ESTABLISHING a place for the disabled in the office was at the heart of a conference aiming to break down barriers and encourage businesses to open their doors to those with learning difficulties or long-term illnesses.

The Disability Confident forum saw hundreds of entrepreneurs and firms gather at the Steam Museum to learn about the many ways in which they could accommodate hard-working jobseekers with a disability at nearly no extra cost.

The event, the first of its kind in Swindon, and one of several roadshows to be held this year across the South of England as part of a government-led campaign, also promoted the great benefits of widening the net and hiring a more diversified workforce.

Around 83,000 disabled people of working age in the region are currently unemployed.

Minister of State for Disabled People Mike Penning met various businesses at the event.

“What we want is to break down the barriers that are a hindrance for people with disabilities or long-term illnesses,” he said. “The only way we can do this is by giving confidence to employers and to employees. A lot of their concerns are about health and safety and the cost of adapting their offices and buildings. But it doesn’t take a lot of money.

“We want to get rid of the myths, get the truth out and give these people a chance. Fifty per cent of people with disabilities and long-term illnesses in the country are not in work.

“It’s not just about giving people equal opportunities but there are real economic benefits.”

Wiltshire Police began recruiting staff with learning difficulties or long-term conditions in 2011. The force partnered with Pluss, a social enterprise which supports thousands of disabled people to find work, and started off with just one volunteer, Robert Stevens.

One year later, Robert, who has cataracts in both eyes, was hired and after a stint in the 101 control room now works as an administrator.

“I had been out of work for three and a half years when I was offered this chance,” said the 42-year-old from Pewsey. “You have a job coach and they teach you various aspects of the job.

“They had to install magnifying software for me. Now I have a working life and a social life and I’m making my own money which made a huge difference.”

The disabled must meet employers halfway and believe in their own value to society and their regional economy before mindsets can change, Falklands veteran and businessman Simon Weston made clear at the conference. “The problem is there are not enough opportunities for people with disabilities and far too much stigma about it all,” he said.

“It’s about educating people, like everything else. Knowledge is power. But disabled persons have got to make themselves a more attractive package. We need people to be of value to themselves first and foremost and then show employers what their capabilities are. It’s not a one-way street. You can’t expect employers to do it all.”

To find out more about the campaign visit