#LDWeek2020 - @DFNSearch CEO Claire Cookson believes the number of young people undertaking key worker roles can act as a springboard for long-term change and more fairness and equality in society 

Transition to employment charity, DFN Project SEARCH, is supporting this year’s Learning Disability Week by recognising the impact its interns and employees are making during the pandemic.

Since going into lockdown in March businesses across the UK have completely changed the way they work demonstrating that like DFN Project SEARCH, people and organisations have the ability to change and overcome barriers that were once thought impossible, to drive cultural change in the workforce.

DFN Project SEARCH is a transition to work programme for students with learning disabilities and autism. Its pioneering programme provides training at its very best, facilitating total workplace immersion with a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on skills training and acquisition.

When lockdown was implemented by the UK Government DFN Project SEARCH worked swiftly with all partners to ensure that programme interns were not left at home losing the skills they worked so hard to gain.

DFN Project SEARCH interns were given support and training from partners and job coaches so they could continue to feel connected to the programme and job coaches and remain employment focused.

Together with colleagues at NSEF DFN Project SEARCH also launched the Finding Your Future campaign, a YouTube content channel designed to keep supported interns inspired and focused on employment outcomes, helping interns feel more connected than ever before.

An impressive number of DFN Project SEARCH interns have secured key worker roles during the crisis, rising to the challenge of frontline roles and doing amazing work in vital industries from healthcare to logistics.

Due to the high demand for key workers, 32 DFN Project SEARCH interns have found full-time paid employment with NHS partners during the Pandemic.

Two further interns have been employed by Public Health England, and another three interns have been offered roles in supermarkets and food service to meet the growing need for support at this time.

Claire Cookson, CEO DFN Project SEARCH said:

“Learning disability week is a great time to reflect on what has been accomplished so far during lockdown and the progress being made to support young people with learning disabilities and autism across the country.

“After being forced to work from home during lockdown, we’ve seen businesses overcome barriers we didn’t even think were possible.

“People say they have never felt more connected since we’ve worked from home and this has helped our interns maintain momentum and stay on the pathway to employability.

“It’s amazing to see how resilient our interns have been, and it just goes to show that as a country we are more than capable of changing how we work and making reasonable adjustments to become a more inclusive society.

“I truly feel this represents a springboard for long-term change and more fairness and equality in society. Society has been given this opportunity to better understand the skills that people with learning disabilities bring, the importance of community cohesion and the importance of shared social values” she added.

DFN Project SEARCH has 69 internationally recognised programmes across the UK, Ireland and Iberia, and has supported over 1300 interns into work. Nationally 5.9 per cent of people with learning disabilities and autism are in paid employment, yet 75% of interns secure jobs with a staggering 60 per cent of its graduates obtaining full-time, competitive, integrated paid employment.

NHS Frontline Key Worker case study

In the most challenging of circumstances, frontline services such as hospitals and supermarkets have been recruiting people to support them in the fight against the coronavirus.

Amongst those new paid employees have been 35 young people who applied for jobs and were successful because of the valuable skills they had developed whilst on the DFN Project SEARCH programme.

The aim of DFN Project SEARCH is to foster and develop the skills of students with learning disabilities and autism and provide them with a pathway to integrated competitive employment.

Based in a host business, interns receive hands on experience in a real work setting. They obtain 800 hours of skills acquisition over an academic year across three job rotations with continual training and feedback.

DFN Project SEARCH works in partnership with 40 hospitals in the UK who embrace the prestigious role of being our host employer as part of their commitment to the learning disability employment pledge.

This means that many of the interns are in a unique position and have been totally immersed in the hospital environment and trained in vital roles such as portering, facilities management, data collection and lab work.

To date, 32 of our talented interns have applied for and secured jobs in six hospitals in England, five in Scotland and one in Wales. They have moved into key roles in portering, waste management, catering, facilities management, domestic services, laundry and in the laboratory.

In addition to the 32 NHS employed interns, a further three interns have been offered roles in supermarkets and food service to meet the growing need for key workers in these areas too. 

Emma Price, a mother who was recently interviewed about her son Bobby’s role with a London NHS hospital said:

“My son is such an inspiration to me, he’s so motivated to get up every day and he’s always got such a positive mind-set, he doesn’t even like having to take a day off because he loves his job so much. He always says to me - I work for the NHS and the NHS needs me, and I just that find it so inspiring. It just makes me so proud to see him in his scrubs working at the hospital and doing his part for the NHS, young people like Bobby are making such an amazing impact.”

Emma discussed her son’s journey into employment and highlighted how the support he received along the way has been truly transformational.

She added: “I’m so proud of him because Bobby’s journey hasn’t been the easiest, but Bobby has always had a clear idea of what he wanted, and that was to get a job and go to work. Without DFN Project SEARCH and the support he got along the way, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Because all he’s ever wanted is to work for the NHS, and now it’s all come true for him.”

Another key worker that was hired through the DFN Project SEARCH programme is Ekene, a laundry technician employed by medical device supplier Arjo. During his hospital rotations, Ekene demonstrated an excellent ability to follow instructions and now works 25 hours a week at Charing Cross Hospital in London.

Camila Majica-Braesyde, Work Experience Project Manager and  Project SEARCH Business liaison at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said:

“Ekene continually delivers a high, quality standard of work and continues to carry out this great work through the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Since becoming a laundry technician, Ekene has not only developed his practical skills, but his social skills have blossomed. He has grown in confidence to such a degree that he was one of the first people to meet Minister Michelle Donelan during her visit to the Charing Cross Hospital programme earlier this year, and has since continued to challenge stereotypes around employing people with disabilities by providing an outstanding service and supporting NHS workers on the frontline.

Support from dedicated skilled workers are needed now more than ever, young people with learning disabilities and autism are not only skilled workers, they are key workers, and a talent pool that more businesses could be benefiting from.

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