As politicians continue to debate about the rights and wrongs of Welfare Minister, Lord Freud’s comments made at autumn conference, we are in danger of missing the people at the heart of this political storm.

The simple truth is that a large majority of people with complex disabilities want to work and receive a legal wage for their efforts.  For many disabled people the term "work" covers different options, including volunteering, work placements and work experience, all with the hope of leading to the ultimate aim of a paid position.  Work opportunities are slowly improving for some people with disabilities, but there is still a mountain of hurdles that many have to climb in order to achieve the goal of a paid position.  And these hurdles will remain in place if politicians continue to focus on what happened at conference, rather than on the bigger issue of improving employment opportunities for disabled people.

Here at United Response, we focus on building our employment support around people’s individual needs.  We aim to support people into jobs that match their skills in order to create successful outcomes for both employee and employer, as well as providing people with help to navigate a complex system of assessments and eligibility criteria.

Sarah is 21 and lives in the Manchester area. She left college last summer and was put in contact with a Job Coach from our Trafford Supported Employment Service.  Sarah’s Job Coach helped her to develop a work profile to identify her skills and interests which fed into creating a CV.  The work profile identified that Sarah had a strong interest in fashion and would need a role that focused on her practical skills, due to her very limited reading and writing skills. With her CV prepared, Sarah and her Job Coach set about targeting local shopping areas to ask if any local businesses had any vacancies.  A lot of businesses had no vacancies but the owner of a new small hairdressing salon thought she may have a suitable role.  The salon owner, Michelle, met Sarah and her Job Coach.  Michelle could see that Sarah had suitable skills on paper and agreed to a two-hour work trial in the salon as a hairdresser’s assistant.

During the trial, Sarah greeted customers, made drinks, sorted hair products and cleaned the salon.  Michelle was impressed and offered her a paid role of hairdresser’s assistant for a few hours a week.

Once Sarah started her new job, she was initially supported by her Job Coach, which helped her learn the job role and get used to the responsibilities that come with working, including traveling to and from work.

Sarah’s Job Coach said, "Michelle, Sarah and I worked together to help Sarah understand the importance of work and that she had to work hard while she was at the salon.  It took a few weeks of support but now Sarah goes to work without me and gets on with her job. She’s really learnt to use her own initiative. I went in recently and it was amazing to see the bond between Michelle and Sarah.  They have work place banter and they really work as a team."

Sarah’s Job Coach created a set of picture cards to keep on the wall at the salon.  Sarah has Down’s syndrome which means she is a visual learner, so the pictures cards act as visual cues for tasks that she needs to complete.  By creating the picture cards rather than a written list, Sarah can see what her work goals are and she can tick them off as they are completed.  This is known as "making a reasonable adjustment".  This small change support Sarah in her job and provide Michelle with an easy tool, allowing Sarah to work well in a busy salon.

Salon owner Michelle said: "Sarah is great to work with. She’s very reliable and she has really come out of her shell since she’s been here. I see her talking to customers more and she’s just helping out more and more.

"Working with Sarah has also been a real boost for me as I know that I’m giving her a chance to do something she wants to do. I’ve also learnt a lot about people who are disabled from just being round Sarah. People might think that disabled people are different, but I’ve learnt that Sarah is just like everyone else."

Sarah’s employer summed it up well. People with learning disabilities are just like everyone else and want the same things - to earn a living and be part of the working world. The issue that needs to be on the political agenda is how we can make that happen for more people.

We will leave the final word to Sarah who, when asked what she likes about her job, said:

"I like talking to customers and doing jobs. I really liked it at Christmas because it was very busy. I like getting my wages and I love working with Michelle. My job makes me very happy."

Find out more about our supported employment programmes

Xanthe Breen, senior press officer