How H&M and WorkFit helped my daughter who has Down syndrome gain purposeful, paid experience of work

In 2022, statistics were published by The British Association of Supported Employment (BASE) showing that only 5.1% of people with learning disabilities known to social services are in any form of paid work, but it is known that 65% of people with learning disabilities want to work.

One of the key ambitions of the current SEND reforms is to get more young people with Special Educational Needs & Disabilities into employment. They state:

We know that with the right preparation and support, the overwhelming majority of young people with SEND are capable of sustained, paid employment. Throughout the consultation, we heard repeatedly that children, young people and their families want to be confident that their education is preparing them for work, and that the people working with them share those high ambitions. They want to know what options and pathways are available to them, and what support and adjustments can help them succeed.

SEND Improvement Plan, Department for Education

This is a laudable aim, especially given that most people with learning disabilities want to work. The way this is proposed is to reform post-16 Level 2 and below qualifications to ‘deliver an improved landscape for students’, to develop a set of National Standards for Personal, Social and Employability Skills Qualifications, to improve careers guidance, to pilot an ‘Adjustments Passport’ and to invest £18 million over 3 years to build capacity in the Supported Internships Programme. This investment should lead to 4500 young adults, aged 16-25 with additional needs, to benefit from a supported internship per year by 2025 (it should be noted that in 2022 there were approximately 133,000 EHCPs held by 16-25-year-olds so this is a drop in the ocean).

What’s being done to encourage employers to create opportunities?

All of this is focused on the young person, but what I cannot really see – apart from maybe the Supported Internships programme – is work being undertaken with the public or employers to recognise the value of employing disabled young people in their workplace. Neither is there much to support them in considering how they could carve out roles for such young people as an integral part of their workforce planning.

When my son, who has no additional needs turned 16, I encouraged him to go out and get a weekend job. This was important for him to learn about the value of hard work, to develop useful skills and experience, such as time management and teamwork, and to start to be more financially independent. However, when my daughter, Tanzie, who has Down syndrome, turned 16, I didn’t push her to apply for local jobs, assuming in a competitive marketplace, nobody would choose to employ her over the other local teenagers seeking part-time work.

During the past two years, I have tentatively reached out to some local companies to see whether they might be able to offer her some work experience, even if volunteering, but on every occasion, there was outright rejection, mostly without even meeting her. Also, despite her college stating that their course included work experience, for the last two academic years she has not accessed any at all. They suggest staffing issues mean they cannot offer it. This means Tanzie has been unable to develop the skills and experience in real-life environments that would definitely be useful to her when she’s ready for employment post-education. She’s also missed the opportunity to become more financially independent.

A chance for an exciting work opportunity…

That was, until a chance conversation with the Down’s Syndrome Association. I already knew of their trailblazing WorkFit programme, having followed them on social media as they shared photos of young people who have Down syndrome securing employment with a range of employers, including Greggs, Dunelm, Hilton Hotels, The Cornish Seal Sanctuary and more. – but I had never considered that they could help me find a role for my daughter alongside her studies. Yet they rose to the challenge…

Tanzie outside her work at H&M

After meeting a WorkFit Officer to establish what Tanzie’s skills and interests are, a role was found at fashion store, H&M (my daughter’s favourite clothes shop!). She started her weekend job there two weeks ago and she is being paid, as any other weekend worker would be.

The store team, having received training and support from the DSA, have been amazingly supportive and welcoming of her. So far, Tanzie has worked in the stockroom, looked after the accessories department and she has been helping on the tills. Last week when I went in to collect her after her shift, I saw her as an integral team member working on the tills, greeting customers and helping process their transactions. I couldn’t help but buy something to let her serve me, Tanzie’s beautiful smile lighting up the shop as she did. Thank you H&M!

What is WorkFit?

Since 2012, the Down’s Syndrome Association’s WorkFit programme has supported employers in creating more than 1000 work opportunities for people who have Down syndrome. The retention rate is amazing too, with over 92% of candidates remaining in the workforce. WorkFit is based on the simple premise that if employers are given appropriate information, training and continued support, sustained employment can be achieved for people who have Down’s syndrome.

Of course, I’m delighted my daughter has this opportunity to have meaningful experience of a paid role alongside her studies. She’ll gain skills and experience that she can put on her CV and hopefully, H&M will give her a glowing reference. She is growing in confidence week by week and soon we’ll be supporting her to develop confidence in travelling to work independently.

WorkFit’s benefits

The benefits of WorkFit extend far beyond the young people gaining paid experience. It gives prospective employers support and confidence to take on disabled young people in meaningful roles that allow them to show off what they can do. It also enables customers to see that many disabled young people can work, want to work, and can do so competently. Meanwhile, team colleagues become familiar with working alongside learning-disabled people and, should they take on future management roles, they’ll have the confidence to employ others like my daughter. There is no downside.

I am incredibly grateful to the Down’s Syndrome Association and WorkFit for their work with employers, supporting people who have DS into worthwhile work. However, I don’t think it should be left to charities to have to fundraise to do it. This should be an essential part of the Government’s strategy to support disabled young people into employment.

The focus shouldn’t just be on giving young people a course to attend to learn skills in the abstract, with no real chance to put them to practice. Adjustment Passports are good, but just as vital is helping more employers in more industries become confident and equipped to employ many future disabled young people into purposeful, fulfilling, paid work

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Sharon Smith

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