Only 6% of adults with a learning disability in the UK have a paid job.
In the rest of the population, that number soars to 73%.
14 million people in the UK have a learning disability.
When I was 20, my mother gave birth to her fourth child, her third boy. Theo.
Theo had Down's Syndrome. It wasn't a smooth delivery (Mum and Theo both had some time hanging out in Intensive Care afterwards), and this meant that Theo's condition was something that we had to come to terms with after the more immediate fear of losing them both.
On the drive home from the hospital, having left Mum and baby recovering, my father, my brothers and I were all stunned, exhausted, and overwhelmed. The magnitude of Theo's diagnosis had hit, and all I wanted to do was reassure my Dad. "It's ok - we'll always be here to look after him." And I meant it.
Theo was physically in our lives for 22 short months before he died, following complications of pneumonia. He was the happiest baby and toddler I have ever met. He never spoke, walked, or even sat up independently, but he made each of us stop, and take the time to enjoy life at his pace. He made us pause to find happiness in lying on the floor, playing with the same toy for hours (the more it lit up, the better). Having Theo in our family irreparably changed our lives, individually and collectively. Would I be a doctor now if I had not known Theo? Maybe, but it's unlikely.
There is undoubtedly a huge amount of pressure placed on the family of a young person with a learning disability. In some conditions, such as Down's, many of these concerns are medical, but there is so much more to worry about. What will they do if not work? Who will care for them if we are at work or when we grow too old? How will we as a family manage in a time of austerity, when our society penalizes those who can't work, or who, more often in their case, simply aren't given the opportunity to?
This week, I was honoured to be a 'VIP' at an Awards Evening for the disability charity 'Action For Kids'. This incredible charity not only helps provide mobility equipment for young people who need this support, but it works with young people with learning disabilities to help them become more independent, supporting them in voluntary placements, discovering what makes each of them 'tick' as individuals, and tries to help them get into paid employment.
I spent the evening smiling so hard that my face is still sore, and simultaneously trying not to cry with pride for these young people. Their own pride in their achievements was vast and justified. They are fighting to become the 6% who are in paid employment, and the charity is fighting to dramatically increase that percentage. Some of the certificates I gave out went to people working 2 paid jobs, who were delighted that not one but two companies had put their faith in them. Some worked with young children. Others were full time hospitality staff. Some were still moving between voluntary placements, hoping to be taken on for a paid job soon. They were all charming, polite, and would be an asset to any company willing to look beyond their differences and give them a chance.
Getting a young person with a learning disability into work doesn't just give them a wage. It doesn't just give their family some reassurance. It doesn't just teach them independence. It doesn't just make them feel valued by a society that still stops and stares at 'the different'. It makes them visible. It forces us to consider something other than our privileged chocolate-box existence. It teaches us that difference is important, that it is how we evolve, grow and develop as a society. We learn to see the world from a different perspective. We are shown how easy it can be to find joy in even the smallest of things, if only we stop and take the time.
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