The NHS Learning Disability Employment Programme

Find out how you can support people with learning disabilities into the workplace through supported internships.

1 March 2022

Employment rates for people with a learning disability and/or autism have remained low for many years. NHS Employers launched the Learning Disability Employment Programme (LDEP) in partnership with NHS England in 2015 to support the development of local and national solutions to remove barriers and increase employment opportunities for people with a learning disability and/or autism in the NHS.

The programme is key to delivering a specific commitment to employ more people with a learning disability and/or autism set out in the NHS Long Term Plan. It forms part of our work to support NHS trusts to design services which serve and reflect their diverse patients, people and communities.

We are working to support the NHS to offer meaningful jobs to people with learning disabilities. There are not only benefits to the individuals but also for employers, including the savings associated with reduced employee turnover, accessing a bigger talent pool and nurturing an inclusive and accessible organisation.

Recruiting staff through supported internships

Supported internships are a one year work based study programme, where young people aged 16 to 24 spend the majority of their time based at an employer. They provide an important step into employment, helping young people gather the skills and experience they need to secure a job.

There are a range of supported internship programmes being delivered by NHS organisations and partners across the health system. Some organisations have their own schemes, however, the majority of NHS organisations work with one of the two main national providers - Health Education England’s Project Choice and DFN Project SEARCH. Both offer a wealth of experience of working with NHS organisations, and provide an infrastructure which supports NHS organisations and individuals. 

As of July 2021, Project Choice has supported more than 150 young people across 31 NHS sites, it aims to grow by an additional 48 new placements for the 2022-23 academic year. 

DFN Project SEARCH has supported 270 young adults a year across 36 NHS sites.

As part of the commitment to increasing supported internships and lasting employment in the NHS Long Term Plan; NHS England, NHS Improvement and Health Education England have each committed £210,000 to support 42 additional supported internship programmes through DFN Project SEARCH.

Get involved

Project Choice and DFN Project SEARCH are directly approaching NHS organisations, particularly those that have taken the Learning Disability Employment Programme Pledge, to see how they can develop new supported internships at their sites.

NHS organisations with any questions on the operation of supported internships in their area can contact either DFN Project SEARCH or Project Choice. If you have specific questions about the LDEP Pledge, please contact the national LDEP team.

  • Intern & Role Details               Tasks Completed                                                Reasonable Adjustments                         

    Intern demographics

    22-year-old female

    Physical disability and learning difficulties

    Role detail

    Role: Café Assistant

    Department: Catering Department

    Duration in role: 24-week placement

    • Wrapping cutlery
    • Clearing and wiping down tables
    • Washing/ drying up cafe items
    • Managing cafe stock
    • Taking deliveries
    • Rotating shelves/food items
    • Taking orders from customers
    • Fortnightly Project Choice meeting to review progress
    • Staff physically showing the Intern each task when learning
    • Meet mentor at the start of each day
    • Having picture aids
    • Using written dates to help with stock rotation

    Intern demographics

    23-year-old female

    Learning difficulties

    Role detail

    Role: Ward Hostess

    Department: Patient facing ward

    Duration in role: 2 years (12-month placement + 12-month volunteer role)

    • Collecting daily menus
    • Taking orders from patients
    • Organising tea and food trolleys 
    • Preparing cutlery and food trays
    • Serving food to patients
    • Cleaning up food preparation stations and patient trays
    (as above)

    Intern demographics

    22-year-old male


    Role detail

    Role: General Porter

    Department: Portering

    Duration: 24-week placement 

    • Transporting patients ward to ward via beds or wheelchairs as well as controlled drugs and medicines to pharmacy
    • Working throughout different departments delivering and replenishing clinical stock
    • Checking oxygen levels on wards and working with staff to ensure they are at the right level
    • Using radio communication to pick up jobs and inform supervisor of completion
    • Fill in paperwork signing out beds on the log sheet to ensure health and safety requirements are met
    • Transfers; using a safe slide to ensure that the patient is moved safely
    • Performing and assisting with mortuary duties
    (as above)

    Intern demographics

    22-year-old male

    Learning disability

    Role detail

    Role: Domestics 

    Department: Domestic Services

    Duration in role: 12-week placement

    • Learning Health and safety/COSHH procedures
    • Following cleaning direction from staff
    • Using the correct cleaning products for different cleaning tasks
    • Responding to cleaning requests on wards
    • Stocking cleaning trolleys
    (as above)

    Intern demographics

    24-year-old male

    Learning difficulties

    Role detail

    Role: Administration

    Department: Bookings and referrals

    Duration in role: 24-week placement + 2 years employment

    • Using computer and all computer programmes
    • Using bespoke NHS data bases
    • Confirming bookings
    • Sending out appointment letters and referrals
    • Contacting patients to confirm appointments
    • Photocopying and scanning
    (as above)
  • The Disability Confident scheme supports employers to make the most of the talents disabled people can bring to your workplace. Disability Confident organisations play a leading role in changing attitudes for the better. The scheme helps employers recruit and retain great people, and:

    • draw from the widest possible pool of talent
    • secure high quality staff who are skilled, loyal and hard working
    • improve employee morale and commitment by demonstrating that you treat all employees fairly.

    It also helps individuals and businesses identify those employers who are committed to equality in the workplace.

    The scheme has three levels designed to support employers on their Disability Confident journey. Visit Disability Confident to learn more about the initiative.

  • An increasing number of NHS organisations are taking the Learning Disability Employment Programme (LDEP) Pledge, which sees them commit to taking action to help people into lasting employment. Supported internships are one of the ways that this action is delivered.

    The LDEP Pledge brings together a new national network providing advice, ideas and impetus to all NHS organisations – from local hospital trusts to national bodies, to remove barriers and to accelerate employment of people with learning disabilities in the NHS. For further information please email the national LDEP team.

  • For reference, we will use the phrase ‘autistic people and people with a learning disability’ as this is the language requested by our lived experience advisors. However, it is important to ask what language individuals prefer.

    Autism is a life-long neuro-developmental condition that affects how people interact and communicate with others.  For more information around autism please see the National Autistic Society (NAS), where there is helpful guidance on how to talk and write about autism using accurate and sensitive language. 

    Learning Disability is a life-long developmental condition that affects how people understand and learn new things. For more information around learning disabilities, please see the guidance from Mencap.

    Having a learning disability is not the same as being autistic although some autistic people will also have a learning disability.  And it is important to note that no two autistic people or two people with a learning disability are the same. Therefore, an individual approach is required.

    Many autistic people and people with a learning disability see being autistic or having a learning disability as a fundamental part of who they are, so it’s important to use positive language. If you are referring to a particular person or group, ask people how they would prefer to be described. This preference should take precedence over the recommendations outlined above, as it is always best practice to ask a person directly what language they prefer to use.

    Autistic people and people with a learning disability’s access to employment is likely to be further impacted by other factors such as their ethnicity, other disabilities and gender. According to BASE, employment rates for people with disabilities in 2020-21 has fallen to 5.1%. They also found that a lower percentage of women with a learning disability are employed than men and that there are also significant regional divides in employment rates. The diagnosis rate for autism is also higher for men than women internationally and within the UK, and a report by NAS addresses the link between autism and gender dysphoria

  • Autistic people and people with learning disabilities can have a variety of skills and thrive in a range of different roles but can be at a disadvantage when it comes to attaining and retaining a job. This is often because of a lack of understanding and support from their organisation and colleagues.

    By gaining an understanding of autism and learning disability, you can open up new possibilities for your organisation and new potential employees.

    There are many reported benefits of employing autistic people and people with a learning disability, such as: creating a wider, more diverse recruitment pool; reduced staff turnover; higher staff morale; increased productivity; and encouraging more creative and flexible ways of thinking and problem-solving. Further supporting data can be found in the Mencap Good for Business report.