I’m very lucky. I have a great job. As chief executive of the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD), I work with a brilliant team and some terrrific organisations. I’m privileged to work close to the heart of government, influencing legislation and policy. Most importantly, in all of this, I get to work alongside people with learning disabilities themselves to find new and better ways of improving their lives.
But unlike me, more than 90% of people with learning disabilities in Scotland are not so lucky. They don’t have a great job. In fact, they don’t have a job at all. And it was with that, amongst other things, in mind, that I attended the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) 2018 Forum on Friday at Edinburgh’s Sheraton Hotel. The title of the Forum was Scotland’s Economic Future: A Brighter 2030. Hold that thought for a moment.
In two week’s time I’m due back at the Sheraton for another occasion, organised this time by SCLD, the second annual Scottish Learning Disability Awards. Yesterday I signed off the video footage for our awards which span seven categories including Enterprise, Skills and Learning and Support in Work. I can’t give anything away about the finalists obviously. But one thing I can say is that there is a common theme threaded through each of their remarkable stories.
The clear message in each story is this. People with learning disabilities want to make a contribution. And my goodness the videos leave you in no doubt that, despite the odds, they are already doing that; in spades. Judge for yourself when they are put up on our website on the evening of May 18th. Or if you can’t wait, look back at last year’s winners on our website now. Amongst those, you’ll find the story of Ross Johnstone.
Ross is a young man with a learning disability who works at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie. He’s been there for two years, working as a medical laboratory assistant. That Ross is good at his job and loves it shines through. And just as important is the message in the video about the difference having a job has made to his life. He was more confident, in a relationship and about to move into his own place.
I saw Ross on Monday at a congress on the employment of disabled people organised by the Scottish Government. He was there to tell his story again. And he was beaming, just as he had been on the night he picked up his award. It was great to see him. But not for the first time, it was a reminder to me that instead of living in a hospital, Ross is working in one, doing a skilled and valuable job.
Less than a generation ago we sent people with learning disabilities to live in huge, long-stay hospitals, hidden from public gaze. We are still counting the cost of that practice. We didn’t think they could make a contribution to society, let alone go out to work. And as the first generation of people with learning disabilities born since the last of those hospitals closed comes of age, we have a responsibility to make sure that if they want to work, they can. Or that they are able to make a contribution in another way — that they choose.
There may be a cost attached to getting someone with a learning disability into work such as paying for a job coach. But what’s the opportunity cost? What if Ross hadn’t had the chance to get the job he is so proud of. We call the help given to people like Ross supported employment. But isn’t all employment supported in some way or another? What is the training and development we all expect to receive if it isn’t support?
And so back to the SCDI Forum and that brighter 2030. It was a fascinating day with a wide range of speakers including the irrepressible, Darren McGarvey, to round things off just in case we were getting ahead of ourselves. What Darren did, more than any other speaker — and there were some very good ones — was remind us of the cost of failing to make it possible for people to contribute in the way that so many of us take for granted. Instead, all too often, we are left counting the cost of exclusion.
And yet, perversely, as another speaker reminded us, as that cost gets greater, we seem to think we can invest less in fixing the problem. And by we, I’m not having a pop at anyone in particular. The choice we make to invest, or not, is in all of our hands — it’s easy to point at government but we elect them and we have agency too. When you go out for a meal on a Friday night, you get what you pay for. Social investment is no different.
When we stopped sending people like Ross to a hospital to live, we celebrated the fact that they were now able to live in the community. That’s a good thing. But does it mean that they can live a good life, including working if they want to? The truth is that for people with learning disabilities, and many others, we are still more likely to count the cost of care than focus on the opportunity — and the saving — created by unleashing potential.
And it isn’t just about work. It’s about providing people with opportunities in so many other ways. When SCLD spoke to people with learning disabilities about building a new social security agency in Scotland, they reminded us in no uncertain terms that they don’t want benefits just to exist. They want social security to enable them to make a contribution because, for them, that’s fundamental to living a good life.
Making a contribution shouldn’t be a privilege — or a matter of luck. It should be a right. 2030 can be brighter. But if we want it to be brighter for everyone, we’ve got some work to do.