Looking for work with a learning disability: 'You feel like a failure'
"I went for an interview last week – a van job, cleaning – and I told them I had autism,” explains Christopher Burns, 40, in Cornwall. “The interviewer got his phone out and called his wife ‘cos she was a nurse. He had to find out what autism was.”
Burns – who has speech problems as well as autism – wasn’t surprised. He’s been struggling to find work for the past 20 years and hasn’t had a full-time job in eight.
Any contracted work he’s had – such as an eight-month spell as a postman or a month as a bed raiser fitter – has been fleeting as Burns’ conditions meant he found it hard to “fit in” with colleagues, and employers judged his capability. “That attitude of pigeonholing, of my speech and how I am,” he says.
Instead, for years he’s been bouncing between part-time work, usually only a few hours a week: from agency work at a care company to cleaning work.
Burns has just started a four-week training course on the Work Programme – the government’s outgoing welfare-to-work scheme – but feels no hope it will lead to a job.
The programme’s promoted as being designed specifically for disabled people but in practice, Burns is alongside people with vastly different conditions: from mental health problems to chronic illness. “You just get lumbered in,” he says. “I asked, what sort of help do have you for autism? They said, ‘Not much.’”
Burns’ experience is not a rare case but rather reflective of Britain’s widespread crisis in disability unemployment. While discrimination of disabled people within the workplace continues for many, even getting hired in the first place is an uphill battle – something that’s particularly acute for people with learning disabilities or autism. Just 16% (pdf) of people with autism are in full-time paid work, according to the National Autistic Society, while less than 6% of learning disabled people are in full-time employment.
That’s compared to 47% of disabled people generally. More worryingly, things aren’t getting better: the employment rate for autism has seen negligible improvement (pdf) in a decade and the number of learning disabled people in work has actually fallen in the past five years.
Since he left college nine years ago, Vijay Patel – who has a mild learning disability – has applied unsuccessfully for over 70 full-time jobs.
The 29-year-old has impressive work experience – he’s given speeches to parliament, while the jobcentre and Mencap helped him gain work placements at banks and Transport for London – but when he’s applied for retail work or entry-level office roles, he’s struggled to even get an interview.
“It knocked my confidence,” Patel says. “I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me through.”
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