Essex Meaningful Lives: a new offer for people with a learning disability and autism

Dan Farag

Dan Farag

Dan Farag
PPR alumni
Dan Farag lead the People Powered Results team as a Nesta Enterprise until his departure in December 2021. Dan joined Nesta in 2013 initially working on the Centre for Social...
Jess Stewart

Jess Stewart

Jess Stewart
Guest Author
Jess is Head of Commissioning for Learning Disabilities and Autism at Essex County Council. She has worked in commissioning to support vulnerable children and adults in the NHS and Local...

A key milestone has recently been reached of over 100 people with learning and disabilities supported into paid employment across Essex.

In 2019 Essex County Council embarked on a fundamental redesign of the support offer for people with learning disabilities and autism. But the work, initiated by commissioners at Essex County Council, represented much more than just a typical redesign effort. It set out to shift the fundamental purpose of the system from one of service solutions centred around institutional environments like Day Centres, to one that builds systems of support focussed on people and places that enable Meaningful lives. Whilst easier said than done, two years on, and despite a global pandemic, the results speak for themselves with over 100 people now in paid employment.

The new approach brought together commissioners, providers, local communities, and businesses to work in equal partnership with individuals and their families to build confidence and independence and to create meaningful employment opportunities.  The work used the People Powered Results team’s 100 Day Challenge approach to mobilise and organise the system to action. This approach would act as a catalyst for a shift in the overall purpose of the system, and facilitated people to think and work together differently to achieve that purpose.

The start was to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that the current system wasn’t working for anyone, and its purpose needed to evolve.

Around 21,000 adults across Essex have a learning disability, and a further 15,000 have autism – this is predicted to rise a further c.6+% before 2040. Early research and discovery work by ECC directly engaged and listened to the experiences of people with a learning disability and autism along with their families and carers. This work highlighted the current system wasn’t fit for purpose. It was too bureaucratic and failed to build clear routes into essential areas like employment, housing and social interaction. It also revealed people in Essex wanted better opportunities and choices – they sought meaningful, paid jobs, to visit their local shops and amenities, to receive good quality training and to build strong friendship networks in their communities. One of the key areas of focus for the programme was day service provision.

As Chris Martin, Director of Commissioning at ECC reflected at the start of the work, the status quo was difficult to acknowledge and accept, but acceptance helped create a key condition for transformation:

“It is shameful but true, that these young people have higher ambitions and expectations than our society and our system has for them, or are ready for support and nurture. What we have learnt through the 100 Day Challenge is that if we collaborate, work more collectively and coalesce around an agreed set of ambitions for people with learning disabilities, we change the conditions by which people are supported. And in doing so, we unlock and unleash potential and capability that many people had otherwise not noticed, because our system and ‘way of working’ is organised around ‘needs’ and deficits as opposed to identifying, amplifying and building upon the strengths and attributes that exist within us all, and especially learning disabled citizens.

“But to do this with conviction and authenticity requires a huge collective mind-shift, one that seeks the strengths in some of our most marginalised citizens, a shift that values them, includes them and loves them. We are ready for this challenge in Essex and we can point to clear evidence that our work here has managed to identify opportunities for citizens with learning disabilities that would have otherwise been denied to them. There is much to do, but we believe we have made a strong start. This system must change.”

The design of the 100 Day Challenge set out to test not only a set of ideas to get people into employment and meaningful lives, but also aimed to stimulate new ways of thinking and working that enabled people with learning disabilities and autism to be in the driving seat of system changes. Challenge teams put lived experience at the centre of the work, with many of them nominating a person with a learning disability and/or autism as their team captain. Undoubtedly a daunting role to take on at times, but it demonstrated what was possible with the right support. And, as Callum describes, it gave him and his team a new confidence and resilience to take on anything.

“I’m not used to talking to strangers and that, at first it was a little bit scary but now I feel good being in a room full of people. I’ve got a lot more friends now and I like the confidence that it’s given me.”

Callum, Trainee Gardener at Barley Twist Garden Services, a work-based training enterprise for adults with learning disabilities (pictured here with his support worker John)

Putting people with a learning disability and/or autism at the heart of developments

The results achieved at the end of the 100 day challenge received national recognition and gave a sense of what was possible when people with a learning disability and/or autism were supported to be better connected to their communities, and worked in equal partnership with providers and employers. But the work not only transformed lives and provided a blueprint for future commissioning intentions, it has also been a catalyst for how Essex County Council works in partnership with their residents.

The resulting new support offer for adults with a learning disability and/or autism is underpinned by a set of core principles that ultimately put residents at the heart of developments :

  • Empowerment – giving people a voice, recognising their potential and building their confidence and resilience.
  • Co-production – working with people to design the support they need to live a meaningful life, rather than ask them to fit a service model. A new set of co-production rules were developed, by a member of a team with lived experience and mandated by Essex County Council’s CEO, this came to be known as Nick’s Rule and stimulated a systemic change in how decisions are made both within the programme and across the Council.
  • Enablement – supporting people to make choices, and enabling them to achieve their aspirations, working with providers, local businesses and communities to make reasonable adjustments to ensure people with additional needs could access the same real-world opportunities as others in their community.

“Now, hopefully, Nick’s Rule will help change the way Essex county council is structured and allow people to feel more at ease with things they may want to do.”

Nick, a 100 Day Challenge participant and ECC intern (pictured here with Gavin Jones, Chief Executive of Essex County Council)

Reimagining Day Centres as pathways to employment and meaningful lives

One of the major transformations which stemmed directly from the 100 Day Challenge was the reimagining and eventual re-commissioning of Essex County Councils largest day centre provider Essex Cares Limited (ECL).

The Day Centre provision has been transformed from a traditional building based offer, to an innovative inclusive employment and community inclusion service. The new offer tested at a small scale through the 100 day challenge, formally went live in late 2020.

The L.I.V.E (Learning, Independence, Vocation and Employment) service has 266 active customers transferred onto the inclusive employment pathway and, within it’s first few months of operating, had secured paid jobs for 106 adults with a learning disability and/or autism.

Below are a few of the lives it has transformed in its early stages.


Louis joined Inclusive Employment to fulfil her dream of finding paid employment in Administration for an employer who supports people with a learning disability.

  • Louise attended the 100-day challenge which led to a two-year programme with Essex County Council as a Co-Production Support Officer.
  • Louise was referred to Inclusive Employment to further support in achieving a role within administration due to previous experience working with computers and completing admin tasks.
  • Louise was supported to create a CV, and to find a level 1 course in European computers, and get a driving licence at ACL in Chelmsford.
  • Louise had a mock interview that supported her in developing the confidence to complete interviews for paid work.
  • Louise is now working 4 hours per week and thoroughly enjoying her new role.

“I feel happy, I want to help others to achieve their dreams in life. I feel that I have found the correct job role for me, and my dream is to now to help others.”


Brian was a long standing and committed customer at ECL day services typically attending the Day Centre 5 days a week.

His skills and confidence have grown over the years, proving that he can work across many departments and within diverse customer service facing roles. After starting a supportive volunteering role with the Monthind maintenance team at Plough Corner, he grew further in confidence, taking on some of the health and safety checks on site alongside the caretaker.

He also completed his Manual Handling training with the ECL training department, who adjusted the training to suit Brian’s particular style of learning. With the support of his Inclusive Employment Consultant and the Inclusive Employer Engagement Lead, Brian was able to identify clear choices of working areas to focus on, put together a CV, and get support to prepare for job interviews and to engage with local Employers in the community. Brian completed CV drops and started to connect with local employers, and also build his communication and confidence skills when talking with employers and promoting his skills and experiences.

A job trial with a local employer that matched Brian’s job interests arose and with the support of his IEC and job coach, Brian was able to move forward with his employment journey. Easy read documents were produced to help Brian retain and recall processes, and risk assessments were implemented to support the employer and to ensure H&S requirements were personalised for Brian in his role. These processes helped keep Brian safe, but also helped the employer adjust and understand Brian’s individual needs.

Brian has reduced his 5 day a week attendance at the Day Centre to zero.


When Project Manager Neil Taylor, of Clontara Developments, was recruiting for a site cleaner to work at a construction development in Billericay, he was pleased to be contacted by ECL Inclusive Employment Consultant, Sam Towns, regarding a candidate she had in mind called Roger.

Roger, who is 39 and has a learning disability, already worked as a volunteer for the British Heart Foundation and had been a customer of ECL Day Opportunities for 5.5 years.

After discussing Roger’s application with Clontara’s Managing Director, the company felt that it would be a fantastic opportunity for both Roger and themselves as a company.

Sam offered a variety of support throughout the application and onboarding process; mentoring Roger and taking the time to show him how to complete his job role to a good standard, as well as supporting him in understanding the role, resolving any concerns.

She also supported Roger in becoming self-employed, as well as putting in place all of the required Risk Assessments and arranging regular reviews to look at his progression within his role.

“My family is really happy! I love working and I enjoy myself. I would recommend others getting a job as it has helped me socialise and meet others, and hopefully it will do the same for the others who get into employment.”                            

All these stories give a glimpse of what is possible when you shift the overall purpose of a system and start to connect people to places to take a more inclusive approach to supporting people to become more active participants in their local community and economy.

The work, and impact generated, also gives a glimpse of the future of public services that put people, place and participation at its heart.

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