I’ve lived in Little Sandhurst for nine years. It’s a lovely, quiet little place nestled up against Wellington College, Broadmoor Hospital and the Royal Military Academy and surrounded by heathland and woodland that my children love. In that nine years I’ve crossed paths countless times with a young man who also lives in the village. He is very distinctive – ginger hair, glasses, iPod and earphones always in, jeans, hoody. He also has Down syndrome. I estimate that he’s about 25 years old.
Up until today every time I saw this young man, with one exception, he was doing the same thing – walking aimlessly, listening to his music, alone. The one exception was when he was walking with a young lady of a similar age. Every single time I’ve seen him I’ve wondered where he’s walking from, where he’s walking to and what he’s going to do when he gets there. I worry about him. I worry because he is the adult personification of the children at my school. I worry about him because I worry about them. A lot. I worry about what life holds for them once they leave my school and take on life as an adult.
I’ve never spoken to him, although I dearly want to to learn more about him if only his name. Two strangers passing in the street, both walking with intent doesn’t make for a relaxed conversation. I have, though, grabbed hold of him once. Walking home from Crowthorne one day we passed on the footpath on the main road. He politely stepped off the path to let me pass and stepped straight in to the oncoming traffic. I pulled him back on to the path and he proceeded to go about his business as if nothing had happened.
I worried about him that day.
But not today. Today I was jubilant.
I saw him as I was taking my son to his Saturday football match. Ginger hair – check. Glasses – check. iPod and earphones – check. Jeans and hoody – missing. In their place an unmistakable uniform. This young man was off to work. Smart shoes. Trousers. Shirt. Tie. His usual aimless cadence was replaced by a purposeful stride as he had a place to be by a certain time.
He gave me hope. Hope that the children in my school find employers that recognise their great strengths, that allow them to use the skills and knowledge that we spend years working on with them in lessons, in our college programme, in our vocational programme and in our work experience programme.
People with learning difficulties are far less likely to be working than the rest of us. Mencap says they are seven times less likely and if they do work it will most likely be part-time and poorly paid. All sorts of other social issues flow from this underemployment and unemployment.
These statistics give my exceptional colleagues a very sharp focus for their work. They do everything they can to give our students the best possible chance out there. That gradient didn’t get any shallower today, but my commitment to doing everything I can to improve the prospects for our children was given a boost.
He’s not walking aimlessly anymore. He’s walking with intent and I couldn’t be happier for him.