Those with learning difficulties in a world fixated by the minimum wage.

A farmer has plenty of work available, picking asparagus. They can afford to pay £5 for every 1000 you pick. Most manage about 2000 every hour and get £10. Some pick a lot more. However, John works in a slow methodical fashion and can only get 900 in the basket each hour. He loves the outdoors, the work is fun, believe it or not he likes it a lot. However, the long shadow of the law looms down and states that the farmer must top up the wages to the level of the minimum wage. Inevitably the farmer has to tell John, “Sorry mate you are not up to the job”. John goes home upset and demoralised. Every job he tries produces the same result, too slow. “I wish mankind had never invented the clock.”

John doesn’t need the money, it is a help but not the main reason he wants to work. He, like you and me, gets a great deal of satisfaction doing something, doing something productive. He feels that people prefer him to do nothing so that the principle of the minimum wage remains intact. People have fought long and hard to establish it and the million or so that don’t make the grade are not going to interfere with the policy. “People like John will be alright if they are given the support.” However, years, decades pass and the number of those with learning disabilities that never get the opportunity to shine in the workplace gets greater and greater.

Work is not the be all and end all of life, but it can be a key feature. Ideally, we would all work in great jobs and work less hours, balancing work life with home and leisure. If those with learning disabilities were brought into action, used, exploited they could do a lot of the menial jobs that many want to avoid. A menial job to them is golden and gratifying. We used to have personnel departments. Now we have human resources. A resource whether oil in the ground, metal in the mine or people are things to exploit – put to good use. (Good being subjective.)

We are all driven by reward. Every one of us. To get the reward we have to put in some effort. We feel the reward when we work alongside others. We feel good about helping. We feel good about playing our part. There are many times when a simple ‘thankyou’ is enough to make it seem worthwhile. The salary is not everything. A politician might seem like a highly-paid person but many earn the real money after they quit the house of commons. They did the job of MP to make a difference.

In order to get a reward, we have to go out and do something. The reward is not simply about money, we feel good when we work at something. The reward is internal. It is in your head, a change in flow of feel good chemicals. We take dogs for walks, without pay. We have sex and don’t always charge for it. We clean and tidy the house and that makes us feel better. We do many jobs for the joy it brings rather than the cash. How many charity shops are staffed by volunteers? How many scout halls are kept open by unpaid workers?

Learning disabilities covers a wide range of people. People with down’s syndrome, Asperger’s, extreme autism and so on. Some of them would be described as being retards in years gone by, now that has become a derogatory term. People that do things slowly or have limited social capabilities. Some are highly focused rather than adept at multi-tasking. To retard is to slow and hold back so it is easy to see where that term came from. When it comes to being held back, it is society that holds them back, as even though they take longer to pick things up they can show a high degree of competence.

People have principles and stand by them regardless, even if it causes a lot of pain. The idea of paying someone less than a set minimum wage in all instances is abhorrent. We accuse others of having learning disabilities, but have our own difficulties understanding the nature of people. People have a nice job and are happy and content. They also are quite happy stopping other people from having those same rewards and the same level of satisfaction from working. They are not employers themselves so have little appreciation of what it is to run a business. It would be nice to pay a living wage to everyone but profits do not always allow for that.

Zoo animals are the most punished, they get fed regardless of whether they make effort or not. Everything they need is in their enclosure, except space to roam and explore. They do not progress. They do not learn how to hunt through trying and failure. They do not get the satisfaction of working things out, finding ways to achieve an objective. In the wild it is vital that they manage but there is also the triumph of succeeding as well.

The minimum wage is sacrosanct say those selfish people who have a great life and revel in denying it to others, namely those with learning disabilities, slower, less adept human people. Self-employed people could earn £1 an hour, (many do) and nobody minds. Someone with learning disabilities could earn £1 an hour on a self-employed basis and that would be fine too. However, it is hard for them to set up a business of their own.

We are so mean spirited. Thinking back to the farmer and his field of asparagus, why can’t a slow person be allowed to pick what they can and be paid for that, so long as they are happy about it. They are happy, their parents are happy the farmer is happy. It seem that only the miserable socialists are up in arms about it.

I do accept that a true socialist would share the combined total. Ten workers would pick what they could and the amount received would be one tenth of the money made by all, rather than them getting a different amount each. In this system resentments bubble under the surface with people unhappy that some are not putting in as much effort as them. Such schemes are great in theory and terrible in practice.

There are over a million people with learning difficulties in the UK doing nothing all day because of a wretched heartless principle relating to an abstract entity called time. If someone knocked on your door and offered to fix the tiles on your roof for £15 then spent ten hours on it, do you care? No, you agreed a price and that is what you pay. You pay an amount which you think is fair for the job. If they completed the repair in five minutes you still pay £15. As you are not keen to climb up ladders you do not mind paying for the job, ignoring the time spent on it.

You drink coffee and do not care that the person picking the beans got paid a tiny amount. You wear clothes that are made by people on a wage that makes the minimum in your country seem massive. So, we are prone to a certain amount of hypocrisy. We want to set an example for the world by paying the minimum wage here and take advantage of lower wages elsewhere. Even selecting ‘fair trade’ items doesn’t absolve you from unfairness. (It seems to be fair for those in the scheme and punishing for those outside of it.)

If we gave people an exemption from the minimum wage, would ‘normal’ people be exploited too? Maybe. I would expect that a small percentage would be taken advantage of. People will put the spot light on the few that get unfairly underpaid and ignore the thousands of others that benefit from the changes. Exemptions will bring about some new problems, but for every person that is affected in a negative way, many hundreds will get to live a much more fulfilled life. Once it is up and running we can address the small numbers that are unjustly underpaid.

Could we address the issue by showing potential employers the benefit of employing people they normally reject? Yes, we can and this has proved fruitful. Many disabled people have been given the nudge and assistance to find work. However, voluntary exemptions would open up a world of opportunities for those left stuck at home day after day. At the moment, we are treating them like animals in the zoo.

The next time you come home from work and say to your partner, “we managed it”, “ we got it done”, “I caught the criminal”, “I sold a house”, “I saved the life of a patient”, “I made a discovery”, “it was a lot of effort but we succeeded”, think of the retard / the person with learning disabilities that has not got the chance to show their worth because they can’t do jobs as quickly as you. They could clear the tables, they could dig holes and plant trees, they could input data they can, but not if you insist they have to be paid by the hour rather than by what they get done.

“Hold on, how are they going to live on £50 a week?” Well, at the moment they are on £0. They are not working just for the money. The money is a bonus, not to support them fully.

Some, not many, but some will shine so much that they will end up earning more than the minimum wage once they demonstrate their value. The rest will smile.

The hospital radio station

Wanting to learn about media and broadcasting, I joined a radio station at the local hospital. I learnt a lot about politics whilst there, with people vying for control. One character on my team had Asperger’s syndrome. He was difficult to converse with, always saying “I don’t know”, or “not sure” when asked any question. It was hard for him to formulate responses especially under pressure. Nevertheless, he had an input. He always managed to compile the play list and get the necessary records out of the library. The job entailed going around the wards to get requests and talking to the patients. This aspect was not his forte, nevertheless he was a worthy soul.

After I left due to other work commitments, I heard that he was sacked a short while later. It annoyed me because I saw him as a patient and the job a kind of therapy. A charity is there to serve those in need and can help those working in it as well.

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