There are about 1.5 million people in the UK with a learning disability, and I am one of them. And for many, having a learning disability means your human rights are ignored. Employment is a good example.
It's shocking, that in this so-called age of equality more than 80% of people with a learning disability are out of work because of ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. Only 17% of people with a learning disability are in paid work. This compares to 49% of all disabled people, and 74% for the working age population as a whole. But this isn't a new stat. It's a figure that has been around for many years, and not surprisingly has been growing since the recession. The reality of employment discrimination for people with a learning disability means that more than 800,000 people are receiving benefits who could and want to support themselves.
I'm one of the lucky few. Having a job gives me a purpose. It means that I am independent and able to support myself. Through work I have met lots of new people and grown in confidence. Employment is not something that should be denied to people because of social ignorance.
Tomorrow the government is publishing a new employment strategy that sets out some tough, but important, targets on employment for people with a learning disability. Getting these people into employment isn't impossible. Given the opportunity to prove themselves, most people with a learning disability, like me, can be reliable and effective employees. They can perform as well as non-disabled people if they are given the right support. Companies like the Co-operative and Royal Mail have been employing people with learning disabilities for years – working with the charity Mencap to adopt a creative and accessible approach to recruitment. So what's the problem?
Lack of understanding about what a person with a learning disability can and cannot do means that employment opportunities for someone with such a disability are limited. There's a small number of schemes that help people with a disability apply for jobs. But again the lack of understanding about learning disability means that all too often people with a learning disability are left at the bottom of the pile. Hopefully the new strategy will address this.
It could be said that society has only recently recognised that having a disability does not mean you are unable to do a job. The Disability Discrimination Act (2005) was a major step forward. Its aim is to ensure that disabled people get a fair chance at being considered for a job and that 'reasonable adjustments' are made for disabled people in the workplace. 'Reasonable adjustments' can be anything from flexible work times to tailored training programmes and specialist support services.
The equality bill, expected to come into force in 2010, will bring together all discrimination legislation and has been designed to protect people with a disability more against discrimination. But people with a learning disability will only be given a fair chance if the government starts to measure progress by category of disability to make sure that no one is left behind. Although the government has suggested the new bill will put more responsibility on public authorities to measure what types of disability people have that are getting into work, they have not confirmed whether this will be monitored by category of disability. Without this, people with a learning disability will stay at the bottom of the job pile, and will continue to be some of the most discriminated against people in society.
• Ismail Kaji works for Mencap
The Guardian, 23rd June 2009