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Des Murray, Chief Executive of North Lanarkshire Council, shares a first hand point of view of working with DFN Project SEARCH, his passion for supporting young people with autism and learning disabilities, and encourages other local authorities and companies to get involved with the charity.

When did North Lanarkshire Council’s involvement with DFN Project SEARCH begin?

“North Lanarkshire Council is the fourth largest local authority in Scotland with a huge population and a diverse range of communities, towns and people all sharing an interest in supporting children and young people with any form of disability as much as they possibly can.

“North Lanarkshire Council first became involved with DFN Project SEARCH over a decade ago now. Trailblazers who worked for the organisation at that time, in particular Duncan McKay, a previous Executive Director of Social Work, were huge believers in the ability of people regardless of their background or circumstance and saw the need to ensure that those people weren’t just supported in early years, primary or secondary education but beyond the end of the school day and beyond the school term.

“For families who from day one would rightly always worry about their children and their future and potential, people like Duncan and his team were hugely important, making sure those pathways are open for young people to succeed and thrive.

“Over the last decade, our commitment to DFN Project SEARCH has never wavered and while Duncan has since retired and left the organisation, his legacy and the work that he started lives on in what we continue to do with DFN Project SEARCH and University Hospital Wishaw to make sure these opportunities remains available for those that need it.”

What is your personal motivation for supported internships and how they can provide a pathway into the workplace for people with autism and learning disabilities?

“There are two aspects when responding to that question and it’s important that as Chief Executive that my answer is balanced. While I am a father of a person with additional support needs, I would like to believe that regardless of my personal circumstance, I have also been a supporter of people who need that little bit of extra help in societies and communities from Councils to get ahead in life and that has always extended to children with additional support needs and disabilities and fundamentally, anything we can do we should do to help them succeed.

“It becomes a question of how do we value these people? How do we perceive them in our communities? What role do they have?

“There are a lot of misconceptions out there. Lots of misunderstandings about how a person with a disability somehow isn’t able to contribute equally but my entire experience has shown that the exact opposite is true and that they can often perform greater than their peers. They are people with talent, these are people with passion and commitment and dedication supported often by strong families and networks who will want to see that young person thrive.

“So when you see schemes like DFN Project SEARCH and the impact that they can have on young people’s lives, it’s amazing. You see them gain confidence, begin to flourish and believe in themselves and what they can do.

“There are so many examples and stories from North Lanarkshire over the last ten years, and I’m sure across the whole of Scotland, but in particular here where the change has been dramatic. It’s been life altering for not only those young people but also their families. They see the child grow and succeed after years of dedication and worry, I’m sure, about what lay ahead for their child.”

What impact do you believe that DFN Project SEARCH graduates have had while working on the front line during the pandemic?

“We have had many young people achieving internships in a whole range of key areas of activity through DFN Project SEARCH but actually, over the last 12 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have actually become key workers and are in a range of critical support roles, working as part of teams making a real difference to communities and their livelihoods during these times of huge challenge for all.

“That gives us something to really think about. These are young people who come from additional support needs backgrounds, who may have been perceived in the past, not by those who know them but by those who don’t, as somehow not being able to contribute equally or greater than their other peers and now, they are key workers. They are as important, if not more, than others performing roles out across society right now.

“It’s fantastic to see these young people achieve these internships and bring their experience into these roles whether it’s in hospitals, laboratory services, or out there helping provide food and support to those most in need during a time of great challenge. They are valuable to these teams and bring strength to them as well, they all have something to contribute and, as a result, the team is greater because of the sum of its parts.

“To see that come from DFN Project SEARCH and to see these young people realise their potential is hugely moving and I am really proud to be a part of it.”

What can local authorities achieve by partnering with DFN Project SEARCH?

“While our [North Lanarkshire Council] involvement started off an initiative to support young people with additional support needs, and disability gain pathways to employment through internships, it is something much greater than that is underway here now.

“We as a local authority have benefitted from the young people as much as they have from DFN Project SEARCH programmes. It is not just about supporting people, it’s not just about helping them achieve everything they can, it’s also about what we, the council and the team members involved in the project, gain from it. That isn’t just a feeling of pride when you see that young person succeed, or when you see the joy on the faces of their family, it’s also about what we learn from these young people.

They teach us about the untapped potential that is out there in our communities and they continue to motivate us to do the same for others, grow our programmes, increase our support and be more open minded about young people’s ability to contribute to society and to succeed as an individual, moving through life with confidence and pride.

“So, for me, the local authorities that are not involved in schemes like DFN Project SEARCH, are missing out on a huge opportunity to take some of those young people out in society who need our help most and get behind them and allow them to come forward and flourish.

“In doing so, they are also losing out on the chance to learn and grow as an organisation and they don’t get to experience and celebrate the joy when you see those internships become full time jobs or when you see the young people start to stand on their own two feet, independently. It’s a hugely motivational programme for all involved.

“Local authorities are important in that, we are place makers, and therefore we have a job and responsibility to step into that space and do everything we can to help those young people, and their families succeed. It's not just about the person, it’s about the whole network that benefits from it. I think what we are doing here is strengthening our communities, growing those relationships and we see the outcome of that as a hugely powerful thing.”

How important are supported internships going forward for improving workplace equality?

“How important are supported internships? I suppose a more appropriate response and consideration before I answer that would be, if you didn’t have supported internships helping those out there with disabilities get ahead in life, or to put the necessary support systems and networks around them to allow them to go and demonstrate what they are capable of achieving, what would you do?

“Would you hope that that person’s family unit or care network can help and is able to succeed without that arrangement?

“Would you expect that the local authority is out doing something else and just expect that communities, third sector industries and employers step into that space and do it at their own behest?

“Or do you think that you as a local authority, a leader in terms of helping to create a better place for all to live in, should be actively in that space delivering opportunities, working with networks and partners (public and third sector companies), joining up all the dots that can really bring such internships to life and at a scale where it makes an impact? Not just for one or two individuals but over the duration of the programme for hundreds.

“We know that more and more people are facing these challenges in life and that there are more additional support needs for pupils in schools and more people with varying forms of disability. Therefore these supported internships are critical because these people are a hugely important part of our society and without an organisation like DFN Project SEARCH out there giving equal opportunities and putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, I think we would be a poorer place.

“Without it, there would be less opportunities for these people and that is unacceptable for me personally and professionally. I think there would be roles, jobs and careers where people could succeed but that aren’t being joined up and we wouldn’t be doing the best for these people and their families. We would be letting them down and that’s simply not good enough.

“Supported internships across Scotland, equality, fairness, how we support people with learning disabilities, that should be part of who we are and what we do day in day out. It shouldn't be a bolt on, it should be inherent to organisations, to teams, to communities and our economy that these people are allowed to play a role of equal and, as I’ve said many times, of greater value in terms of what they bring to those teams. Their experience and skills are hugely beneficial and important to the success of places like North Lanarkshire and Scotland as a whole.”

What impact can DFN Project SEARCH interns have on a company’s culture?

“I think when you look at the impact of programmes like DFN Project SEARCH you’ve got to have that lived experience to understand what they do and what they mean to people and the workplace is a really exciting and interesting example of that.

“When you see a young person come into a workplace internship who might have autism, or some other form of disability, you probably see two noticeable things. You’ll see a workplace that is nervous because, even though they may have been through some form of training to get support on how to help that young person come in and integrate into the team, they don’t have any experience of this. Equally for the young person joining that team, it’s a wholly new experience, probably quite scary or frightening at times, and there is maybe not a lot you can do about that.

“You can only prepare the best you can but if you then step back and see what then happens over the weeks, months and even years that follow, especially if full time employment is gained as it is in many many cases, you see this special journey unfold for the young person.

“You see the young person start to believe that they can do this, that they can be independent, that they can get up in the morning and go out independently, get public transport, get to a place of work, do a job, add value, and go home feeling confident satisfied, earning an income that can support their family as well as support themselves. More importantly, they see that they can, rightly so, be a success and their families get to see the young adult grow like this too.

“In the workplace, you also see an important change unfold. It’s a realisation that there is no need to be scared, concerned or even frightened and that this young person is a hugely important, valuable addition to the team. The other team members actually learn and grow themselves as their experience continues and they go on their own journey just like the intern does. Both parts of that cohesive whole gain so much, they gain confidence, friendships, and see things that perhaps they had an awareness of but not necessarily an understanding about.

“Autism is a good example of that and through support internships team members get to form a different view and have a different interaction with it and see something more, specially that there are no inherent reasons why such young people with such challenges can’t make a huge contribution to a team, a workplace, an environment, or an employer.

“From my experience over the last ten years, those employers that have become part of our DFN Project SEARCH programmes have come back again and again and again. They see the value and benefit and the growth not only for the interns but also for their organisation and they want to support it even more.

“That’s a very powerful thing and I think if more employers opened their doors, opened their minds to understanding the added value that they would get from involving themselves in those schemes, you would see exponential growth because it’s a hugely powerful thing to witness, even third hand, for the family, the person and for the employer.

“I’m a huge supporter of supported internships. I think employers are increasingly becoming supporters of it and I think those that have not experienced it yet will hopefully have the joy of getting to experience it very soon and experience the success that it comes from for both themselves and the young people involved.”