An award-winning documentary has highlighted the need for a more flexible employment market and a more inclusive society, according to disabled campaigners who attended a screening of the film by the UN.
A Whole Lott More follows the progress of the employees of a sheltered workshop in Toledo, USA, originally set up by parents of disabled children, and funded by the local authority.
The film charts the progress of two disabled employees of Lott Industries, the workshop’s non-disabled manager, and the disabled son of another employee, as the local authority decides to “restructure” the business and then close the factories completely.
There are strong echoes of the decisions taken by both the Labour and coalition governments in the UK to withdraw subsidies and close the sheltered factories run by Remploy.
In a discussion held after the screening, the disabled writer and performer Penny Pepper praised the film, and how it was documenting disabled people’s stories.
She said: “I think employers need to be much more radical. They need more than nudging, they need clouting.
“We need a more flexible working system. We won’t fit into little nine-to-five holes.”
She said that disabled people needed respect and understanding of the barriers they faced in the workplace.
But she said that the UK government’s “terrible rampant ideology” was making the idea of steady employment for disabled people seem like something from “another planet”.
Disabled activist Zara Todd pointed out that none of the disabled people featured in the documentary had been in “control of their destiny”.
She asked the panel, which included the broadcaster and Paralympian Ade Adepitan and Victor Buhler, the film’s director and producer: “What can be done to support disabled people to be in control and making decisions and their position as decision-makers be protected?
“In that film the disabled people in that company were at the whim of the managers, who were not disabled.”
Mansoor Ahmad, a disabled masters student who was formerly a manager at the accountancy giant Price Waterhouse Coopers, said disabled people must accept that they lived in a world where they had to compete and that they “may need to work a lot harder than others”.
He said: “For me in some ways closing down the factory was a good thing because what it epitomised was the marginalisation of disabled people.
“I didn’t see any sign of coaching or development programmes given to these people. As soon as they were made redundant they were not any more employable than they were when they started the job.”
He highlighted the need for disabled people’s inclusion from a very early age. “We need to ensure that from the grassroots level that disabled people are integrated and included, because if they are not included at that grassroots level, at infant school, junior school, then people in society will not become accustomed to dealing with people with disabilities.”
Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager for Disability Rights UK, pointed to the similarities between Lott Industries and Remploy, and said that one of the reasons for Remploy’s decline was its employees’ lack of “commercial skills”.
He said: “I do think there are solutions but we need to get more people involved in the debate, we need to get the universities involved, we need to get people with business skills involved, we need to look at disabled people and find the strength in their disabilities and not their weaknesses.”
Adepitan said he believed that sheltered employment was “possibly a thing of the past”, but the closing down of facilities like Lott Industries and the Remploy factories “was only a good thing if there is something else afterwards”.
If the disabled people who worked there were left “in limbo” with no jobs, he said, that was “no solution”.
He said society was only tapping into a tiny proportion of what disabled people could do. “I certainly thought it was a message to employers and people out there to look at the capability of people with disabilities.”
Buhler said he began working on the film after a car accident left him temporarily disabled for two years.
He said that the segregated employment shown in the film did seem “antiquated”, but he also said that the primary goal of the disabled people featured in the film was to get a “well-paid job”, while the environment they were working in was of “secondary” importance.
The screening was arranged by the United Nations Regional Information Centre and the non-profit film foundation BRITDOC.
Dima Yared, a human rights officer at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “One thing we can take away from the film is that the link between the right to work and the right to independent living and the right to education – all these rights are inter-linked.
“The notion of independent living, moving away from segregated institutions, moving them more into an inclusive community, isn’t just about promoting independence, it is also about promoting the links with your community.”
19 November 2013