When sheltered work ends

By Damon Rose
BBC News, Ouch

Image caption,
A scene from documentary A Whole Lott More, picturing factory worker Wanda

Everyone has a right to work, and disabled people are employable. That's the sentiment behind a documentary which has its UK premiere in London on Monday.

TJ and Wanda are employed by Lott, a not-for-profit factory in Ohio which makes car parts for the automotive industry. It is staffed entirely by disabled people and was set up in the 1940s by a teacher who believed disabled people should have a chance to make a living.

As recession hits the US, the factory is struggling and the two workers face the unwelcome prospect of looking for a new job and being accepted by a mainstream employer.

TJ, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy, is a boccia-playing Paralympian. He still lives at home with his mum and dad and sees work as a step to the independence he craves.

Wanda has a learning disability. Her attempts to work in the mainstream world have not ended successfully, and she fears life without Lott.

The documentary, A Whole Lott More, while based in the US, mirrors a situation on this side of the Atlantic. Here, government-funded Remploy factories are closing and those disabled people who have always worked in these sheltered environments are now looking for jobs in the mainstream.

Image caption,
Workers in London protest against the decision to close Remploy factories

The big challenge for them is to gain acceptance from employers who may know little about disabled people, as well as having to compete against non-disabled people for available positions.

Changes to the welfare system in the UK mean many who may have been able to fall back on incapacity benefits in the past if facing physical or attitudinal barriers to work, are now expected to join the jobs market despite the inherent difficulties. This is the same in the US.

In Ohio, Wanda doesn't hold out much hope and remembers her experiences before sheltered work: "I tried to find a job in the community," she says, "but the community didn't want me."

A third participant in the documentary, Kevin, doesn't want to work at Lott. He is the son of one of the factory's managers but has rejected sheltered work from the very beginning.

Kevin is autistic. We see him hand his CV in at shops around his hometown while bouncing between work placements. With the support of his family, he tries to find a job which plays to his strengths. He likes the idea of working in retail.

Image caption,
Director Victor Buhler on set in Toledo

The director Victor Buhler grew up in London but has American parents. He has worked on broadcast documentaries and drama series on both sides of the Atlantic. A Whole Lott More is an independent production born of Buhler's personal experiences.

"I began this film after a car accident," he says. "The two years that I was on crutches or in a wheelchair gave me temporary insight into what life is like for many people with disabilities. I was shocked by how often people with disabilities are separated from the working world."

Buhler says the closure of factories staffed by disabled workers is "the price of progress". He believes the factories were relevant 50 years ago but the way forward now has to involve private business, not the state.

"I have spoken to a lot of the working people with disabilities and for almost all the utmost priority is a good paying job," says Buhler.

"A decent paid job helps them to stay independent or to spend money on activities they enjoy and that also keep them connected to the community. It's no different to anyone else."

A Whole Lott More premieres in the UK at 19:30 on Monday 18 November at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1.

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