The potential gap in identifying apprentice learners with disabilities and learning difficulties

According to a recent government survey, 19% of working age adults declare themselves to have a disability or learning difficulty. While only 10.3% of apprentice learners have declared themselves as such[1]. There are many possibilities for this stark difference in statistics. Could it be that:

  • Apprentices are not declaring their disabilities due to stigma?
  • Individuals are concerned that employers will select non-disabled individuals over them?
  • Are they unaware of the support available to them should they declare their disability or learning difficulty?
  • Are providers and employers aware of and promoting the support available to encourage disclosure?

Any or all of these scenarios could be an explanation.

It has also been highlighted that nationally, over 30% of apprentices are not completing their apprenticeship programme[2]. Another question needs to be asked – do a proportion of these individuals have disabilities or learning difficulties or a mental health condition that has not been identified? And is there a lack of support for this silent group?

Undoubtedly employers and education providers are increasingly recruiting staff, apprentices and learners living with disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health conditions. While this is unquestionably a positive step forward towards inclusion, the responsibility employers and education providers now face to ensure all their staff and learners have access to the right equipment and support is evermore increasing. 

So what is disability stigma?

The stigmatisation of people with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDDs), and mental health conditions is still an issue in education and the workplace. It can be explicit or subtly implied and is often difficult to detect by those who aren’t on the receiving end of such behaviour, including educators and employers.

People with disabilities and learning difficulties can feel like their worth as individuals is devalued. This is in part due to deep-seated misconceptions around the capabilities of people with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Scope, the disability equality charity, recognises this as the ‘disability perception gap’. A recent survey highlighted by Mencap demonstrates the severity of the issue:

“Just under a third (32%) of respondents in the 2017 British Attitudes Survey thought that       disabled people were not as productive as non-disabled people. This belief may be a factor which contributes to the disparity in employment rates between people with learning difficulties and disabilities and the general population (Dixon et al., 2018).”[3]

How can disability stigma affect an individual?

The stigmatisation experienced by people living with disabilities or learning difficulties has encouraged a culture of concealment, often leading people to feel the need to hide their disability or learning difficulty altogether, and not feel able to voice their needs when it comes to support and additional needs.

Stigma is a socially driven construct and as such its negative effects are felt most deeply on a social level. Many conceal their disabilities in public in an effort to avoid stigmatisation altogether. This results in a reluctance to use assistive devices such as hearing aids or mobility equipment, or they simply refuse to tell anyone about their condition.

Others may feel less confident in social situations and become withdrawn which can have a detrimental effect on their mental health.

Mental Health and Stigma

The stigma around mental health is another increasing concern in both education and work. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) describes the effects of stigma in terms of those with mental health issues:

“Fear and misunderstanding often lead to prejudice against people with mental illness and addictions, even among service providers. It’s one of the main reasons why many people don’t consider it a real health issue. This prejudice and discrimination leads to feelings of hopelessness and shame in those struggling to cope with their situation, creating a serious barrier to diagnosis and treatment.”[4]

What can be done to combat stigma? 

There are a number of activities that can be adopted in both education and work settings that can help to reduce stigma. Each of these actions are vital to help decrease long standing misconceptions and stereotypes. 

Increasing positive attitudes

  • Educating learners and employees to help increase knowledge about the capabilities and strengths of those living with learning difficulties and disabilities and combat negative attitudes.
  • Teaching and training led by staff who themselves live with a disability or learning difficulty has been found to be beneficial in dispelling stigma and increasing positive attitudes. 
  • Indirect contact through mediums such as films and exposure to images, which contradict stereotypes, such as posters in the workplace and educational settings.

Respectful communication

  • Use respectful and considered language when addressing someone with a learning difficulty or disability. For example, using ordinary language with someone less able bodied, such as suggesting going for a walk with a student or apprentice in a wheelchair, is a small but powerful gesture.
  • Using ordinary expressions of speech let’s everyone know that each member of the workforce or class are seen as full members of their education or working community.
  • Be open. For example ask how someone with a speech impairment wishes to communicate. They may prefer to write or type as opposed to talking if they have impaired speech.
  • Talking directly to someone and making eye contact goes a long way to making that person feel respected and listened to.

Respecting identity

  • Recognising someone’s choice to either downplay or highlight his or her disability or learning difficulty is both respectful and important.
  • Making all staff and learners aware of disability and learning difficulty support groups is another important step towards demonstrating acceptance and education.
  • Listen to and respect everyone’s decisions around how they choose to act when it comes to their learning difficulties or disabilities.

Facilitating Support

If any of the issues raised in this article are relevant to you and your organisation whether you are an individual, representative of an organisation or education provider please do not hesitate to get in contact with our friendly learning support team to see how we can help. 

[1]Apprenticeship Statistics: England Briefing Paper February 2019

[2]National Achievement Rates Tables March 2019

[3] Mencap: Stigma and Discrimination

[4] CAMH: Addressing Stigma