Very few foreign visitors know Brno as well as the Briton Sheena Bell does. That should come as no surprise, since she has been visiting Brno for several years now. Together with colleagues from the Institute for Research in Inclusive Education at the Faculty of Education, Masaryk University, she is participating in a project involving several European countries that aims to improve the employment rates of people with various disabilities.
When we try to decide on a meeting place for our interview, she quickly suggests a café in the city centre, dismissing my fears that she might get lost. “I know my way around Brno very well,” she laughs. This 61-year-old lady has been meeting with Masaryk University employees for some time and not only in the cafés of Brno. “I’ve had the pleasure to meet some lovely people here,” she adds with warmth.
At the beginning, the project group that included experts from several countries was trying to find ways to provide suitable education opportunities to people with disabilities or disadvantages. Since then, they have taken a step further: the SENEL project is aimed at ensuring that young people with disabilities are actually able to start working once they finish school.
“We can go above and beyond in our efforts to help children and adolescents, but we won’t make progress unless we also work with potential employers,” says Sheena Bell. In her experience, most people with disabilities would like to work, but only a fraction of them succeed in doing so.
Employers lack information
What lies at the root of the problem? “Prejudice plays a role, but mostly it’s a lack of information. When people in a company hear that the applicant has Asperger syndrome, it startles them and they automatically start to back away, because they aren’t quite sure what that translates to in practice and what the advantages of having such an employee might be,” explains this expert from the University of Northampton, UK.
The project, which brings together educational institutions and non-profit organisations from the UK, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Finland, seeks to counter these reactions using three tools. These include showcasing examples of good practice and stories of people who work despite their disability.
Moreover, they are working on a guide where employers will be able to find information regarding the work abilities and skills of people with a specific disability, what positions they might hold, and what support can be given to them.
The third tool is a “passport” that will help the applicant show what their skills are and what they have to offer a company. “Sure, we could try to appeal to corporate social responsibility and say that employing people with various disadvantages should be a matter of course,” Bell says. “However, we have chosen a different approach: rather than saying to privately owned companies that they should do something for our clients, we try to show how much our clients can benefit the companies.”
In her career, she has come across a number of stories like this. “For example, I know of a young woman with dyslexia who was struggling with the system of document categorisation in her company, and so she completely redesigned it. It turned out that she wasn’t the only one who had a problem: the new system made work easier for her colleagues as well.”
People with disabilities are willing to work from dawn to dusk and they are loyal employees, grateful that they have been given a chance to work. Such is Bell’s experience: according to her, people with disadvantages can get completely immersed in their work and nobody can make them stop. On the other hand, they might not be able to focus on work all day because someone has moved the coffee mug on their desk. This is also something that you need to take into account.
“Towns, municipalities, and companies really use very few of the opportunities to employ people with special needs. And the opportunities are so many! In England, for example, there is a serious lack of carers and a large turnover. This is a profession where a number of people could find a job,” suggests Bell.
However, she also points out the risk that people with disabilities will become an exploited workforce. “We are aware of that, but the situation is made quite complicated by the fact that each country has its own rules in this regard,” she says. For example, the Czech laws require that companies employ people with disabilities. The UK laws do not have any such stipulations, as they expect the companies to be naturally responsible.
School of hard knocks in prison
There is a fair amount of work ahead of Sheena Bell and her colleagues, but the British expert has already done a fair amount of work in the past. She started as a teacher and after finishing her studies, she moved to Liverpool and got a job as a teacher in a prison. She loves literature and reading in general, but in the prison she found that reading is a huge obstacle for a lot of people.
“Some of them were struggling with reading because they came from a background where nobody taught them to love books. But for many people, the reason was dyslexia,” she says, recalling her memories from several decades ago, when almost nobody knew about this specific form of learning disability. This is why Sheena Bell decided to dedicate her life to showing people ways to overcome their difficulties.
Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. A diagnosis of dyslexia does not mean the person is unable to process information: they just struggle with the specific way information is presented to them. They simply need to find a different way. The example of the dyslexic British billionaire Richard Branson, who is famous for his goal of commercial space flight, shows that it is certainly possible to succeed. Branson became the public face of a project that aimed to increase employment rates for people with severe dyslexia. His pictures appeared in the campaign accompanied by questions such as: Would you employ this man?
As Sheena Bell remembers, not all people with disadvantages liked the campaign. “Some people said, you know, I’m not Richard Branson and I don’t want to be him, I just want to live a normal life. But in my opinion, the main message here is that you can always find a way to deal with the challenges.”