futures team at St Lawrence Cafe in Ipswich Picture: Realise Futures

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But rather than rail against the world, Realise Futures prefer to lead by example as well as hold the hand of progressive employers ready to look into employing either someone with a physical impairment or a learning disability.

The example piece is that across Realise Future's successful and profitable businesses in Suffolk and Essex, which also includes adult learning and employment services, the company employs 280 people with more than 40 paid employees having a declared disability.

The hand holding bit is that Realise has mentors who will work with employers to help their candidates settle into a new job and support them with any adjustments their business might have to make, such as altering the height of a desk, installing an adapted keyboards, or fitting a screen filter to computer for someone with a visual impairment.

"There is a fear about employing someone with a disability," said Realise Future's managing director Sally Butcher.

"Employers think it will take a lot of time to organise or it will be too much trouble but much of the fear comes from ignorance.

"If people have the right skill sets it shouldn't matter if they have a hearing aid, or a declared mental health issue. People are people are people - it's about supporting employers to see what people can do, as opposed to what they can't do."

A group from Ipswichs Realise Futures after the company was awarded the new Social Enterprise Disability Employment Mark (SEDEM) last year. Photo: Realise Futures.A group from Ipswichs Realise Futures after the company was awarded the new Social Enterprise Disability Employment Mark (SEDEM) last year. Photo: Realise Futures.

Confidence

But getting a disabled person or someone with a mental illness to the stage where they are ready for work can be a long road - a journey that staff at Realise Futures are prepared to travel all the way. And the job satisfaction that comes with seeing someone grow in confidence and then go on to get a job is priceless, says Mrs Butcher.

She continued: "About two and a half years ago, we had a young man come to us, who would travel here independently but then would stand at the entrance and visibly shake because he was nervous about coming in.

"He was on a government-funded programme, so we took him on. He worked in the fulfilment business and after six months as he started to gain confidence we discovered he was really good with numbers.

"At first we offered him a part-time job in the finance team - that was all he wanted as he was too anxious to do full-time - but eventually he applied for a job at one of the logistics businesses at Felixstowe docks. He is now working there full-time and progressing really well.

"That took almost two year of mentoring, coaching and gradually giving him a bit more responsibility."

Leon Smith with  trainee Hannah Gill, at the Norfolk Care Awards in 2018 when Nansa's 'Train and Trade' won the 'Collaborative Working' award in recognition of its work with employers throughout Norfolk. Picture; NansaLeon Smith with trainee Hannah Gill, at the Norfolk Care Awards in 2018 when Nansa's 'Train and Trade' won the 'Collaborative Working' award in recognition of its work with employers throughout Norfolk. Picture; Nansa

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Perception

Up in Norfolk, independent charity Nansa has worked for over 60 years to improve the lives of people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities, and believes that all people with disabilities are entitled to full inclusion in society.

Head of services, Leon Smith, says less than 4% of people in the county with learning disabilities are in employment.

"We are under-performing," he said.

Nansa offers a Train and Trade service that takes people with a learning disability and supports them through a traineeship while also working to break down assumptions employers might have about people with disabilities. It has various traineeship partnerships with local business including John Lewis and garden centre Wroxham Barns.

"It's about giving people who might not have done so well in academia a chance," he says.

The eco furniture team at the Realise Future's Ipswich factory. Back, from left: Shaun Payne, Jason Fiddaman, Paul Winterflood, Tony Bright, Jason English, Paul Richmond. Front, from left: Michael Earthroll, Kirsty Vale and Paul Pester. Picture: REALISE FUTURESThe eco furniture team at the Realise Future's Ipswich factory. Back, from left: Shaun Payne, Jason Fiddaman, Paul Winterflood, Tony Bright, Jason English, Paul Richmond. Front, from left: Michael Earthroll, Kirsty Vale and Paul Pester. Picture: REALISE FUTURES

"As people see more people with learning difficulties in employment or in customer-facing roles, they will realise there is nothing to be fearful of. It will only take a few employers to get behind this and it will snowball.

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Real value

He continued: "There is still this perception from employers that they are taking a gamble, so the challenge is to make employers understand the value these people offer with their own unique set of skills.

"There's a new approach today - employing someone with a disability used to be about giving them a foot up and not seeing the ability, but today it's about emphasising the real value and productivity they can offer."

Mr Smith gives the example of some forms of autism, which lend themselves to routine, focussed, task driven roles.

"There are factory jobs that many people might find brain-numbing over time but these people will happily do them. In the US there are car washes run totally by people with autism."

He added: "Getting employers to take on people with a learning disability is a bigger challenge than asking them to employ some one with a physical disability.

"With a physical disability, people can see what adjustments need to be made but with a mental disability there is this perception of a hidden difficulty - but more often than not, there is nothing."

For more information visit realisefutures.org and nansa.org.uk

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