Some years ago, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ people with mild learning disabilities as potmen to collect empty glasses. They may not have been paid very much, but it gave them something purposeful to do and increased their sense of self-worth. This is something you don’t seem to see any more. Partly, no doubt, because pub tables are no longer groaning with empty pint glasses the way they used to be, but also, I suspect, because the introduction of the national minimum wage meant that licensees felt it was no longer economic to employ them.
This was brought to mind by the recent furore over Lord Freud’s comments that it might be preferable to allow some disabled people to work for less than the minimum wage than for them not to work at all. Many of his critics seem to have missed the point that personal worth is not the same as economic worth. Of course people are all equally valuable as individuals, but it’s a fact of life in every society that some people are paid more than others because their economic contribution is greater. Wayne Rooney earns more in a day than most of us do in a year, but that doesn’t mean he works any harder or is any better a person.
The comment was also not directed at disabled people in general. Although it was not always the case in the past, it is universally acknowledged now that people with physical disabilities lack nothing in mental acuity compared to the able-bodied. But few would deny that there are people with learning disabilities who may be capable of a limited amount of straightforward work under close supervision, but whose capability falls well short of that of a non-disabled person. Given that, to employ them and pay them the full minimum wage would be an act of charity, not a rational business decision.
This point was recognised by Mencap when the minimum wage was originally introduced in 2000, when they argued that that a special category of therapeutic placements should be introduced for people whose capability was well below that of non-disabled staff. If the government wanted to preserve the principle of the minimum wage, they could top up their payments to that level, which would probably be offset anyway by a reduction in benefit payouts.
This would help in giving disabled people more of a sense of purpose and self-esteem, and it may be that experience of work would improve their abilities and self-confidence and allow them to earn more. That is surely preferable to leaving them languishing on benefits because you think they’re not just good enough to work at all. The very fact that people are paid gives them more incentive and motivation than unpaid activity. As the article says,
Steve Beyer, deputy director of the Welsh centre for learning disabilities at the University of Wales, said studies showed that people with severe disabilities could benefit "very considerably" from work in terms of motivation and skills development.
He said: "For many people, the alternative is going to a local authority day centre. Although good examples do exist, there is plenty of research around to show that day centres are generally segregated and that they provide at worst a lower level of activity, a lower level of development and a lower level of interest."