Showing that co-working really can work

The latest in our series of blogs from the NHS Learning Disability Employment Programme highlights one of the models for employing people with learning disabilities – the co-worker employment model:

The NHS England Learning Disability Engagement team is based in the Leeds office at Quarry House and is founded on the principle of co-working.

The new team comprises six people: a Public Engagement Manager, four Learning Disability Network Managers, working in the co-worker model, and a Business Support Assistant.

The co-worker model refers to a system of working where a person with a learning disability works together, and job shares, with a colleague who does not have a learning disability. The idea is that both individuals are working concurrently and cooperatively on the same assignment or project.

The goal of this co-working model is for individuals with learning disabilities to be employed and able to co-lead on all projects alongside their colleagues who do not have a learning disability. Most importantly, it means that within a team the members are able to draw from each other’s skills, strengths, and experiences. In practice this means that the co-workers with a learning disability tend to have a more visible role and those who don’t, tend to do less public work.

The co-worker model avoids focusing on anyone’s disability, choosing instead to highlight abilities and encourage continuous learning. The model enables individuals with a learning disability to be employed and paid salaries that do not make them feel any less valued than the people the work alongside in similar roles. However, agreeing the Agenda for Change pay band (Band 6) took a lot of discussion.

Early learning from developing the co-working model in NHS England is the need to be flexible about recruitment and selection processes. For example, a written application form is unlikely to be the best way for somebody with a learning disability to showcase their skills and the skills needed for the role. Testing more relevant skills, perhaps through group work, would be a more sensible selection approach.

We are adapting the mandatory and statutory training, to make that more meaningful for participants with a learning disability.

How you work as a team also needs consideration; for example, we spend a lot of time planning our work, with weekly team meetings and frequent one-to-ones. Co-workers meet regularly during the day to split up tasks and check progress, to help each other reach their goals. We work hard to make sure meetings work for everyone, to make sure everyone contributes and stays involved, checking everyone understands and using simple language and not jargon!

Some resources we have developed, that others might find useful, include a simple form for line management meetings and communication cards in fetching red, yellow and green, to use in meetings to promote discussions in plain English.

We’re also experimenting with planning software to help translate team work plans into individual ‘to do lists’.

Some things in the organisation are not as accessible as we’d like (e.g. complex IT systems, reliance on email, the need to travel to meetings), so we are currently applying to Access to Work for a Support Worker to join the team. We hope this will support more independence between the co-workers, as sometimes the boundary between co-worker and support worker can get a bit blurred.

It is hoped that co-working will also raise awareness, starting within NHS England, of the benefits of working closely with people with a learning disability and the need to make information and services more accessible for everyone.

It is great to be able to work in such an inclusive way, modelling the way we would like the system to change for people with a learning disability.

  • If you have any questions about the NHS Learning Disability Employment Programme, or the resources mentioned in this blog, you can get in contact by emailing
  • For more information on the co-worker model, as well as the other employment models available to employers have a look at the “identifying real jobs” section of the Learning Disability Employment Programme’s Tools and Guidance.
Jo Whaley

Jo Whaley (she, her, they) is the Senior Public Engagement Manager for Learning Disability and Autism in NHS England and Improvement.

She leads the Learning Disability and Autism Engagement team, in the Public Participation team. They work closely with the Learning Disability and Autism programme. The team aims to support the health system listen to, and work with, people with a learning disability and autistic people in order to reduce health inequalities. Find out more about the work of the Learning Disability and Autism Engagement team:

Until 2015, Jo worked in the voluntary and community sector, linking policy makers and commissioners with charities in health and social care. She is also a trustee at Skills for People in Newcastle. Jo is passionate about equality and diversity and her career focuses on health equality.