At a recent virtual VRA event Peter Davies was awarded an Honorary Lifetime Membership of the VRA in recognition of his contribution to vocational rehabilitation.
Peter Davies involvement with the world of vocational rehabilitation started in 1983 when he was appointed as the first Director of the Rehab Group’s National Training College in Dublin. It aimed to enable people with disabilities to compete in the open labour market. At the time this was the only such provision in Ireland for adults with disabilities considered to have good ability and potential to get into or back to work in the open labour market. It provided vocational assessment and guidance, a range of training courses and supported the state National Rehabilitation Board in securing employment for these clients. The service was developed very much on a European model and there was contact with similar centres in Germany, France and in particular the Netherlands.
This service developed a range of other provision including an early intervention programme at the National Medical Rehabilitation Centre outside Dublin , under programme to assist people with disabilities to access University. This included a pre University course run at the college, in conjunction with University College Dublin and University College Cork.
In 1990 the Rehab Group expanded into Scotland and Peter was the lead person to develop new services there and elsewhere in Britain. He coordinated a range of European level projects over the next few years using EU funding involving other services in Belgium Germany Spain Portugal Italy. He also chaired a working group in the Helios programme which developed guidelines on brain injury rehabilitation for Europe The flagship services were for people with a brain injury in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Birmingham and latterly Newcastle. He was the founding Convenor of the Scottish Head Injury Forum. The organisation also provided vocational services for people with mental health problems including one in Southwark.
This brought him into contact with Mike Floyd and his vocational rehabilitation Master’s programme at City University. He had contact with Hazel Ingamells, who was, probably, the first chair of the VRA. He succeeded her in about 1992. At that time the work largely involved organising a few meetings a year in London and where possible trying to introduce the concept to government departments. It was an opportunity to find out what was going on, to make contacts and to promote the idea of VR in places where it had not been mentioned in that way before. The Disability Resettlement Offices in the Jobcentres were, at best, of variable quality and commitment and had little specific training for the role. Those who had focus on this in the NHS, mainly OTs, were only engaged to a minimal level and because of personal interest. Peter saw the VRA as having to potential to get VR to a professional level, one which could bring together people engaged in the process and practice from the diverse range of backgrounds the then practitioners had – and still have. This meant people in Vocational Training, voluntary organisation Support Workers, OTs, Nurses, Psychologists, Counsellors, Teachers – the wide range of people from diverse backgrounds who work in this field. They needed an organisation to represent them and give them a professional identity.
In those days vocational rehabilitation was not a concept well understood in the UK. There were moves at policy level to have more integrated services which led to the closure of the regional Employment Rehabilitation Units run by the Employment Service. As a result, the initial focus at that time was on people who were out of work and had lost their jobs as a result of the onset of illness or disability. Soon afterwards Unum insurance from the USA, who coincidentally had visited Peter’s facility in Dublin, moved into the UK and began to make some resources available to promote the idea of VR.
This was of course led by the interests of insurers. Over time the major focus of VR work changed to emphasise retaining people in employment wherever possible. This shift from the unemployed to the still employed did make something of a difference. Businesses arose to service the demand for this but they were focussed on getting people back to work, not helping those who became disabled to find a new job. When placed alongside the efforts to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream services it is changed the focus of vocational rehabilitation services up until them largely run by voluntary organisations. Unfortunately the privatisation of return to work services generally has meant that providers, paid by results, have perforce been focussed on getting a person a job, without considering the quality of the job or how it enables a person to realise their potential. The long term nature of disability requires long term solutions, but that seems to be missed in the design of services, probably because of the costs involved. A gap has arisen between those with access to services funded through employer insurance and those without it. On the plus side, the ideas of health and wellbeing and of diversity and inclusion are very positive and clearly to be supported. The availability of resources to make them happen remains questionable.
If Peter has a criticism of current practise it is that because these businesses are paid to get people back to their job or to support the decision that that is not possible. The focus on alternatives is usually very limited. That’s not a criticism of the people or their organisations, but on the structure and scope of provision. Fundamentally this arises because there is not a comprehensive integrated service but rather a series of compartments. This means that potential is lost and very often individuals will fall into a cycle of short term low paid jobs or into long term benefits.
“The VRA has become a bigger, stronger and more sophisticated organisation than it was at the beginning when half a dozen people tried to promote the idea and to enlist personal contacts to organise meetings. Its survival and growth is a tribute to those who came after me, not to me. I just turned up.”