Cohesion for Inclusion – Get It Together

In advance of the Fine Gael / Labour government’s “Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities”, Kate Butler of Thundercut Alley takes a look at independent living initiatives and opportunities for people with disabilities, and the barriers faced in accessing them due to systemic discrimination and the lack of consistency across services and planning.

This month, the government launched a strategy to help people with disabilties to get jobs.
But with a target of improving the proportion of those working by 15% over 10 years, is it enough?
In this article, Kate Butler looks at systemic discrimination and also talks to Des Henry from WALK, to find out what supports work for young people who are trying to make a living.

This year, a 17 year old girl was given the brilliant opportunity of doing work experience at RTÉ, on the set of Winning Streak.  However, because she was a minor and had an intellectual disability, RTÉ requested that she would have support with her.

The work experience had been set up by WALK, a group in Walkinstown which specialises in supporting people with disabilities to live their lives, doing ordinary things in ordinary places, but they didn’t have the resources to pay for the supports the girl needed.  So instead, they called out to their bank of volunteer PEER Mentors from the Institute of Technology, Tallaght (ITT).

Last year, Des Henry, the Careers and Employment Co-ordinator at WALK, made a presentation to first year Social Care students at ITT.  He told them about the ethos of the organisation and supporting independent living; he asked them for their help.  If they could give 20 hours of their time to mentor a young person living with an intellectual disability to take up a paid job, they would get a FETAC qualification.  Ten students signed up.  So when the RTÉ opportunity arose, WALK was able to send out an email to see if anyone was available.  Three volunteers got back to them.  Problem solved.

“It’s not rocket science, it’s simple human nature” says Henry.  “These students have full schedules and they work over the summer, but when they could see what this was about, they were willing to commit.”

WALK is one of a growing number of organisations in this country using their diminished funding to promote and support independent living for people living with intellectual disabilities.  Crucially, with initiatives such as WALK PEER and WALK Real Life Training programmes, they are able to do it better for less.  Along with employing Social Carer staff, WALK employs job coaches and community connectors to work in teams.

WALK meets with the young person while they are still in education and finds out what they are interested in, what they would like to do with their life.  “We talk about aspirations with young people and their parents,” says Henry.  “We help them find a career path based on their likes and interests, what they are good at and what they dream of.  We look at the challenges each individual faces and we develop supports to overcome those challenges.

“We go on job site visits, attend college open days and careers fairs, things that they would normally never attend.  It gives everyone a chance to see what is actually going on in the world, i.e. ordinary things in ordinary places.”

Young people with intellectual disabilities go through our mainstream education system until they are 18, when everything changes.  Instead of going down the path of third level education or training, they go to day centres (if places are available).  At 18, the Department of Education finishes with them and the Department of Health takes over-

It’s a massive disconnect.  Instead of education or training, the priority of Health-funded programmes is ‘socialisation’, which involves minding, caring and perhaps a FETAC Level 2 course in personal skills.  Ambition is very low and we are spending a fortune on it.  Money isn’t the issue here – it is how we are spending the money that needs to change.

Whatever training and education supports that are available, meanwhile, are provided in hugely inconsistent ways.  Colleges of further education have budgets for learning supports, e.g. literacy, but how these are used depends on where you go.

You could get one college where the principal is excellent and they will give an individual the supports they need at the start of a course.  Yet in another college down the road, the principal won’t dispense supports until the middle of the year, for totally arbitrary and unexplained reasons.  There is no commonality of application.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by young people with intellectual disabilities is in dealing with institutional discrimination.  After the economy crashed in 2008, youth unemployment spiralled to 30% in this country.  In response, the European Union set up the Youth Guarantee, where all young people under 25 (within four months of leaving formal education becoming unemployed) would receive a quality offer of a job, training or further education.

The guarantee was for ALL young people – there were no qualifications or limitations, but remarkably, Ireland placed its own; the scheme would only apply to those on the live register.  What this ensured was that young people with disabilities would be excluded from the scheme, since those who collect a disability allowance are not on the ‘live’ register.

“Over the past two years we’ve put the issue of the Youth Guarantee before the Dáil’s Education and Social Protection Committee and they were gobsmacked, but nothing happened,” says Henry.  “EU programmes are for all people, so what is happening here is the systematic exclusion of people with disabilities”.

The discrimination doesn’t end there.  If a person wants to avail of the supports under the Department of Social Protection, they are faced with a series of barriers.  For example, to access the Employability Programme a person must be “job ready” (whatever that means), and be able to work for at least 8 hours a week.  Meanwhile to qualify for the Wages Subsidy Scheme a person must be able to work for more than 21.5 hours per week.  Many of the people with intellectual disabilities who have jobs are working less than those hours; it means their contribution is not recognised or valued by our government.

On October 2, an Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, launched the government’s “Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities” with a grand event in Farmleigh.  There are a lot of good things in this strategy; primarily it recognises that various departments – Social Protection, Jobs Enterprise & Innovation, Education and Skills, Children & Youth Affairs, Justice & Equality and Health – all need to work together to address this crisis.

The problems in the strategy, however, are fundamental: the target is low (to increase employment of people with disabilities by 15% over ten years); there is no implementation plan; there is no senior Minister to make sure the strategy is delivering what it is supposed to deliver, or check the various departments are doing what they are supposed to be doing; and there are no resources to make it happen.

Our young people growing up with the disadvantage of living with disabilities, who want to get out and work, face a number of obstacles: an education system that is finished with them at 18; a social welfare system that sees them as a burden rather than potential contributors to society; a health system that wants to care for them rather than empower them to live independently; and critically, a government that discriminates against them, at every turn.

We have seen strategy plans come and go.  This one has some merit.  But to address the issues faced by organisations like WALK and the young people it supports, there needs to be more than election promises: there needs to be action.

A features writer for 16 years, Kate Butler has written for a number of Irish titles, but mostly for the Sunday Times. She is also a practising barrister and board member of Inclusion Ireland. Read more from Kate at Thundercut Alley