Conservative health minister Lord Freud put the cat amongst the pigeons when he said that disabled people are ‘not worth’ the national minimum wage and some should only be paid £2 per hour.
This is a complex issue that can’t be dealt with in media sound bites – and many of those debating the rights and wrongs of Lord Freud’s comments seem to be missing a key point.
By Beverley Breen
In my role as programme manager for Wirral Autistic Society’s ‘Step Into Work Plus’ scheme, I find work placement opportunities for the amazing group of young people with Aspergers syndrome(AS) who are my students. My experience with this group has shown, time and again, that it is not the money that’s the key driver, it’s the fulfilment that comes from gaining a meaningful role – and that could mean a paid role or a voluntary one.
Ralph Smith’s story illustrates this. Ralph has AS and when I first met him he was extremely withdrawn and easily stressed. He also struggled with handwriting although he had good computer skills. We sent Ralph off for a work placement, on a voluntary basis, with a charity called Home Start. His job was to catalogue second hand books, to photograph them and then to sell them on Ebay. The role required precision and organisation but there was no time pressure and the employer understood that Ralph may need time out to de-stress during the day.
Six weeks later Ralph and his mum came to see me. Ralph was a different person. He had shorter hair and was clean shaven. His clothes were tidy and his complexion had improved. Best of all, he looked straight at me. I asked him to type a report about his work placement. He wrote a fabulous piece. His language and style was a revelation. It was like a light had been switched on. Ralph still volunteers with Home Start today.
When I send students off on their work placements, the last thing on my mind is money. I tell students to keep in touch with their manager – no-one is a mind reader and if they know what is going on, they can give you better support. I tell them that all experience is worthwhile, good or bad and that they shouldn’t expect to be promoted to chairman of the board in an afternoon – everyone has to start small.
I brief employers too, as many of them have no prior experience of working with people with autism. The simple rules are to give consistent support to their student, to break down instructions into small components, to colour code written instructions and to allow two minute breaks as required.
Employers in any doubt of the difference they can make to a young person’s life – and on how much someone with AS could contribute to their business – should spend five minutes with Chris Birss. Chris loved cinema but had no idea how to find employment in that environment. He was beautifully polite when we first met – although very quiet – and his easy courtesy made him a natural for a job in customer services.
Chris was trusted with a front-of-house role at a local cinema as a temporary placement. He sold tickets in the box office and worked behind the food counter. Over the weeks, Chris blossomed. He clearly enjoyed his role and felt safe and well supported. He became a chatty, jokey person and a valued team member – his employers are incredibly proud of his achievements. Chris did so well that he has since been offered a permanent, paid role.
The young adults I work with have many talents – it is just a question of matching the person to the role. The last thing I should be doing is obsessing about their rate of pay – I should be thinking instead about the value of lives lived to the full.