Today I received an email from a mental health group I had contacted to get some advice on. Unfortunately it wasn't very helpful. Not intentionally of course; in fact I have no doubt of the sender's sincerity or desire to help. It's because the prevailing wisdom, the 'pro-work' message is now fully ingrained; that arbeit macht frei. It's also because the unemployment gravy train has seeped into every aspect of the employment support 'product' that there is no escape.
I was given a link to this: the British Association for Supported Employment, which you might think seems a noble cause. However on closer inspection it is full of unfortunate messages. The first link thereon I followed, as the email recommended, was to see what BASE could offer locally. This just sent me to a list of local Work Programme style providers, my nearest being Seetec, who already have a reputation among the Work Programme crowd. The name has popped up too many times for me to believe that here they will offer anything that is remotely different to the WP. It will be exactly the same thing, in fact as I'm on it with another equally useless provider, there's probably a conflict of interest anyway: two shit companies fighting over the same pathetic scraps of meat. Two cheeks of the same backside.
I didn't read everything on that BASE site. It may be that they are one of the exceptions in this whole mucky employment support industry. But I doubt it. They are clearly an umbrella group. But what interested me the most was watching these two videos, here, on their 'learning disabilities' page.
Ok, this may be because the page is about something specific and I accept again the good intentions behind these videos, but this just reinforces stereotypes. The first video nobly espouses the value of a job as synonymous with our needs as social creatures and our needs within a capitalist system (which is something unique to our current situation not a core part of life on this earth - a rod we have made for our own backs). There is a person with a mental health issue of some kind talking about how great it is to have a job. First things first, I fully endorse his and the rest of our rights to self determination and to feel good about the choices we make and secondly it is absolutely right that all people should be free from discrimination and prejudice within the world of work (and beyond). However this all presupposed a notion of the value of work that has reached fever pitch now.
In this age of recession we are told to work harder and to be grateful for what slender opportunities our betters deign to favour us with. We are also told, by way of justification for the constant hammering of the welfare state, that both work, and the reduction of benefits/welfare, are for our own good. We are expected to believe that welfare is a shackle, a burden and that, if we would only rise up out of our sick beds or off our sofas, we would be better for it. This is a half truth. We are social creatures but that doesn't mean work is the only means to provide meaningful elevating interaction, nor does it guarantee that finding a job will provide healthy human contact; how many people sit at their desks ipods armed disconnected from a banal workplace? How many do jobs where there is little opportunity for such human interaction? We need money to live, so of course even the NMW seems a treasure trove compared to the pittance the dole grudgingly gives up each fortnight, accompanied by the incessant message telling us to feel bad for taking it. But again that's because we have a capitalist system that indoctrinates a belief in a lack of abundance and a need to fight for what's available, any way we can!
The second video showcases how happy a number of disparate individuals supported into work. Again each of them deserves as much respect and as much of an opportunity as anyone else. Let me make that clear, because my criticisms of this video are greater. Frankly the piece seems to reinforce a notion of people with mental health problems, or at least those with learning disabilities, as lovable simpletons. Not one of these people has a job that is anything beyond portering or wiping down tables. Even if we assume, and I'm happy to do so, that their employers (who may be acting as much out of altruism and social justice as for any financial bonanza the state offers for taking a quota of disabled employees) don't mean to sound as patronising as they do, these jobs are low rent positions. Not one of them is involved in the running of the companies in question; they are cleaning rooms, wiping tables or washing up in a kitchen.
Ok there are going to be some that aren't going to be able to undertake more intellectually demanding positions (whatever that may mean), harsh but true. I'm not here to deny reality. But again why reinforce a stereotype? There are plenty of capable people of all levels of intelligence and education in all levels of society, and there are plenty of smart people whose intellect is not affected by the mental health issues they have. Does supported employment mean they are too going to be compelled into washing up pots and pans? Is this the best we can do? What if some of the people in that video were artistically bright, we all know that can be the case with some conditions or disabilities. Where is the support for that? I bet it's not even discussed. No chance of giving them a paint brush or a guitar and working with their talent in areas that aren't minimum wage skivvy jobs.
This depresses me. I'm not here to blow my own trumpet, but I like to think of myself as reasonably smart, even reasonably creative. But when it comes to looking for work and getting support the focus, where it exists (and it certainly doesn't on the Work Programme), is narrow. When I told my 'Job Life Coach' I was interested in writing, he couldn't dismiss it fast enough. Meanwhile you are compelled into an entirely passive, reactionary process we know as 'jobsearching', but there is no reciprocation; you are not seen by a proactive organisation that goes out to find opportunities in writing - or washing dishes, if that's your thing. They do nothing, while you are expected to find all the answers and support yourself entirely on your own.
These videos also say that only 10% of people with learning disabilities (and that may or may not include myself, if the Work Psychologist's report, such as it was, is any indicator) will ever find work. Yet what do we do with the rest? Hassle them through JSA or through ESA until they are forced on to the former and inevitably onto the WP.
Sounds great, but if there's one thing I've learned about the Work Programme and dealing with these providers it's that the reality falls far short of the rhetoric. At best I worry that the likes of the Salvation Army and it's Job Life Coaches (I'm sure every provider has it's own cute moniker for its advisers) think it's all a matter of 'confidence building'; just give them a gentle pep talk to bolster them to pull their socks up - ie it's nothing serious really.
If we continue to patronise mental health issues, even if it's now with love and not hate, then nothing really changes and people won't be supported into any kind of meaningful work. How are you contributing to society if all you are there for is to wash some pots or hoover a hotel room? Of course people need some help and of course, where limitations exist, they can't be wished away but don't presume that because someone has a learning disability or is on the autistic depression or because they are depressed or anxious or whatever it might be that the best thing they could ever hope to do is wipe a table in a burger joint and that that is all they would ever aspire to.