This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
Two years ago, Richard Keagan-Bull, who has a learning disability, joined Kingston University as a research assistant. He worked on the Growing Older Planning Ahead Project with researcher, Rebecca Anderson. Richard’s job was to co-facilitate interviews and focus groups, and co-design group sessions. He also had input into the design, analysis and dissemination of the research. The team wrote a paper about the process of Richard getting his job, to share what worked well and what needs to be done differently.
Richard was formally employed by the University. He was not a temporary worker or PPI (patient and public involvement) member, limited to formal tasks like running focus groups. Employment comes with practical benefits such as pensions, sick pay and annual leave. It also gave Richard status within the team. In the paper, Richard explained: “It feels great to be an employee at the university… On my first day at the office my name was on the door and underneath it said ‘Research Assistant’. That’s quite something.”
Our team is constantly having conversations to develop our thinking and improve our work. Richard took a full part in these discussions, and made important contributions. That would not be possible for temporary workers or PPI members. Richard’s employment was hugely beneficial for us all.
This blog reflects what we learnt about the application process, interviews and longer-term issues when employing people with learning disabilities.
Make recruitment accessible
What we did:
- Developed an ‘Easy Read’ job description and application form
- Enabled postal applications as an alternative to the confusing online system.
What we’d do differently:
Easy Read is not accessible for everyone
- We’d like to use other formats like videos to explain what the job is about and how to apply; they could feature existing team members with learning disabilities
- We have since made a member of our team available to support applicants to understand the job and complete the application. Richard said: “If I didn’t have help, it would have been a nightmare”
- Other sources of support (job coaches, job centres, for example) might be able to help applicants
- We now ask HR to let the research team take on as much of the communication process as possible (although some confusing automated emails still get through!). We inform candidates in advance of who will be calling them, when, and why, and start the call with clear introductions.
Adapt the interview
What we did:
- Sent candidates the questions they would be asked in advance
- Included a task to interview Pam, a member of the panel who has a learning disability, about her home. Richard explained: “I thought it was good that Pam was one of the people doing the interviews because that's what it's all about—talking to people with learning disabilities.”
What we’d do differently:
Richard entered an online interview (due to COVID-19) with a potentially intimidating panel of four people.
- In a recent interview we had one person greet candidates initially and give them time to calm nerves before joining the panel
- We might consider workshops instead of interviews.
Give employment status
We offered fixed-term employment which came with financial security, and status within the team. A major challenge of employment is that there are limits to the number of hours that you can work while on benefits. We do not feel comfortable asking people to work more than these hours and come off benefits because we can currently only offer a fixed term contract. It can be very difficult and stressful to get benefits back after losing them.
Our team now includes 4 researchers with learning disabilities. We don’t always get it right and we are constantly learning how to work together as a team of researchers with and without learning disabilities. We hope that these sorts of teams will become the norm across learning disability research.
We suggest 3 key things that people working within universities could do now to work towards this goal:
- Researchers should build funding into grant applications to employ researchers with learning disabilities and people to support them in their role.
- Universities should create permanent positions for researchers with learning disabilities (possibly including teaching). This would benefit the university and avoid worries about reapplying for benefits at the end of fixed term contracts.
- HR departments should simplify all job application processes, not just those for specific roles, as a one-off.
You can hear Richard, Leon and Amanda, our colleagues with learning disabilities, talk about working as research assistants in this video.We hope our paper will encourage other universities to employ people with learning disabilities as researchers. We have made the easier-to-read materials we used (job description, application form and diversity data monitoring form) available to everyone. We know they are not perfect, but we hope they will help.