I love a good conversation,” says Jan Tregelles, as we meet in her office in central London. “I like people to tell me things that make me think differently. I’m motivated by the human connection.” But as chief executive of learning disability charity Mencap, not all of Tregelles’ conversations are pleasant. “Once I had to phone a mother to tell her that her child had died. Some of the conversations have haunted me. But I’m glad I can feel as deeply about it now as I ever could,” she says.
A fierce determination to bring about change flavours my conversation with Tregelles, who joined the charity in 1983, aged 23, as a PA to the director of welfare. She left to pursue a career in housing, again working with people with a learning disability, but returned to the charity in 1997 to set up its housing arm, Golden Lane Housing, becoming CEO in 2013.
“I’m still pinching myself,” she exclaims. “I’m so driven by wanting to make a difference, I would have worked for nothing. Working alongside people with a learning disability gives you an opportunity to connect and understand how they experience life.”
Addressing inequalities at work and in society
People born with a learning disability in the UK are three times more likely than their contemporaries to be in poverty. Their parents are also five times more likely to suffer mental illness because of the strain of having a child with a learning disability.
“We help families build resilience,” explains Tregelles. “We help them think about schooling, housing, healthcare – and enable them to be in control.”
Central to Tregelles’ mission at Mencap is addressing the “major inequalities” in society that put people with a learning disability at a disadvantage – including employment. Less than half of the disabled population (49%) is employed, compared to 79% of the general population, and just 5.8% of people with a learning disability have a job. “These are inequalities we can do something about,” Tregelles insists.
She believes the general outlook for people with a learning disability has improved, but adds “inequality in education has been addressed, but when you leave school you fall off a cliff and there’s nothing to catch you. What are we educating people for if there’s no work and little community activity? What do we want them to do meaningfully during the day? Work builds self-esteem, it’s engrossing and it builds connections.”
Practical action for business
Currently there is no legislative requirement for organisations to employ people with a learning disability, which Tregelles feels, post-Brexit vote, is exacerbated by business’ squeezed margins. “There’s a duty to embrace the entirety of our society, but making companies do it is really hard,” she admits.
In not taking on people with a learning disability, employers are missing an opportunity to support their workforce and their families, she argues. “Our research shows 60% of people know someone with a learning disability.”
Action among the business community remains slow. Mencap recently contacted a number of listed CEOs about employing people with a learning disability, with disappointing results. “Many said ‘I don’t know what a learning disability is and can they use email?’,” says Tregelles. “We’re a long way from acceptance and understanding.”
She acknowledges that for some businesses it can seem daunting. “We have to start with people who need a small bit of support and build on that. But it’s such a statement about your business if you get it right.”
How might a company with no experience of employing people with a learning disability go about it? “Understand the skillsets of the individual, then craft a role around them,” advises Tregelles. “Meeting and greeting roles are often attractive. Do on-site training, coach them so they feel confident and then upskill.”
This approach is role-modelled within the charity, which employs around 100 people with learning disabilities, from Down Syndrome to autism. Harry (pictured), who has mild autism and a learning disability, works alongside Tregelles in the executive team. “We looked at my CEO role, removed bits someone could achieve, and created an ‘ambassador’ role. It’s a real job crafted to Harry’s skillsets.”
Every candidate who applies to work for Mencap must participate in a panel interview with people with a learning disability. “Reactions are telling,’ says Tregelles. “Some do a great interview at managers’ level, then freeze in the panel. We measure through responses and how much they talk to someone as an equal.”
Sense of exclusion
Tregelles is deeply frustrated at the sluggish pace at which society has moved in its treatment of those with a learning disability and believes it’s changing perceptions that matters most in making headway for acceptance.
“Too many people with a learning disability feel cut off from their community,” she says. Mencap research found that 30% of young adults with a learning disability spend less than an hour outside their home on a typical Saturday.
She fears the government only pushes for change in light of public outcry or media interest – “I’ve met a lot of disability ministers and nothing ever really happens” – but is pressing on with the agenda.
Direct contact between people with and without a learning disability helps change attitudes, she suggests. “When there is an equality of relationship around something neutral, like getting the bus, there’s no ‘power under’ or ‘over’. Getting more people into jobs, where these contact points happen, is what we’re pushing forward for – so if you are served by a waiter with a learning disability in a restaurant, you just think ‘great’. I want learning disability to be normalised. That’s the dream. But we’re a long way away from there.”