Employers can’t turn their backs on people with learning disabilities

As part of the series of blogs on the NHS England website to mark Learning Disability Week, Lela Kogbara, Director of the newly-established Learning Disabilities Employment Programme at NHS England, talks about her experience of supporting people into employment in Islington, and what she hopes to achieve nationally in her new role.

It was in the summer of 2012 that I was “called upon” to do something about the ridiculously low number of people with learning disabilities in Islington who had a paid job. Helen Kent, Director of Health and Social Care at Islington College, came to see me and what I heard from her was one simple message – this is a human rights issue.

She talked about the fact that she had students that had been at the college for years doing various courses to learn vocational skills, which in theory was preparing them for work. But for the majority no paid work ever materialised. If they were lucky, they might get a bit of volunteering. I guess we all have moments when we know that we can’t turn our backs. This was one of those moments for me.

I was no learning disability expert, but I decided not to let that stop me. So I started chairing the Islington Learning Disability Partnership employment sub-group in September 2012. Since then we have set targets to get 20 people into work every year.

We had no dedicated budget and so had to carve out what resource we could, which was 50 percent of an employer engagement officer to persuade various businesses to redesign their jobs, recruitment processes and working practices, and an employment coach based in our learning disability day centre to support people that wanted to work to access the jobs. We used Access to Work funding to provide one-to-one work coaching support for people in the first few months of starting work. And then we put in some passion and commitment!

29 people have started work, and a few more have job offers and are waiting to start. We haven’t met our targets, but when you realise that there were only 45 Islington residents with learning disabilities in paid employment when we started, it’s not bad going. I’ve learned a lot along the way. It’s not been very easy, but it’s not been that hard, either.

I was delighted to be seconded part-time to NHS England to lead employment work, which meant that I could help drive the agenda on learning disability employment. I have been inspired by some of the things that NHS organisations have done and are doing – examples which form part of the package of resources we published yesterday on the NHS Employers website. They prove that if the NHS significantly increases the number of people with learning disabilities that it employs, it won’t just benefit the people employed, but it will benefit the NHS too – helping us to deliver better care for everyone.

To achieve this ambition, NHS England has been working with NHS Employers, voluntary organisations and other partners to put together a support package, starting this week with a microsite on the NHS Employers website setting out building blocks for doing this well. NHS Employers is also going to support HR teams working in organisations large and small to make the changes they need to make.

I hope that Simon Stevens’ challenge yesterday to NHS healthcare employers to take on more people with learning disabilities will be the moment that those employers – and, indeed, others outside the NHS family – decide that, just like I couldn’t, they can’t turn their backs either.

Lela Kogbara

Lela Kogbara combines her role as Director of the NHS Learning Disability Employment Programme with being Assistant Chief Executive of Islington Council. She also undertakes voluntary leadership roles with City & Islington College, Action for Southern Africa, Bernie Grant Arts Centre, and Islington Community Theatre.

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  1. Eileen Scholes says:

    Lela- I’ve been trying to reach you in various ways. We at The Women’s Equality Party are great admirers of your work. We are still hoping to highlight you as a woman pioneer in an event this Saturday as part of the Peckham Festival. Would you contact me on

  2. Huw Davies says:

    Hello Lela – could you please contact me regarding our national conference as this is a topic that I would like a focus on? Thanks, Huw.

    • stephanie smith says:

      Hi Lela

      Could we have a chat please. Project Choice has been working with over 10 different NHs organisations to support people with LD and autism into employment. We are very keen to share our work and results.