We’ve been working with Blueberry Academy for several years now, a local organisation supporting adults into independence and employment. Over the years we’ve worked with maybe 12 young adults, with varying needs, and each of these young adults has brought their unique personalities and very special magic to our workplace at Choc Affair.
One team member who started with us last year has worked incredibly well in each of the different areas he has tried so far. Quiet, and shy, it’s taken some time, until he felt able to chat with his one to one worker at Blueberry about writing to us as a team, to let us know how best to work with him, so we could better understand his needs, and seek to avoid areas which caused him to feel stressed and anxious. Well, this was a brilliant idea, and we wish someone had thought of it sooner, because we recognise we’ve been doing things over the years with all our learners, which will no doubt have been causing them increased anxiety, and all because we hadn’t realised! I’m a naturally tactile person myself, and would often place a hand on a shoulder, and I now understand this to be an absolute no-no for many learners.
Another example is in the way we chat to each other – the English language is full of niceties, which adds fluff to our conversations, sounds pleasant, but for someone with Autism, can cause them to feel overwhelmed and burdened as they try to process what you are asking them. So, with our newfound knowledge, we now speak in short sentences, and ask direct questions, one at a time. Think about this for the structure of the sentence:
Hey Paul, how are you? How’s your weekend been? Did you have a good one? Get up too much?
That’s four distinct questions, in one sentence, and is the general format of the chatter on a Monday morning amongst our team! Now, because we have a better understanding of our young person’s needs, we ask in the following way:
Hey, Paul, what have you done over the weekend?
A short concise sentence, with one question which is more easily processed. We all have our personal preferences, this is not unique to someone with a learning disability, we all have good and bad experiences of conversations, and indeed preferences for the way in which we want others to communicate. When you take the time to build a better understanding of a person’s needs, and communication styles, there’s more opportunity to get it right, and hopefully create less anxiety for the other person.
SCOPE have identified the difference in attitudes of non disabled people and the reality of disabled people’s experiences as the “disability perception gap” (Dixon et al 2018) Misconceptions and negative attitudes can become a barrier to people with a disability from living the lives they want. According to the office of national statistics:
On average, disabled people aged 16 to 64 years had poorer ratings than non-disabled people on all four personal well-being measures with the greatest disparity in average anxiety levels.
Many adults with disabilities feel socially left out and face stigma and discrimination in their everyday lives (Scior & Werner, 2015) and many face problems getting equal opportunities for healthcare, housing, education, employment and social pursuits.
This Stigma and discrimination can become internalised in people with a learning disability resulting in ‘self-stigma’ which is associated with higher levels of psychological distress and lower quality of life (Ali et al., 2015; Pelleboer-Gunnink et al., 2019).
Working with Blueberry has really enhanced us as a team at Choc Affair. The reality is that unless you have a family member, or a close friend who has a disability, we can go through life with very little contact, or understanding of the challenges and stigma faced every day by those, within this diverse part of our communities.
For Choc Affair, our next step is a supported internship where our young adult will come for two days a week with his job coach, to try different areas of our chocolate production. With his meticulous attention to detail, neat and methodical methods of working, I’ve no doubt he’ll continue to excel with what he does in the factory. The job coach learns the job at the same time as the student, and once the job coach is trained, as the employer, as it is the responsibility of the coach to oversee the work being done – to help remove the pressure off the team. Our aim is that as the supported internship comes to an end, we would be able to offer our young adult a paid role within the business.
So many workplaces can really make a difference for those in the community who face stigma, and challenges on a daily basis, to offer similar work-based employment opportunities – I can only tell you from our experience, of what it brings to our team. The atmosphere on the days we are working with Blueberry are just different to the norm-– everyone is a little more understanding, a touch more patient, and a little kinder – oh and did I mention there are more smiles on everyone’s faces!
This week is National disability awareness week in the UK, and it is themed around creativity. So, we headed to Blueberry and held a chocolate lolly making session, and an artwork design session, to create a chocolate wrapper design. Watch this space, no doubt we’ll be showcasing them for you when they are finalised.