As part of the Fraser of Allander’s programme of work looking at support and opportunities for people with learning disabilities in Scotland, we are keen to learn from people with direct experience of the issues that we cover. In this blog, Jenny Trott, Director at Mecoco, discusses how she set up a social enterprise that manufactures soy wax candles and has an inclusive workplace for disabled people.
Our son James is 18 years old. He is confident, engaging and loves the company of others. Despite James’ enthusiasm, the system would consider a positive post-school destination for him to be a day centre for adults with additional support needs, with activity classes and social groups. He has a rare genetic condition, PPP2R1A, which has led to him having a physical and learning disability, the latter of which is significant. Although day centres can be an enjoyable place to spend time, they are only for disabled people and paid staff, tend to be focussed on group activities and have an older population. Just because James is disabled doesn’t mean he only wants to spend time with other disabled people at a day centre. We feel that he, and others like him, should have more options after leaving school.
For some time, we have been determined that James should have some kind of job, even for part of his week, where he could make a meaningful contribution, meet a diverse group of people, and maintain and learn new skills. However, the education, health and social care professionals around James, indeed any other adults in his circle of support, considered the idea too aspirational, unrealistic and even a little odd.
Nationally there is a complete lack of opportunities for people with a significant physical and, or learning disability to work, whether that be paid or voluntary. Data collected for the Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities in 2019 shows that only 4% of adults with a learning disability known to local authorities are in employment, albeit with a high non-response rate. There are a few jobs for those considered to be ‘high functioning’ but for someone who can only engage for short periods, is non-verbal, who can’t read or understand numbers, whose hand function is severely limited or who needs to move around or talk constantly whilst working, most employers would consider them unemployable.
In 2015 James started volunteering every Saturday as a marshal at our local parkrun. Come rain or shine he cheers along the runners and makes sure they stick to the course. The role fits his sociable personality perfectly. Before long, the local parkrun community got to know James and in the intervening 6 years his high 5s have become legendary. The experience galvanised our belief that with the right role and support, it is possible for anyone to contribute.
I knew that for James to have any other job, I would need to create something myself. So, in April 2019 I decided to start a social enterprise with the aim of providing James and others the chance to experience work. It had to be inclusive. Not just of all disabilities but of all People, both disabled and non-disabled working together as colleagues. I didn’t want it to be a charity or to be seen as a service, but instead a working business that operated like any other company, except with a diverse team.
Mecoco started trading in September 2019. The name stands for MEaningful COntribution in your COmmunity. We make soy wax candles, wax melts, diffusers and more. The products we make, how we make them and even how we label them has been designed to be as accessible as possible. Each candle we make is the product of many people’s work; sticking the wick in the tin, mixing and pouring the wax, labelling and then dispatching. We even shred our own packaging. The shredding work and using the guillotine to cut packing slips are cherished jobs! We understood from the beginning that Mecoco’s products needed to be professional and high quality, and we pride ourselves on the items we make. Our customers come from the length and breadth of the UK and Mecoco gifts have travelled the world.
There are now 24 people in the Mecoco team as well as pupils from 2 specialist schools who attend for work experience. As well as non-disabled people the team also includes individuals with diagnoses such as autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, Fragile X syndrome and mental health difficulties. There are no entrance requirements; we will find a way for everyone to be involved. At the moment we are still reliant on some funding alongside our retail income, but our aim is to be financially independent and offer paid positions alongside our voluntary opportunities. We sell our products on our website www.mecoco.org, at events and direct to corporate customers.
Mecoco has to be about more than the 24 people on our team though. I hope that by sharing our stories we can inspire others, including parents, professionals and employers that if someone has a high level of support need it doesn’t mean that their skills and gifts can’t be useful in a work setting.
Some of these changes aren’t easy because they require a shift in the way we view work and employment. To include everyone we need employers, professionals and young people to believe they can do it, and want it. We need to be more open to seeing people’s gifts and how they can use them to contribute. We need to stop obsessing over productivity and start measuring things like wellbeing and community too; a few of our team may label 20 candles during a shift, others 60, some bring joy to our workshop which we value more than how much work they do. We need to start being flexible in workplaces; some of our team members work for a full 3 ½ hour shift, some manage 30 minutes. Some need adapted equipment. Many need more than an accessible toilet. Changing Place toilets provide equipment including a hoist and adjustable height changing bench for those who can’t weight-bear or use a toilet. Without a Changing Place we are essentially telling staff that they can’t go to the toilet or be changed whilst they are at work, something non-disabled employees would find unacceptable.
However difficult it is to change perceptions or practice, I challenge anyone to spend time with us at Mecoco and not realise how much you are missing out by not being more inclusive.
Jenny Trott, Director at Mecoco
The Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) is a leading economy research institute based in the Department of Economics at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.