Hundreds of thousands of passengers pass through King’s Cross St Pancras Underground station every day. It was the busiest station on the network last year and can be a stressful place for even the most seasoned traveller.
For someone with autism, the massive crowds and perpetual noise can make the experience too much to bear.
“I think that was probably the placement I was most nervous about,” said David Yeboah (pictured above), who spent a day as a customer service assistant (CSA) at the station in 2015 as part of a work experience programme run by TfL for people with mild to moderate learning disabilities and/or autism.
It was David’s final placement and the biggest test he had faced but, in the end, it turned out to be the most rewarding.
David, who is autistic, is now a CSA at High Street Kensington station in West London. Central to his role is speaking to customers and helping them get to where they need to be, something that he would have felt extremely anxious about in the past.
The 24-year-old from Haringey is embracing his new career in customer service and hopes to be able to save up for his own flat. “I’ve always wanted to work in the transport sector and learning what happens behind the scenes at TfL – that was a big draw,” said David. “And the fact that I had family already working for the company.”
Steps into Work, a partnership between TfL, specialist employment support provider Remploy and Barnet & Southgate College, was launched in 2009. The 12-month programme offers individuals, who may otherwise struggle to find suitable work experience, the opportunity to complete a number of work placements within the organisation to gain new skills and workplace experience. More than 80 students have completed a Steps into Work placement so far and another 12 are on course to finish the 2018 programme in December.
David found out about the scheme through his support officer at a learning disability employment agency. Applicants who successfully complete an assessment day and interview are invited to join the programme and undertake three unpaid work placements in different areas of the organisation.
While on the programme, candidates become students of Barnet & Southgate College, where they work towards a BTEC Level 1 qualification. During job coaching sessions, they work on things like CV writing and interview skills as well as communication skills, team working and problem solving.
Although the scheme is open to those aged over 16, students over the age of 18 also have the option of doing a CSA placement and studying for an NVQ Level 2 Customer Services in the Rail Industry.
At the end of the programme, the students are invited to apply for a paid position within TfL. Since 2016, 83 per cent of those who have completed the work placement have gone into paid roles within 12 months.
“I think the biggest thing was confidence really,” said David, who initially joined TfL’s Lost Property Office before having the opportunity to apply for a CSA role. “Confidence in myself and my own ability that I can actually do it and… just because I have a disability doesn’t mean I can’t do the job as well as anybody else.”
On the front line
George Williams (above) completed the programme in December 2017 and successfully applied for a CSA role at London Bridge station, where he has worked for the past two months. The 21-year-old from Richmond upon Thames has dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. He struggled at school and worried that his poor exam results would rule him out of many potential career avenues.
“I’ve had some work experience before, so I’ve been lucky in that sense, but getting an actual job was very difficult for me,” said George, who was given placements within TfL’s transformation team and station work improvement programme team before spending time on the gateline at London Bridge station.
George is already looking for opportunities to progress and explained what he enjoys about working on the front line. “My favourite thing is helping the visually impaired people get onto the train,” said George. “Making sure when they get on I know they’re safe and I know they’ve managed to get to their destination.”
He added: “It’s very rewarding just knowing that you’ve helped someone because that’s what the customer service is all about really.”
Words of advice
David and George said they had struggled to find employment prior to joining the Steps into Work programme. Only around 6 per cent of adults in England with a learning disability who are known to their local authority are in paid work, according to statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).
Mencap, a UK charity for people with a learning disability, describes how those with learning disabilities can face various additional barriers to finding, and retaining, employment. In some cases they will simply not be able to demonstrate the necessary skills for a role, but they can also struggle because of the lack of support from friends and family, the scarcity of personalised employment programmes, problems with physical access and even bullying and harassment.
Tricia Wright, chief people officer at TfL, said she was proud of the scheme and the way it was helping to kick-start the careers of people with learning disabilities around the capital.
“It is vital that organisations don’t overlook the potential of candidates with disabilities,” said Tricia. “They have a huge amount of enthusiasm and talent to offer, proving themselves to be an asset to any industry. At TfL, we also have a disability staff network group, which supports our employees and gives them the chance to meet with other like-minded people who they can socialise and exchange advice with.”
David and George both had some words of advice for employers on how they could create more opportunities for candidates with learning disabilities.
“So I’d say don’t always look at the piece of paper or what results they’ve got,” said George. “Get them into your office or work. See how they actually do on the job because not everyone who’s got good results is going to be good at, for example, customer service roles.”
David encouraged companies not to be nervous about what candidates might not be able to do and instead focus on their strengths. “It may take some of us a little bit longer to learn something but, once we learn it, we’re definitely good at the job and we’re enthusiastic.”