Nina, who is disabled and lives in Suffolk, was keen to get a job but lacked both confidence and work experience. Social care provider Avenues supported her to attend a work experience training course, after which Nina began volunteering at a local charity shop. When the charity heard about a cleaning job at a special needs school, it helped Nina prepare for the interview and, once she got the job, supported her to settle in, then gradually withdrew as she thrived in the new role.
Nina is one of almost 300 people with disabilities helped by Avenues into voluntary placements and work experience through its supported volunteering and work experience project in Suffolk. Almost a quarter of the trainees continue to work or volunteer; the project is one way to support the employment of more disabled people who want to work.
But Nina is the exception rather than the rule - the UK's disability and employment gap is around 32% with less than half of disabled people in work - 48% - compared to 80% of their non-disabled peers, as I commented previously on this blog.
Now, as 2017 starts, many of us are preparing to a return to work after the festive break, while others doubtless consider fresh opportunities, in line with the traditional 'new year, new career' mantra at this time of year. Yet the trend for the new year job change generally bypasses disabled people, many of whom are unable even to get onto the first rung of the employment ladder, let alone think of fresh pastures.
Government's work, health and disability consultation is well underway with its aim, reflecting a 2015 Conservative manifesto commitment, to reduce inequality by "halving the disability employment gap". With the dust settling on that ambition and responses to the green paper due in mid-February, there is opportunity to consider how to replicate the kind of successful employment projects like Avenues.
Voluntary organisations are making progress in this area, as VODG's recent report, Closing the disability employment gap, reflected.
Around the country, VODG members and their partners deliver a variety of successful employment schemes for disabled people. The projects include internships, supported employment, apprenticeships, awareness-raising campaigns and the direct employment of more disabled people - particularly those with severe learning disabilities and autism who get little specific focus in the green paper.
The recently-published VODG Social Value Toolkit supports our interest in this area as it seeks to reduce inequalities, promote wellbeing and encourage commissioners to have regard to wider concepts of social value rather than only cost and efficiency issues.
A similar approach is reflected in the Social Care Commitment - the adult social care sector's promise to provide people who need care and support with high quality services. Many VODG members are already signed up to the commitment, which includes pledges for employers about values-based recruitment, promotion of diversity and equality of opportunity.
In terms of successful projects, four years ago Thomas Pocklington Trust, a charity for people with sight loss, had just one per cent of people with a visual impairment in its work force. Three years ago, it took on its first blind office intern and today, 30 of its 100 staff are blind or have sight loss. In the next two years, the London-based charity expects that 50% of its employees, and a similar proportion of its trustees and senior managers, will be blind or partially sighted.
Chief executive Peter Corbett hopes other organisations will follow suit, adding: "The biggest challenge for disability organisations considering employing from the community they support is just deciding that they want to do it. You need a firm strategy on this, leadership from the top, and then you need to make it a priority."
Other organisations, in line with how Avenues has supported Nina, provide employment opportunities for severely disabled people and those with autism. United Response's Training, Employment and Consultancy is an extensive training programme in York. It covers everything from IT courses to tips on self- presentation, communication and CV writing. Crucially, job hunters are encouraged to explore work and training options that suits them.
Diane Lightfoot, United Response director of supported employment, explains: "The programme has to be tailored to the individual; you need the right approach for each person." She adds: "With a social enterprise or micro-enterprise, you need to get some business expertise on board and make sure there's a market for what you're offering. Engaging with a local business partnership or securing pro bono advice can help ensure the scheme is sustainable otherwise."
Sustainability is the key issue here. With social care funding in crisis - no money in the Chancellor's autumn statement and then a woefully inadequate local government finance settlement - we must ensure that successful schemes continue to exist.
Interestingly for these austere times, the green paper does not focus on the impact that employing more disabled people would have on reducing the benefits bill. More than this, the paper's aspirations are at risk of being frustrated by changes to work-related support for disabled people such as cuts to the Access to Work scheme, to Employment and Support Allowance and to specialist disability employment advisers.
While social care providers should do more, government also has a role in creating more specialist support, from specialist job advisors who can help someone secure work to in-work job coaches who can help them sustain it. Another huge concern that local authority funding for supported employment is on the wane. This should be a national priority and locally delivered.
Despite the challenges, it is important to note the progress being made, not least in the tone of the green paper that is collaborative and willing to engage. Then there is the NHS Learning Disability Employment Programme: a pledge to employ more people with learning disabilities. The NHS Equality and Diversity Council has also recommended that a Workforce Disability Equality Standard should be mandated in England from April 2018 and the introduction of Education, Health and Care plans in 2014 for disabled children and young people could help prepare people for work.
For too long, the presumption has been that disabled people cannot or do not want to work and that the process of supporting people into work is costly and complex. This needs to change.
As has been well documented, the disability and employment issue is too narrowly focused on benefits, in a bid to reduce public spending. The focus is on moving people off benefits, not on them sustaining employment. This needs to change. We need a progressive approach to supporting more disabled people into employment.
That, to me, is one New Year's resolution worth making.