Many studies in the minority world have emphasized the potentially positive influences of supported as opposed to sheltered employment on the inclusion of persons with disabilities, including learning difficulties, into the mainstream economy and community. In 2007, Malaysia, as one of the developing countries which possesses a growing population of persons with learning difficulties, started to promote this form of employment hoping for similar outcomes. However, in the majority world where a country is designing policy for the first time and is at the relatively early stages of implementation, there has been little research to explore supported employment practices for persons with learning difficulties and offer empirical findings from real employment experiences. Thus, this thesis aims to fill this gap through providing some substantial evidence and new insights. The social theory of disability and the debates around it have been particularly influential in the past three decades. These have helped to shape the approach of this research into understanding the experiences of persons with learning difficulties in the labour market in Malaysia. The study also covers the general understanding of disability from an Islamic perspective. Theoretical approaches to career and career development are also discussed before specifically focusing on the barriers faced in accessing a working life and developing a career in paid jobs as well as achieving greater social integration. The empirical contribution of the thesis is through a study of supported employment initiated in Malaysia to enable persons with learning difficulties to work in the mainstream retail sector, and sets that experience in the context of relevant policy and practice. It aims to produce key insights into the ‘lived realities’ of employees with learning difficulties taking part in the scheme. It foregrounds their perceptions but also explores the viewpoints of government officials, managers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) coordinators involved in the development of policy and practice relating to the scheme. The research participants were drawn from the 82 employees with learning difficulties engaged in the supported employment scheme in a retail company, together with seven managers involved with the scheme, eight government officials and three NGOs coordinators. One finding of the study is that, in general, supported employment is likely to help to reduce the stigma associated with having a disability. However, while most persons with learning difficulties believe themselves to have the ability to work in supported employment, others, including those who are providing support for their entry to the workforce, still have doubts. Notwithstanding enjoying many aspects of their working lives in supported employment, some employees face difficulties in developing interpersonal relationships in the workplace and achieving much better control of their own lives than is often assumed to result from having a job.
The findings also suggest that stability in the political, economic and social environment facilitate the development of better policy in this complex area. Commitment from the company is vitally important to guarantee the success of the scheme. The existence of international policy frameworks are also helpful and cross-country collaboration has been tremendously beneficial, in particular that between Malaysian institutions and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Further development of policy and practice is required, especially in enriching the understanding of disability issues among most government officials, managers and NGOs coordinators, taking greater account of the research evidence that points to the limited awareness of and specific knowledge about disability issues, particularly for persons with learning difficulties and their employability. The voices and views of persons with
learning difficulties should also be better acknowledged in setting priorities for disability-related reform. Finally, in order to sustain and develop supported employment more effectively, there is a fundamental need to upgrade the education and training system for this group as well as to intensify collaboration between government departments.
Keywords: supported employment, disability, persons with learning