July 25, 2019, by lqxkt9

Winner of the 1st Prize of the Enquire Blog Post Competition 2019: Ruth Tarlo-Challenging Stories about Work and Unemployment

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”

This quote from the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is from a TED talk in which she addresses “the danger of a single story”, exploring how a limited and negatively stereotyped view of a group of people serves to reinforce power inequalities. Although her focus is on nationally-oriented stereotypes, and especially US and European stereotypes about Africa, her argument is relevant to other power inequalities. Single stories and the stories established by the powerful about those less powerful emphasise difference and separateness. Multiple stories, connected stories and stories told by the less powerful and the marginalised, help to connect us all as human beings, by recognising our equal humanity. Rather than generalising, such stories can show how particular experiences are “narratively embedded in a larger complex of social relations and cultural processes” (Ewick & Silbey, 1995:219).

In my research, I have been collecting and analysing stories told by people with mild learning difficulties about their experiences of paid work. These stories provide a stark contrast to the stories presented in recent government policy documents about supporting disabled people into and in paid work. For example, the White Paper on Work, Health and Disability (DWP & DoH, 2017) presents the policy view of what drives the “poor employment outcomes for young people with learning disabilities”, namely “low aspirations and inadequate support” (DWP & DoH, 2017:20). It includes a single story about “a talented young man who has a learning disability”, named as Scott, who obtains an extended work placement while at school, through a government-funded scheme. The placement is with a company that subsequently offers him an apprenticeship when he leaves at school.

This single-story narrows the reader’s perception of people with learning difficulties in several ways. Its tone, “a talented young man”, is condescending, establishing a sense of Scott’s deservingness. Scott’s eligibility for the extended placement is dependent on receiving an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. Only 0.01% of people aged 15-25 are currently in receipt of EHC plans (DfE, 2018), compared to an estimated 1-2% of the population having intellectual disabilities, and such estimates are likely to understate the true prevalence (Emerson & Hatton, 2014).

The White Paper’s story about Scott includes a quote from him indicating his happiness with the work and his willingness to do anything practical. Scott is presented as grateful for the chance he has been given to work for a year with no pay. In this way, he can also be seen as part of an elite, a striver, separate from those who, by implication, are untalented, not hardworking and not grateful (Fernandes, 2017).

The stories my participants told me cast a different light on the realities of the labour market for people with learning difficulties and disabilities. Of the 11 participants who were aged under 30, none had been offered an apprenticeship and only one had had paid work lasting more than a few months. Their stories were about being given insufficient support at work, about short-term contracts, about a focus on speed of work rather than the quality of work or customer service, about low pay, insufficient hours and lack of breaks, about bullying and isolation. For example, Sam, age 20, had had a 10-week, full-time unpaid work placement during his last year at school. He completed the placement only to be told that his work was too slow and that his co-workers had complained about his behaviour. He felt he had tried to be friendly towards his co-workers and concluded from this experience that:

engaging in social interaction was, was the wrong thing for me to do

Then he added:

I kind of call it slave labour, cos that’s what they essentially used me for

A second work experience placement after he left school lasted for 14 weeks, at 3 days a week in work and 1 day in a classroom. This placement was also unpaid although he was able to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Although he felt that the work went well, and he had received positive feedback from the employer (and the offer of a reference), he was not offered any paid work. The only paid work he had obtained in his two years of looking for work was a zero-hours contract in which the actual hours offered had dwindled to zero by the end of the first month. As he put it:

I’m throwing myself out there but they’re not giving me anything

Sam’s experiences were not the same as those of the other participants but had clear similarities, and his conclusions, involving a mixture of self-blame and frustration, were shared by most of the participants. My research analyses those experiences and conclusions, not by generalising, but by exploring how they are “part of an encompassing cultural, material, and political world that extends beyond the local” (Ewick & Silbey, 1995:219). The participants’ stories challenge the dominant narrative that claims work is the route out of poverty and that people with learning difficulties should be grateful for the opportunities they are offered. Their stories break through the silence about lack of opportunity, low or no pay, bullying and disrespect and confront the contradictions between the stated policy aims and their consequences.

Ruth Tarlo (PhD Candidate, University of Nottingham)

Twitter: @ruthtarlo 

Email: Ruth.Tarlo@nottingham.ac.uk

Adichie, C N (2009) The Danger of a Single Story, TEDGlobal, available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript

DfE (Department for Education) (2018) Statements of SEN and EHC plans: England 2018 available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/709590/Statements_of_SEN_and_EHC_plans_England_2018_Main_Text.pdf

DWP (Department for Work & Pensions) and DoH (Department of Health) (2017). Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability White Paper. London: The Stationery Office.

Emerson, E. and Hatton, C. (2014). Health Inequalities and People with Intellectual Disabilities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ewick, P. and Silbey, S. (1995). Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: toward a sociology of narrative. Law & Society Review 29:197–226.

Fernandes, S. (2017). Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. Oxford studies in culture and politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Posted in Enquire Blog Post Competition 2019