Recent research in Ireland has shown that people with a disability are less than half as likely to be active in the labour market and are more likely to be unemployed than people without a disability (Watson et al 2013). There is also much evidence that the current recession has hit young people particularly hard with youth unemployment having trebled since 2008 (www.youth.ie). In effect, this means that young people with disabilities are being doubly distanced from mainstream work opportunities.
Changes to the labour market over the past three decades have had significant effects on the types of skills and capabilities which young people need to access employment (www.theworkfoundation.com). In particular, soft skills have become increasingly important as wide-scale employment for young people has moved from manufacturing to service-sector employment. For young people with less developed soft skills, as is the case with many people with learning disabilities, a greater gap is growing between themselves and the mainstream labour market.
The transition from education to employment has become more difficult for all young people. Research by the NIID found that transition post-school options for students with intellectual disabilities were very limited. Feedback received by the researchers indicated that there was a disparity between student aspirations and post-school options. Feedback from students themselves showed that they had mainstream employment goals, however the data indicated that students with intellectual disabilities were more likely to transition to specialised training units rather than further education or work options.
None of this will be news to individuals and services supporting people with learning disabilities, however it does highlight the need for targeted and specific interventions for young people who require additional supports in bridging the perceived and real gaps they may encounter in accessing the mainstream labour market.
WALK has developed a programme to address the gaps outlined above. PEER stands for ‘Providing Equal Employment Routes’ and is focused on supporting young people to gain access to the same employment opportunities as their mainstream peers. The PEER model emerged when WALK sought to build a specialised employment service, Walkways, to assist service users to fulfil their own aspirations for employment. Through PEER, the Walkways team were very successful in supporting young people with intellectual disabilities who were in education, to take their first steps towards employment.
WALK could see the broader potential for this model and were successful in securing funding from the European Social Fund and Department of Social Protection, through the Disability Activation Project, to run an expanded version of the PEER model in County Louth. WALK PEER Programme (Louth) supports young people aged 16-24 in receipt of a disability payment from the Department of Social Welfare (Participation in the programme does not affect eligibility for this payment.) in bridging any gaps that they may have to access mainstream employment, education and training. Having commenced in January 2013, and meeting participants in April of this year, the programme is currently engaging with over 60 participants and is actively recruiting in the area. While the programme is open to young people with any form of disability, 85% of participants have learning disabilities .
Employment facilitators work on a one-to-one basis with participants in their own locality to identify work options that they would enjoy and which are suited to their abilities. Participants are facilitated in finding employment that is appropriate to their age, life stage, interests and future life goals. If training and education options are required to help the young person in achieving their goals, they are also supported in accessing these. The emphasis is on mainstream options so as to facilitate a real integration of the young person in their local community and break down the isolation that is often experience by people with learning disabilities.
There are some unique features of the PEER model which have been very positively received in the Louth region. These include the fact that the WALK PEER Programme team work with young people who may be still engaged in the school system. It has become clear that there is a very large gap in the provision of work preparation and transition to employment options for the under-18s. One of the key objectives for WALK PEER Programme is developing independence in the young person so that they may take their first steps towards employment. This has enhanced the transition process for young people who are stepping out of the second-level system and progressing on to other options. It has also presented an alternative progression option for young people for whom day services/RT programmes are neither appropriate nor of interest. Of particular interest to the programme is engaging those ‘hard to reach’ individuals who are not engaging in any services or supports and tend to be ‘sitting at home’ and at risk of mental health difficulties. The WALK PEER Programme team are currently engaging very successfully with several young people for whom this was the case.
Another feature that has been welcomed locally is the collaborative character of the programme. The nature of the WALK PEER Model is that it recognises that developing employability skills and bridging barriers to employment for young people with learning disabilities need to be collaborative. The team in Louth work, in cooperation with families, services and education providers, to ensure that the participant is fully supported in achieving their employment goals. This collaborative approach has resulted in very successful partnerships with other services, and an enhancement in engagement with employment options amongst young people with learning disabilities in Louth.
The WALK PEER Programme team has also received positive feedback from employers in the region in relation to their methods of engagement. An essential element of the WALK PEER model is a professional interaction with employers. The delivery of a consistent message, the follow-through on promises or actions and the gathering/collation of regular feedback have been highlighted by employers as positive factors in their engagement with the programme. Another particular feature of the PEER model of supported employment is the provision of as much support as is required by a participant and no more. WALK PEER Programme staff seek to develop natural circles of support for participants as much as possible so the young person can attain a higher level of independence within the work environment.
A crucial factor in the success of PEER in Walkways was the engagement of PEER mentors in supporting participants. PEER mentors are young people who are matched with participants across a number of criteria such as age, location, interests, and previous work experience. They are given intense training in areas such as disability awareness, communication strategies, TSI and task analysis. PEER mentors support participants in a wide variety of ways—in a training setting, developing independent travel skills, developing natural circles of support in work environments, understanding work culture in a specific setting, etc. A participant is only matched with a PEER mentor if it is felt that it would be more natural for a young person to support them in a particular environment, and if they would like to have a PEER mentor themselves. They also have a say in who becomes their PEER mentor. The WALK PEER Programme team are holding their first PEER mentor training sessions on 20-22d August and are more than hopeful that this innovative approach will be as successful in Louth as it was for the Walkways team in Dublin.
The WALK PEER model recognises that each individual learns and develops at their own pace and when working with people with learning disabilities it can take time to develop the soft skills and employability skills that are crucial in the modern labour market. However, early indications in Louth are that the model has transferred very well into a broader environment with 37% of participants currently engaging in employment activity and feedback from participants, families and referring agencies very positive to date.