I am a PhD candidate exploring the relationship and impact of (un)paid work for people diagnosed with a learning disability who are in receipt of social care. More broadly, I am interested in:
- Social care policy and its impact upon people (individuals, groups and communities)
- Employment activation initiatives and evaluations
- Concepts attached to ideas around citizenship
- Social belonging, in(ex)clusion and ‘re-inclusion’ as an excludable type
- Ethnographic research methods
- Co-produced, emancipatory and participatory research methods
- Critical disability studies, embodiment and medical sociology
My background is working in the third sector, supporting adults with learning disabilities, both registered care homes and independent living. This included developing and managing a work programme and managing service provision within the community.
In the UK, the employment rate for working aged adults categorised as having a learning disability and being in receipt of social care is less than 6%. My research has focused on a job club designed to support people with a learning disability access work preparation and employment support. Using ethnographic methods over one year, and grounded in a context of low employment rates, I explore the experiences of people using the job club. Informed by the theoretical construct of ‘cooling the mark out’ (Goffman 1952), ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011) and developments in CDS, I explore the concept of ‘neoliberal ableism’ and how, held within ableist standards, people are expected to be economically productive. I also consider how CDS sits alongside other disciplines – such as medical sociology – by unpacking the ways in which disability, at both an individual and societal level, enforces and/or troubles rigid categories placed upon people (e.g. abled/disabled, normal/abnormal).
The Impact of Work
In the United Kingdom, less than 6% of working aged adults with an learning disability (LD) that are in receipt of social care support are in any form of employment. Similar to mainstream ‘welfare-to-work’ policies, this precarious relationship with paid work and the open labour market locates employment barriers within the individuals. My research focuses on this relationship and its consequences by unpacking the nuanced and multifaceted reality of everyday life for people with LD who are struggling to access paid work. Specifically, what happens when people with LD want to work, yet are implicitly denied access to formalised employment programmes? How is this playing out within the LD community? And, what does ‘work’ mean to people with an LD?
A participation observational ethnography of a third sector job preparation group has afforded space to research the way participants experience, interpret and structure their lives in regards to employment. As an active participant in the field, I have been able to utilize the tools of observation, interviews, facilitating workshops, role play and listening to life histories as well as access to personal and organizational documents.
My research suggests that participants are entering various ‘job clubs’ yet continue to be denied access to waged work. Here, people drift from one programme to another, often with extended gaps in-between which is dependent upon services, available funding and policy initiatives. I have termed this ‘treadmilling’; people are working hard to increase their employability, yet continue to go around the system. Moreover, in response to job structure discrimination, long term work experience is being repackaged as volunteering, yet this falls outside the definition of voluntary work. Here, work’ is a term used interchangeably with (un)paid/(un)waged work and perceived employment. These discrepancies and blurred lines can be morally ambiguous.
Job seekers want to work for a variety of reasons, including monetary gain, social aspects and perceived confidence. Yet, mixed in with these positive aspects of employment are external pressures, such as a shift in expectations of work-related activity. Individuals are being held accountable for the life situation they experience, in particular, those who want to engage with paid employment are encouraged to increase their personal productivity, while aspiring to able-bodiedness, without due regard to broader structural causes of disability.
Furthermore, my research sees people have their expectations to find paid work being managed and lowered. Drawing upon Goffman’s theory of ‘on cooling the mark’, prolonged work experience and volunteering is being used as a substitute for paid work, whereby people with LD accept an alternative achievement, on a substitute path. This acceptance leads to a lowering of status, whereby people with LD are working unpaid, for many years, in the hope of wages. Yet, this position doesn’t account for why people keep on the ‘treadmill’. Drawing on Berlant’s ‘cruel optimism’, together with Goffman, can then, explore the why. Here, the impossible promises offered within neoliberal capitalism can be called out, as ableist fiction; a scene of normative desire. For, if we work hard enough, we will reach happiness and personal fulfilment. Ultimately, we will achieve the object of our desire; ‘the good life’.
Yet, Goffman and Berlant are rooted in two, very distinct and different sociological positions. Goffman is often drawn upon by medical sociologists, to explore how difference becomes stigma, while Berlant is rooted in critical studies, troubling normative ideology. By avoiding theoretical pluralism, space is afforded to offer the fullest account of a very complex and nuanced social construct.