Labour Market

Transitions from school to paid employment for adults with learning disabilities: a parent’s perspective

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 living with a learning disability and those who support them. In this blog, we hear from the parents of Andrew with their reflections about what support they feel would have helped the transition from school to paid employment.

Our son Andrew is 33.  He has Downs Syndrome.  He was very ill as a baby and had two open heart operations.  He was lucky to go to a mainstream nursery, primary and, at his insistence, secondary.  This was not an easy path for him, but, academically it paid off.  At secondary social life became a challenge as his teenager peers had very different interests.  However he persevered and came out at 16 with three standard grades.  We are eternally grateful to the learning support department in high school who expected a lot from him and taught him so much. 

He moved from school to college where he spent  six years on courses intended to prepare him for work.   This was a mixed success.  The classroom work was challenging but he managed.  Socialising was a little easier but his lack of street knowledge was a hindrance. Work placements were a huge let down.  He got on incredibly well in the mail room of a big mortgage centre but no paid work was forthcoming.   One piece of feedback was enlightening.  We were told that Andrew had learned three jobs perfectly and did them exactly as needed.  However they could only employ someone who could cope with twelve jobs and move quickly from one to another.  He would never achieve that.  It was so disappointing that a job could not be drawn around him. 

We were put in touch with Capability Works in Paisley.  They arranged work  placements for him with a large theatre and a large bank.    Again he received very glowing reports.  He was told they would like to employ him but there was no money.  

At this point Andrew became despondent.  We knew he needed to belong to a team and to have some consistency in his week.  So reluctantly we found him a position as a volunteer with Capability Scotland. He stuck with this for seven years until lockdown brought it to an end. 

Since he was 12 Andrew has been training and competing as a gymnast.  He has always insisted that he wanted to be an assistant gymnastics coach.  We were very unsure if this was even a possibility.  We did not want him to try and fail. 

However he was determined.  He has volunteered as a coach with a recreational class for disabled gymnasts for sixteen years.  He doggedly pursued the right courses and eventually gained his qualification.   The next step was to get a paid position. 

Here the disability discrimination act was on his side as he was entitled to an interview. He applied to the City of Glasgow Sport section (Glasgow Life) and  was interviewed.  His application was unsuccessful.  He had declined to have a supporter with him at the interview.  Although he was able to do the job of supporting gymnasts he was not so good at telling others that!     However his interviewer gave him the chance to shadow a coach for six weeks.  This was life changing.  The coach he was with could see he was capable of the job and went with him to an interview when another job came up.  She was able to sing his praises and he got a job coaching children aged 5-12.   Four and a half hours a week.   Not enough to live independently but enough to give him pride and self worth.  I will never forget his smile when he opened his first pay slip!  Pure unadulterated joy. 

So his determination, in spite of his doubting parents,  eventually paid off.

As parents we found the system in Scotland which purports to support  the learning disabled, to be fragmented, short term, unfocused and with no clear national aims or expectations.   It is just chance if a project is functioning in your area and if that project has made sufficient positive contacts for anything useful to happen.    Information is woefully inadequate.

What would help?  We can only speak for our son.   He would have benefited from a system structured like Project SEARCH, a transition to work programme for young adults with learning disabilities and autistic people, run in many countries, with the aim of achieving competitive employment for participants. If he had gone straight from school into a working environment with on the job support and education we are sure he would have flourished.  Learning in a classroom is one thing but transferring that learning into the real world is something else entirely.   For Andrew a near impossibility.  The Project SEARCH model would benefit all.  Not just the learning disabled. But all employees. 

Our system is too fragmented. It’s the luck of the draw if you encounter a project or a ‘good fairy’.  Support into employment appears to be run by a myriad of short term grant funded ‘projects’. 

We need to install long term funding with national consistency.

We need a set of national aims set by policy makers.  

Support needs to meet people where they are and should not be the result of parental pressure.  Not all families would have the time to support their loved one as we have been able to.  For many years it was my full time unpaid job!  

Employers must be expected to employ people with learning disabilities.  Incentives and support must be consistently available. 

These aims are not only crucial for the community of people with a learning disability.  They are crucial for our society if we claim to be a fair and inclusive country. 


If you would like to share your experiences and perspectives to help inform our programme of work, please get in touch:

 We will look in more detail at employment for adults with learning disabilities later in our research programme, including schemes such as Project SEARCH. In the meantime, for more information on Project SEARCH see here: The University of Strathclyde is part of the programme with more details available here:



The Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) is a leading economy research institute based in the Department of Economics at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.