Why are so few people with a learning disability in employment?

I suppose the answer is that there seems to be a misconception that people with a learning disability would be difficult to employ or make for less competent employees.

17 years ago

In 2001, the Government of the day produced the White Paper ‘Valuing People’ (A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century). It spoke about 4 key principles – Rights, Independence, Choice, and Inclusion – and committed to improving the quality of services available to those with a learning disability.

At that time, the White Paper estimated that less than 10% of people with a learning disability were in employment. Today, that employment figure is 6%.

What is a learning disability?

There are a number of conditions associated with learning disabilities, including:

  • Down’s syndrome, Challenging behaviour and Williams syndrome
  • Autism and cerebral palsy are also associated with learning disabilities. Neither of these two conditions are learning disabilities but it is believed that a significant number of people on the autism spectrum and those with cerebral palsy, also have a learning disability

Note that common learning difficulties like dyslexia (which is to do with how someone processes information) and conditions which affect emotions (e.g. bipolar and personality disorders) are not considered learning disabilities.

The affect that having a learning disability can have on someone’s day-to-day life varies greatly. For some people, it can be hard to understand complex information and to learn new skills which can affect reading and writing (medically referred to as ‘impaired intelligence’).

Routinely, these difficulties will have started much before adulthood and will have a lasting affect during their lives. Although people with a learning disability can continue to learn and progress throughout early adulthood and beyond, they might do so at a slower pace.

As an adult, this might mean struggling to socialise and cope independently or, for instance, having great difficulty in managing money or applying for jobs.

The numbers

  • 1 in 50 people (children and adults) in the UK has a learning disability.
  • Of these, one in four have a severe learning disability (PMLD) meaning that the majority have a mild to moderate learning disability.
  • 2.16% of all adults (18+) in the UK are thought to have a learning disability (this totals 820,000 people)

False perceptions

For people who want to be in work but aren’t given the opportunity to be, it can be a very frustrating time. Part of the reason for this is that some employers take the view that a person with a learning disability might:

  • Make for a less productive employee
  • Be someone that they would not know how to communicate with / act around
  • Have a disruptive effect on the company in terms of them having to change the systems or infrastructure that they currently use (potentially time-sapping and costly)

These prejudices tend to be formed not from first-hand experiences but from assumptions. The reality is in fact very different…

How employers can adapt to help applicants with a learning disability

1) Methodology

Application forms

Reasonable adjustments are often not costly or time consuming to an employer, yet are an essential (moral and legal) step in ensuring candidates with a learning disability aren’t at a substantial disadvantage. Approaches that employers can take include: adapting job descriptions so they are easier to understand and providing alternative formats of applications forms:

  • Easy read is a way of presenting text and resources in an accessible and easy to read way, utilising pictures and basic language – job descriptions and application forms can be put in to Easy read. Some charities and employers are already doing this.
  • Many people, learning disability or not, prefer these types of formats as they find them easier to navigate and read.

Easy read examples of Political party manifestos, Typical Easy read job application form (then select ‘click here to access form’)


Changing the approach to interviews is also something for employers to very much bear in mind. People with a learning disability may require the interview questions in advance and may prefer the first or last interview slot of the day (so that they don’t feel rushed and so the employer can make sure that they are checking understanding with the candidate.)

Employers should be encouraged to consider the type of questions they are asking too. Instead of putting a candidate with a learning disability through competency-based questions zoning in on experience and qualifications, they would be better served taking a values-based approach to interview questions. This would enable them to find out what motivates the candidate to work for them and realise how well they would fit into their organisation.

2) Lila and the ‘Job carve’

Lila is senior barristers’ clerk working at a major, busy chambers. She is office-based, earns a good salary and works extremely hard. The most tedious part of her job is arranging meetings and undertaking run-of-the-mill admin tasks. Now, she has got to a stage where she has become disillusioned with doing these same tasks year after year. Lila wants to be focussing on the more complex and (as she perceives them) interesting aspects of her role.

The idea of a job carve is that an employer, like Lila’s, would take away the more routine aspects of a job role and assign them to someone who would actually enjoy doing them and would carry out these responsibilities well.

Sam is someone with a learning disability and has previously worked in a restaurant. He has long wanted a job in an office setting and he has shown himself to be someone who is proud to be in work, who turns up early and he was a popular colleague at the restaurant. An office-based role where the job duties are limited to basic admin tasks might be a stopgap for many graduates but, for Sam, he sees this type of position as one he would be dedicated and committed to for the long-term.

In this scenario a job carve would be beneficial to:

  • The employer (they would gain a new, motivated employee and a happier existing one in Lila)
  • Lila (she would enjoy her job more and be more likely to stay in her current role longer as a result)
  • Sam (he would be in a position that meets his interests and one that will help him to kick-start his career)

3) Work trials

Too often, when people with learning disabilities are employed, it’s in the Retail and Hospitality sectors perhaps working limited hours and in an industry that they may not have a passion for (like Sam).

Work trials can be a good way for a candidate to show an employer that they are capable of doing the job and for them to see what the working environment would be like. Often, work trials change employers perceptions as they able to see with their own eyes the value such candidates would bring to their company.

Many disabled people choose to become self-employed and very much enjoy it. But for others who want to work for a company, supporting them through the application process or by helping them to secure a job trial is the last crucial bit of help they need.

Mencap have several useful resources aimed at employers

4) Reasonable adjustment passports

Like with any disabled applicant who requires an adjustment at the application stage or in the job role itself, people with learning disabilities may need certain adjustments. Common ones include:

  • Additional training/ flexible working / change in the nature or amount of responsibilities / clear communication around what the tasks will involve / specialist equipment

Although some charities and support workers provide advocacy for people with a learning disability, Careers & Employability professionals can take an active and important role in speaking to employers as well as encouraging people with a learning disability. It can be reassuring for candidates to hear that many of the reasonable adjustments they require are already present in workplaces (flexible working policy, training opportunities etc.)

Reasonable adjustments passports are comprehensive documents that mean that every time someone gets a new manager or moves to a different part of the company or changes jobs completely, they don’t need to explain things all over again. This can help to reduce the anxiety and stress of telling a new person about their disability.

Another 17 years from now

I saw this article about Sarah Gordy who, at the end of last year, became the first person with Down’s syndrome in the UK to receive an honorary degree. She campaigns to help change attitudes towards people with learning disabilities. Creating attitudinal change is very much the key to improving the employment prospects for people with a learning disability. For those of us working with students and graduates, we too, have a role in to play in that change.

Edmund Lewis, AGCAS Disability Task Group, University of Westminster


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