Paid work for people with learning disabilities – insights from Japan

In 2019 I was part of an exchange between Japan and England funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The purpose was to explore how to foster belonging and inclusion, to learn from one another. We set up two inclusive teams, one in Japan, and one in England. Both included a self advocate and at least one family carer, alongside 3 academics. In September our Japanese colleagues came to England to find out about services, as well as take part in seminars and do a little sightseeing. In October we flew to Osaka, Japan’s second city, for a similar intense learning programme interspersed with fine food and cultural experiences.

The exchange set me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of two different approaches to supporting good lives for people with learning disabilities.

Paid employment has been an aspiration for people with learning disabilities in UK for as long as I can remember. In Japan, 20% of people work in the regular labour market. Compare that to 6% here. We visited two amazing businesses which employ people with learning disabilities, one as artists, the other baking and serving in coffee shops. Others work in what our colleagues called the ‘welfare labour market’, sheltered workshops. And we certainly saw some really impressive examples of people being prepared for, and supported at, work. So on the face of it, prospects for employment are much better.

However, this comes at a price. Long hours, mostly humble employment. Employment protection does not extend to the welfare employment sector, so no minimum wage, or restriction on working hours. And the long hours leave people with little time or energy for other activities, like self advocacy. I take it for granted that we can invite self advocates to events which take place in the working day. Not so in Japan. Self advocacy has to happen after work, if it happens at all.

There has been some discussion here of suspending minimum wage legislation for people with learning disabilities. Japan sheds an interesting light. There minimum wage legislation does not apply. People with learning disabilities in regular employment earn on average 1,404,000 yen (£10,600) per annum, compared to an average of 4,400,000 (£32,280) for employees without disabilities. In the welfare market wages range from as little as 210 yen per hour (£1.54) to a maximum of 850 (£6.24). As our Japanese colleague put it, this is far from decent.

However, there are plenty of people with learning disabilities here who work for nothing or very little, to escape benefit jeopardy or in the guise of work experience or internships. The difference is that Japan is open about it, and actually counts who is doing what for what reward,

Regarding wider finances for people with learning disabilities, here Japan’s approach appears more sensible than in assessment obsessed UK. People get a pension, either Grade 1 81,000 yen (£600) per month, or Grade 2 65,000 yen (£480) per month. Whilst this is not wildly generous, it is stable, does not require frequent stressful (for the person) and costly (for the system) assessments and reassessments, and means people can afford a home, heating and food. Until a single person’s income reaches 3,604,000 yen (£26,500) per annum, there is no loss of pension. So no disincentive to work.

In Japan paid employment for people with learning disabilities is far more achievable than in UK.  We met several people who are incredibly proud of their jobs, some who refused to stop to talk with us because they have a job to do. There is a differential in wages, but not so very different to here, though more overt.

What was missing in Japan was those employment opportunities developed through self advocacy. Easy Read, training, experts by experience, inspections, inclusive research, all of which value the person for the insights their disability offers. Here it seemed our Japanese colleagues had something important to learn from us on the employment front. They were mightily impressed with the work of My Life My Choice, and of Yellow Submarine, both in Oxford.

So where has this left me? As with all the best learning experiences, it didn’t give ready answers, just a lot of new questions about how best to help people achieve a good life. It did tell me something I have suspected for some time, there are no easy answers.

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