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Driving positive change in the workplace for people with learning disabilities and autism

On Friday 3 May, NCMH researchers welcomed third sector and academic professionals to discuss the topic of ageing for people with learning disabilities and autism.

The half-day of talks was hosted in partnership with Engage to Change and CARE (Centre for Adult Social Care Research).

Engage to Change is a seven-year project in collaboration with Learning Disability Wales and the National Centre for Mental Health which has provided support employment opportunities and jobs to over 1,200 young people across Wales.

The project has now entered it’s ‘influencing and informing’ phase which aims to take forward the research and legacy of the project into policy across Wales and beyond.

Chairing the day was CEO of Learning Disability Wales, Zoe Richards, who introduced the first speaker of the day, Julian Hallett from Down’s Syndrome Association, to discuss the potential impact of Down’s Syndrome ageing and dementia in the workplace.

Supporting people with Down’s syndrome throughout their working lives

Using individual case studies and recent findings from the association’s Work Fit project, which has a 92% rate of continued employment from registered candidates, Julian reflected on crucial elements of providing sustainable employment.

This includes ensuring a variety of roles across different sectors are made available, as well as the flexibility to change career pathways over time.

Most importantly, Julian emphasised the personal basis for which job coach support is established and outlined the essential need for individual and one-to-one candidate profiling.

“Each person who has Down’s syndrome is an individual.”

He also explored the implications of longer life expectancy in people with Down’s Syndrome, who are more susceptible to developing dementia at a younger age in comparison to the general public. It was noted that health boards across Wales are now monitoring people for the development of dementia at an earlier age.

Learning more about age-related decline in the workplace

The next talk was delivered by Professor Borja de Urries who introduced ongoing research looking to improve age-related work decline in people with learning disability at the University of Salamanca.

The PROLAB76 tool is used for people with a learning disability to identify work ability decline that is directly related to disability and ageing, a concept which has historically been confused with job satisfaction.

Identifying work ability decline which is related to ageing allows for extra employment support to be put in place to avoid early retirement, which employers might suggest if the decline is believed to be because the person simply does not enjoy their role as much anymore.

This in turn promotes an active retirement by allowing the employed person to make self-determined decisions regarding the decision to continue working.

“People with learning disabilities dance like us, fall in love like us… how long will it take for us to say we are like them? If we are to be equal, this is what we need to form.”

 Seminar chair Zoe Richards reflected on the current landscape of workplace support in Wales:

 “At the moment in Wales we’re relying on responsible employers […] but we know that not all communities are as responsive to a person with a learning disability, so we need legislation to underpin that.”

 Prioritising quality of life

The afternoon continued with further research findings from the University of Salamanca, where Professor Miguel Ángel Verdugo discussed ongoing work into improving quality of life for people with a learning disability.

These findings have produced a support model with the aim of promoting choice and personal autonomy, providing specialised support, and emphasising inclusive environments.

This research so far has shown an increase in personal motivation, as well as a positive impact on relationships and psychological wellbeing. However, is it choice and personal autonomy that is regarded as one of the main elements of improving quality of life.

“We can improve a person’s quality of life when people have choice. [If we] provide possibilities, this will increase satisfaction.”

Preparing for retirement

The final talk of the day was delivered by Dr Stephen Beyer from the NCMH and Judith Kerem from Care Trade Charitable Trust, and discussed how people with developmental disabilities can experience age related decline and what employers can do to help.

“We must recognise that employment is a social anchor and it’s loss can have big consequences to quality of life, particularly to people who don’t have the resources to be able to plan through this.”

Dr Beyer outlined what work ability decline can look like for people with learning disabilities, and employers should look out for signs such as fatigue, lower quality of tasks, difficulty learning new tasks, and stress.

However, it’s important that employers are provided with the right tools to notice and support age related decline, because they might have more opportunities to notice this, as outlined by Judith Kerem:

“People are in employment for the majority of the week, therefore an employer might pick up on things that families, partners, or carers might not see.”

Judith emphasised the importance of workplace passports, a live document owned by the individual, which shows what a person needs, likes and dislikes, and what support and other considerations might be needed in the workplace.

Workplace passports are also carried by the individual throughout their career, so that when reasonable adjustments need to be made, it is a not a surprise to the employer.

Judith also shared tips for planning retirement to ensure a smooth transition, such as providing adequate socialising and support, and continuous learning opportunities such as volunteering or new hobbies.

The seminar was concluded with a panel discussion with the day’s speakers, and touched on topics such as learning disabilities and inclusive education, where Zoe Richards reflected:

“Getting inclusive education right is key, non-disabled children need to know the barriers disabled children face, because they will be part of the solution, they will be future doctors and nurses. We cannot have a two-tier system.”

Presentation slides from each talk can be accessed via our ‘Ageing for people with learning disabilities and autism’ Padlet resource.

Catch up on the webinar

Read more



Ellie Short

Ellie is the Communications Officer for NCMH and the Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetic and Genomics at Cardiff University.

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