Writer hails supported employment as a success story for social care

Writer Paul Wilson leads a double life supporting disadvantaged or disabled people into work. He tells Helen Carter why it’s such an inspiring role

Alistair is the kind of person who embodies what writer and social care professional Paul Wilson is trying to achieve. He works in a cafe in a branch of Sainsbury’s, and has recently moved in with his fiancé, having left home at 29.

Alistair, who has Down’s syndrome, says he loves his job, which he secured thanks to the staff at not-for-profit company Pure Innovations, which supports Alistair and his partner to live independently. Previously, Alistair had secured work placements with Boots and McDonald’s. His support worker shadowed him during the first weeks at Sainsbury’s to help him adjust to his job.

Wilson, an award-winning novelist and the supported employment and social care manager at Bootstrap Enterprises, an agency commissioned to do work for Pure, says Alistair is a good example of “what we are doing well in supported employment.”

This approach seems to be the one favoured by the government, which wants to move away from sheltered workshops for people with learning disabilities and instead focus on helping them get mainstream jobs. A recent report for the government by Liz Sayce, chief executive of disability charity Radar, recommended shifting funds from sheltered employment to support 100,000 disabled people a year into mainstream work.

“Disabled people are part of mainstream society and that means being part of the mainstream workplace,” said Maria Miller, minister for disabled people.

Success story

Supported employment, Wilson says, is one of the success stories of social care in the last 20 years. “We are under pressure because of public finances but this deserves to be championed for its remarkable success. Alistair has an ordinary life and that is a triumph. Sometimes small things can make all the difference for a person with learning disabilities.”

Wilson worked with a colleague many years ago who would routinely ask each new client to identify one everyday scene they would like to have as part of their future. Just imagine one small good thing, he’d say – it doesn’t matter how small or silly it seems.

“He was after something that could serve as an emblem of what might lie ahead, something to hang on to as people struggled to achieve the change they wanted in their lives. One person, he said, visualised a freshly painted blue front door; someone else imagined newly washed clothes pegged out on a line, another described cut flowers in a vase standing on a table.”

In Wilson’s new novel, The Visiting Angel, the central character Patrick Shepherd uses this notion with the people he is working with and this is perhaps where fact and fiction are blended. The remainder of the novel is clearly in the realms of fiction.

In 1994, Wilson won the Portico Prize for Literature (the Booker of the North) with his first novel, Do White Whales Sing At the Edge of the World? The Visiting Angel is his seventh and has been published after a 10-year hiatus. He has come to realise that his life as a writer and his life supporting people with learning disabilities into work have got more in common than he once recognised.

One, he says, involved sitting on his own making things up and the other propelled him out into the real world to put things right.

“But it is inevitable that in the midst of writing these novels I’m going to use some of the experiences I have had working in social care [for 30 years],” he says.

Doug Cresswell, the chief executive of Pure Innovations was not aware that one of his employees was a successful novelist. Wilson is understated and modest about his achievements.

He says when he told people he was a writer they would be surprised and equally when, in his writer’s guise, he told people he worked in social care, they also expressed astonishment. Wilson is happy to continue with both his lives.

But he believes the parallels lie in how good fiction can embrace big concepts in describing small lives “and good social work with clear values, which is so often striving for small breakthroughs or averting large crises,” in a messy, unforgiving, and often ungrateful world.

For Wilson, the lives of people living on the margins of independence are increasingly prone to shipwreck. He is not talking of the dramas that feature in soap operas, but slow-motion tragedies: young people emerging from the care system, those seeking asylum, disabled people with thwarted aspirations to work, dysfunctional families experiencing just as much a poverty of the spirit as of their bank balance, he says.

In addressing the dilemmas created by these situations, he questions the role of the government’s much-flaunted “big society”. “It is still as yet largely undefined and may well be required in the end to fund itself, or rely on long-lost notions of neighbourliness to power its engines. In these situations, how do you start to help people to help themselves?”, he says.

After university in the early 1980s, Wilson worked for the Richmond Fellowship in mental health rehabilitation. For the last 15 years he has been involved in supported employment, enabling people with a range of disabilities to find and keep paid work. In the Visiting Angel, Shepherd has a similar career trajectory, but otherwise all similarities end. Wilson has taken care to fictionalise the characters’ experiences so as not to compromise client confidentiality.

As the vice-chair of the British Association for Supported Employment, Wilson champions the passion and skills of people working in this field. It includes sketching out for a young woman with a learning disability that there is a job out there that she can do well and get paid for, and convincing a hard-bitten employer that she will do a great job if only the employer has a flexible enough outlook to give her a work trial.

He says the biggest pressures on the world of supported employment are the general economic downturn and the fact that fewer jobs are now available. With the squeeze on local authorities, there is less money to spend on these services as they are not statutory . He warns that this “double whammy could jeopardise the future of one of the country’s greatest social care success stories”.