Labour Market, Projects, Scottish Economy

Learning disabilities and Scotland’s labour market

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to work. It is a right that many people in Scotland will take for granted and sometimes perhaps even begrudge. However, opportunities to work are not available to all who are able and willing. Very few people with learning disabilities in Scotland are in paid work despite many being able to work and wanting to do so.

Many people living with a learning disability tell us that having a career would unlock greater choice and control over how they live their lives. Whilst volunteering opportunities are easier to find, this is not the same as having a paid job. Ensuring that more people with a learning disability can access paid work would be a step towards building a more inclusive economy and meeting the Scottish Government’s targets over closing the disability employment gap.

Available evidence shows that employment rates for people with learning disabilities have not improved over the past decade, despite record employment figures being reached for the wider population in the period before the pandemic. There are clearly barriers that need to be addressed if the economic recovery from the pandemic is to be inclusive of people with learning disabilities.

As part of our programme of work looking at how adults with learning disabilities are supported in Scotland, we held a webinar on the subject of employment opportunities. The webinar showcased success stories that might provide a blueprint for improving outcomes on a wider scale and invited discussion of how Scotland’s workplaces can be made more inclusive for people with learning disabilities.

A wide range of stakeholders were represented at the webinar, including organisations that employ people with learning disabilities. Following presentations by guest speakers, we invited attendees into smaller breakout rooms to reflect on their own experiences and consider how support for people with learning disabilities could be improved. In this article, we summarise the key themes that emerged in these discussions.

Different perspectives

Our guest speakers offered a range of different perspectives. Jordan Allan works as a Service Quality Director at Thera Scotland and shows that people with a learning disability are more than capable of taking on leadership roles. He talked about his journey from leaving school to now, and the impact that his career has had on his life outside work.

Albert Riera is Communications Director at La Fageda, a social enterprise in Spain that employs people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities. La Fageda has grown into a multimillion euro business and supports over 300 people. Albert highlighted how financial support from government has proven to be a sound investment, due to the social aims achieved at La Fageda (thus reducing government spending elsewhere) and the self-sufficiency of the business model following initial support.

Adam Churchman works at Serco, a large company that provides a range of public services on behalf of government. He spoke about the successes they have had in integrating people with learning disabilities into their workforce. Some processes and practices do need to be thought about, but the changes that need to be made are far from insurmountable. Serco have worked alongside DFN Project SEARCH and programmes like this can provide support and advice for employers to help them successfully bring more people with learning disabilities into their organisation.

A positive contribution

During the breakout room discussions, plenty of different views were offered. One point that was consistently repeated was that, with the right support in place, people with learning disabilities are more than capable of making a positive contribution in the workplace. The fact that their potential is not recognised is detrimental to the lives of the learning-disabled community and to the Scottish economy.

Those who have worked with a person with a learning disability talked not only of their ability to fulfil their responsibilities but also of their impact on the wider organisation. This includes a sense of social purpose, a diverse workforce that better reflects the customer base, and a significant positive impact on the way that non-disabled colleagues view their workplace.

Support for employers

It was noted that there is a responsibility on employers to make their workplaces more accessible and that a person with a learning disability might need intensive support, particularly at the beginning of a new job, with a buddy system for example. However, it was also discussed that employers and colleagues need support too. Many might have misplaced fears or be unaware of how to help their learning disabled colleagues reach their potential, not just in their current job, but throughout their career.

The disjointed nature of employability services was criticised, as it can make it harder for employers and employees to know what support is available. It was also noted that service provision differs widely depending on which part of Scotland you find yourself in.

The transition from school to adulthood

There was plenty of discussion around the need for the right support to be in place as a young person with a learning disability transitions out of the education system. The need for this support to be available long before the final year of school, and to continue after leaving school, was stressed as important.

Some attendees felt that employment is not considered by those that surround young people with a learning disability (eg. teachers, parents, health and social care professionals) and that this attitude lacks ambition. It was felt that many young people are “pushed” into college courses with no long term plan because further education is seen as a safe option and counts as a positive destination for schools.

On the other hand, it was noted that a narrative of “overprotective parents” can be simplistic and that parents also need support. Many are anxious about their children leaving full-time education, which is often borne out of difficult past experiences.

The idea of a work first approach to transitions was discussed, with a career being the default expectation. Some shared stories of colleagues with a learning disability discovering their talents, despite never having expected to work.

Fear of losing benefits

For many people with a learning disability and their families, a significant portion of income comes from the social security system. Some attendees felt that a fear of losing benefits is widely shared and justified. For example, there might be fear that if a person with a learning disability takes on a job and it doesn’t work out, the fact that they have had a job will mean that they are deemed able to work so support they once received won’t be available. This is even if the experience has shown them that work is not a feasible option for them in the future, for example, due to the impact on their health.

It was hoped the new Scottish Social Security Agency can consider this in the newly devolved carer and disability benefits, and ensure people with learning disabilities and their families aren’t penalised for trying out employment opportunities and good advice is readily available to allay any unsubstantiated fears.


This article provides a flavour of what was discussed at our recent webinar, where a range of views were presented by a variety of stakeholders. It was encouraging to observe positive discussions and a high level of engagement shows that this issue matters to many people. You can read the Fraser of Allander’s recent report on the employment landscape for people with learning disabilities here and we will be producing more analysis over the coming months.


Knowledge Exchange Associate at the Fraser of Allander Institute

Emma Congreve is a Senior Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Deputy Director at the Fraser of Allander Institute. Emma's work at the Institute is focussed on policy analysis, covering a wide range of areas of social and economic policy.  Emma is an experienced economist and has previously held roles as a senior economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and as an economic adviser within the Scottish Government.