Hundreds with learning disabilities in Essex to be supported into work

Hundreds of people with learning disabilities are expected to enter full time employment thanks to a groundbreaking scheme from Essex County Council and its partner Essex Cares Ltd.

The council believes that of around 800 adults attending day centres run by Essex Cares Ltd, around 140 are immediately suitable to be supported into meaningful employment.

Another 150 are expected to want to follow once they see the benefits that the first tranche of people have gained by working.

The scheme is being tailored to benefit the likes of Lorri Wilkinson who has been attending Walter Boyce day centre in Brentwood for two years.

For three sessions a week she works in the training kitchen learning catering skills.

“I would love to be able to get a paid job so I could help my mum to pay my bills, as at the moment I’m unable to contribute,” she said.

“Our lives are very isolated, and I know that I, and others like me, would feel more included if we were doing a normal job. It’s rewarding to know that you can succeed – no matter how long it takes.

“People just need to understand that sometimes those with disabilities can feel self-conscious in the workplace and just because I am in a wheelchair doesn’t mean that I’m not capable. Because with the right support, I’ll be able to do a great job.”

The scheme has been based on the insights gained in the project dubbed the 100-day challenge earlier last year between the county council and Essex Cares, during which nine adults secured paid employment, thereby reducing the need of commissioned services.

A further 14 adults accessed volunteering as a step towards paid employment.

Essex County Council currently commissions a range of services known as ‘day opportunities’.

These are services providing opportunities for adults with disabilities and older people to take part in activities outside their home, as well as enabling a break for family carers.

However the transition for people with learning disabilities to employment, although above the national average, is still just 16 per cent.

Essex Cares, under a seven-year contract, is being asked to  support people of all ages into employment by identifying possible employers, arranging and mediating interviews and offering training and skills such as how to use public transport safely.

The new contract would also require Essex Cares to provide meaningful activities at the day centres, support for individuals to develop new skills, maximise their independence and access their local communities, including social, leisure and health opportunities.

In the proposed contract, due to start in April, Essex Cares will be required to support 583 adults with learning disabilities and autism to gain and sustain work by the end of 2024.

Around 290 of them are expected to be current Essex Cares day opportunities customers.

Chris Martin, director of strategic commissioning, told the People and Families Scrutiny Committee on January 16: “It’s a big change for what we are proposing for Essex Cares Ltd.

“It’s moving the day opportunities into a supported employment programme.

“We are focused on a cohort of people who currently attend the day centres but our ambition is not limited to those people.

“We want to create a sustainable long term supportive inclusive employment programme for young people who are coming through now.

“I want them to be encouraged into employment, I want their parents to be confident in the default option of supported employment provided by Essex Cares, and I want them to reap all the benefits that employment brings them later on in life.”

Surveys carried out by the council two years ago showed that large numbers of people with learning disabilities wanted support into work.

Mr Martin added: “The many things they told us were they want the same things we want for ourselves.

“In terms of their future they wanted to be employed, in meaningful employment, stimulating jobs, they wanted their own front door, relationships, they wanted to be loved, they wanted to feel part of the community, wanted to contribute, wanted to be valued and included.

“The things none of them said they wanted was to be in a day centre once they had finished their education.”

Joe Coogan, director of Essex Cares, said: “The day opportunity system is fairly traditional. People who come get a good service, but there is a cohort of people with learning disabilities who we feel could and should be supported to find work if they want to.”

Nick Presag, director of adult social care, said: “I am very proud of the work we have done. It’s about setting pinnacles of our ambitions.

“There will always be people for whom employment is not the pinnacle of ambition we can achieve.

“But if we start off with the aspiration for everyone that they can be as independent as possible, they can work and they can have keys to their own front door, then I would hope when people look back they can see this was the start of something radically different.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter