Employment mobilisation: Unexpected stories


Kim Dearing, Cardiff University


In the UK, the employment rate for working-aged adults categorised as having a learning disability and being in receipt of social care is 5.2%. This research focused on a job club designed to support people with a learning disability access work preparation and employment support. Using ethnographic methods over one year, and grounded in a context of low employment rates, I explore the experiences of people using the job club. Informed by the theoretical construct of ‘cooling the mark out’ (Goffman 1952), ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011) and developments in CDS, I explore the concept of ‘neoliberal ableism’ and how, held within ableist standards, people are expected to be economically productive. I also consider how CDS sits alongside other disciplines – such as medical sociology – by unpacking the ways in which disability, at both an individual and societal level, enforces and/or troubles rigid categories placed upon people (e.g. abled/disabled, normal/abnormal). 

Paid work and the open labour market

People with a learning disability who are in receipt of social care, often have a precarious relationship with paid work and the open labour market. Less than 6% of working aged people within this demographic are in any form of employment (Hatton, 2017). Based on ethnographic research in a third sector organisation that supports people with a learning disability to access employment options, my research explores the impact of paid work together with the complex, persistent, and prevalent barriers to employment inclusion. In doing so, the research unpacks the nuanced and multifaceted reality of everyday life for people with learning disabilities struggling to access paid work. All job seekers attending the job club were over 25, categorised as having a learning disability, and in receipt of social care. Most people lived within residential homes, some lived in supported living schemes. 

Learning disability policy (Department of Health, 2001; 2009) focuses on employment inclusion being a path to active citizenship, while active labour market policy targets marginalised groups of people through incentivised, individualised work programmes (van Berkel et al., 2017). The policy directions here, is that work is available, if only the workless would take hold of the opportunities offered to them. Taken together with the decline in state protection, pressure is applied onto people to join the labour market (Dwyer and Wright, 2014; Patrick, 2017). Yet, not everyone will benefit from employment activation. Deeming (2013, p.558) notes, “paid work will not be appropriate in every circumstance and not all adults will benefit from being activated,” and Hunter (2019, p.3), considers paid work as “neither necessary nor desirable for everyone in society.” Thus, this holds tension for people when they are actively encouraged to explore work preparation. This neoliberal thinking and rhetoric mobilises employment expectations as possible.

Systemic disadvantage and exclusion

As a result of both historical and contemporary systematic disadvantage, people with learning disabilities have been, and continue to be, excluded from accessing the resource systems of the labour market and wages in society. For instance, employment services are often managed by ‘payment by results’ models, where practices of employment ‘creaming’ (prioritising those closest to the labour market) and ‘parking’ (stagnating those who are not) are prevalent (Whitworth, 2016). In this context, the system of labour marginalises certain groups of people (Thomas, 2007). My research suggests that this is also evident, implicitly and explicitly, within ‘specialist’ employment support services. This is enacted through a lack of focus and funding on employment support provision for individuals over the age of 25 (explicit) and prioritising attention towards helping people to become ‘job ready’ that are considered ‘disadvantaged’ (implicit) rather than having a learning disability and closer to the labour market (Tame, 2016). This is a two-fold barrier to employment inclusion for some job seekers. Consequently, people not targeted by policy are more likely to be negotiating open employment and/or at risk of work exploitation and unpaid labour. 

The masquerade of ‘work experience’

With this lack of attention, people who are furthest from waged work but want to engage with the labour market, are faced with navigating morally ambiguous practices and here, blurred lines emerge. For instance, Karen has worked for ten years at a profit-making garden centre, while Tara has worked in the kitchens of a private hotel for seventeen years. Neither of them have ever been paid for their labour. Here, prolonged work experience is masqueraded as an acceptable route to increase future employability, while their labour value is extracted to the benefit of limited companies. However, neither Tara, nor Karen, have the same work schedules as their paid counterparts and moreover, neither would be able to fulfil the range of tasks within the job descriptions of similar roles. For other job seekers, labour is rewarded through nominal, tokenistic style wages, long associated with the sheltered workshops of yesteryear, yet still rife within the learning disability community. Sophie works two days per week in a community café for £10 per month, while others work 6 hours per day for £3 or £5, with this financial gain offered to cover expenses, yet considered to be waged work by the job seekers. 

Disrupting normative notions of work

Exploring these connections theoretically offers an opportunity for medical sociology and critical disability studies (CDS) to complement each other, rather than co-exist. While medical sociology has the limitations of being normative with an overall focus on restriction and impairment (Titchkosky, 2000), it does allow for us to understand how particular interactional dynamics lead to specific social positionings. Moreover, through this lens, the existence of the Other and how it is socially constructed, privileging ability over difference (Goffman, 1963) can be explored. In contrast, CDS offers liberation and an anti-oppressive platform to challenge normalcy (Titchkosky, 2003; Goodley, 2013). Through this lens, there is the opportunity to explore how professional and bureaucratic remedial (employment) programmes can perpetuate dependency. For, there is an unquestioned acceptance that promotes an expectation for all people to be ‘normal’ economically independent citizens. By disrupting normative notions of work (Goodley and Runswick-Cole, 2016), CDS can challenge capitalist conditions of alienation. This challenge exposes the practices associated with who is and who is not fit for work, and how it is only those who are fit for work that can serve a purpose in society (Goodley, 2013). 

Calling out conversations that need rethinking

Berlant (2011), presents a continuum of an employment cycle whereby one fails to meet up with the demands of labour under late capitalism. For Berlant (2011, p.13), impossible promises are a scene of fictional desire, yet we hold onto the “mistaken desire and belief that we will reach personal fulfillment and happiness by working hard enough.” Ultimately, the object of desire is the fallacy of the “good life” (Berlant, 2011, p.13). Here, then, medical sociology exposes the scrupulous, morally hazardous practices and action that allow for people to be systematically exploited through their ‘lesser’ status of disability. Complimenting this, CDS calls out the conversations that need to be re-thought, the assumptions that require attention and, more widely, for the discourse that binds citizenship to paid labour to be reconsidered. More broadly, the intersectionality evident within my research, (sociology, disability studies, social policy, employment activation) responds to the call made by Goodley et al. (2019) to engage theoretically across disciplines, by mixing intersectionality in conversation to enhance perspectives across contemporary developments. 

Reference List

Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism. London: Duke University Press.

Deeming, C. (2013) Addressing the social determinants of subjective wellbeing: The latest challenge for social policy. Journal of Social Policy 42(3), 541-565.

Department of Health (2001) Valuing People. London: HMSO.

Department of Health (2009) Valuing People Now. London: HMSO.

Dwyer, P. & Wright, S. (2014) Universal credit, ubiquitous conditionality and its implications for social citizenship. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice. 22(1), 27-35.

Goffman, E. (1952) On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaption to Failure. The University of Chicago.

Goffman, R. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoilt Identity. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Goodley, D. (2013) Dis/entangling critical disability studies. Disability & Society, 28(5), 631-644.

Goodley, D., Lawthom, R., Liddiard, K. & Runswick-Cole, K. (2019) Provocations for Critical Disability Studies. Disability & Society, 34(6), 972-997.

Goodley, D. & Runswick-Cole (2016) Becoming dishuman: thinking about the human through dis/ability. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. 37(1), 1453-1469.

Hatton, C. (2017) Employment statistics – quick update. In: Chris Hatton Blogspot. 2 November 2017 [Accessed 12 August 2018]. Available from: https://chrishatton.blogspot.com/2017/11/employment-statistics-quick-update.html

Hunter, J. (2019) Plans that Work. Manchester: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Patrick, R. (2017) Wither social citizenship? Lived experiences of citizenship in/exclusion for recipients of out-of-work benefits. Social Policy & Society 16(2), 293-304.

Tame, J, (2016) An Evaluation of SHIEC. University of Kent: Tizard Centre.

Thomas, C. (2007) Sociologies of Disability and Illness: Contested Ideas in Disability Studies and Medical Sociology. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Titchkosky, T. (2000) Disability studies: The old and the new. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 25(2), 197-224.

Titchkosky, T. (2003) Governing embodiment: Technologies of constituting citizens with disabilities. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 28(4), 517-542.

Van Berkel, R., Caswell, D., Kupka, P. & Larsen, F. (2017) Frontline Delivery of Welfare-to-Work Policies in Europe: Activating the Unemployment. Oxon: Routledge.

Whitworth, A. (2016) Neoliberal paternalism and paradoxical subjects: Confusion and contradiction in UK activation policy. Critical Social Policy 36(3), 412-431.

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