In 2000 the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment assumed responsibility for vocational training and employment of people with disabilities in the open labour market—in line with the government policy of ‘mainstreaming’. (The Department of Health and Children remains responsible for ‘rehabilitative training’ (social skills/personal development) and for sheltered occupational services.) The (FÁS) National Pilot Supported Employment Programme was launched by Tánaiste Mary Harney TD on 24 July 2000- The purpose of the pilot programme was to develop and implement a nationwide supported employment initiative to facilitate the integration of people with disabilities into paid employment, providing support for employees and employers. Initially, €5.1 million was provided for the Programme, which was to run from October 2000 to December 2001. (Both budget and period of operation have been extended—as this article is written, the programme is still in operation.)
Twenty-four consortia—representing defined geographical areas across the whole country, with the exception of County Tipperary—were contracted to provide supported employment within the project. The first two began operation in November/December 2000; some were formed as late as spring 2002, after the pilot programme had been extended.
Tom Martin & Associates (TMA) were asked by FÁS to undertake an assessment of the operation and impact of the Supported Employment Pilot Programme and to make recommendations for its maximum effectiveness. The consultants’ report, presented in June 2003, was based on documentation, focus groups, interviews, questionnaires and case studies. It covered the initial twenty months of the Programme, from November 2000 to June 2002.
The Evaluation Report on the FÁS Supported Employment Programme is available on the FÁS website www.fas.ie (or by email: cathy/English@fas.ie). This article summarises only some of the findings, conclusions and issues raised by the report.
- The consultants found that the supported employment programme succeeded both in assisting people with a disability to access work in the open labour market, and in demonstrating to employers the value of employing such persons. The vast majority of employers were satisfied with participants and job coaches, and they said that they would recruit a Programme participant again and would recommend the programme.
- 1918 people with disabilities were registered with the consortia; 775 of them (sixty per cent of whom were people with intellectual disabilities) were placed in employment.
- The average number of work hours per week by participants was 15.9 hours. However, ten per cent worked fewer than 5 hours per week.
- Ninety-six per cent of participants placed in employment retained their state benefits (Disability Allowance, etc.) Thirty-eight per cent of them were also engaged in other state-sponsored activities—sheltered workshops or day activity centres.
- The cost of the Pilot Programme to the state was estimated at €8129 per participant placed in employment—rising to €14,392 if other state benefits were included.
- The use of consortia should be continued; preferably expanded to include community development organisations and business representative groups. FÁS should have observer status within their policy-making committees, but not have full membership in consortia.
- Each consortium should have its own legal identity, separate from the sponsor organisations. Projects should be based in central, independent locations—perhaps using the premises of existing mainstream employment service providers.
- More detailed guidelines for the programme need to be developed by FÁS.
- Projects should be open to all people with disability in their catchment area; further data are needed to identify that population. Participants should not be limited to service users of the consortia member organisations.
- FÁS and some of the service organisations implementing the Pilot Programme have differing interpretations of ‘supported employment’. Several of the disability organisations had already developed internal supported employment programmes with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, whereas ‘the FÁS Pilot Programme is an active labour market initiative … explicitly targeting people with a disability who are able to work for 15 hours per week.’
- Improved systems within FÁS are needed for better information flows and for feedback to project consortia.
- FAS staff require additional training in disability awareness and in the aims and objectives of supported employment.
- Additional resources are needed for promotion and awareness-raising among employers of other related FÁS supports, and for disability awareness training. Consideration should be given to developing a ‘common branding identity strategy and standard for supported projects’.
- The Irish Association of Supported Employment (IASE) should be encouraged to take a more active role in the promotion of supported employment.
- Certified training should be provided for project coordinators and job coaches, with opportunities for further development.
- Improved assessment is needed of participants’ job-readiness and work-preparation skills.
- There should be discussions with the Department of Health and Children for the provision of a supported employment service for people with a disability having higher support needs.
- Issues of ‘double-funding’ should also be considered—where participants are in receipt of other state benefits.
The issues discussed in the Evaluation Report, and the consultants’ recommendations, raise many complex questions for this author.
If consortia are separate ‘legal entitles’, in a time-limited programme, how can job coaches and programme administrators—no longer employed by sponsoring organisation/s—have any job security (pension entitlements, etc.)?
Will the Programme budget be increased to cover the considerable contributions made by sponsor organisations during the Pilot Programme—in human resources, multidisciplinary support for participants and staff, transport costs, accounting services, premises? Who will provide insurance to cover employees with disabilities in the workplace?
Can fair criteria and flexibility be developed for recipients of state benefits (DA, etc.) who enter/leave paid employment? What about their entitlement to medical cards and free travel? Is it valid to consider leisure/learning support services as ‘double-funding’ for people placed in part-time employment?
In fact, has FÁS been given an over-ambitious brief—to assist people with disabilities into the labour force, in the expectation that they will progress to full integration and productivity? Did disability organisations have unrealistic expectations when they joined the FÁS Pilot Programme, under its present guidelines? Can there be clear-cut divisions between ‘rehabilitative’ training/self-development and vocational training/employment? Will the responsible government departments cooperate to assist people with disabilities to develop their work skills at their own pace and with adaptable support?