Charities have criticised the Eden Project for placing gardeners with learning disabilities in behind-the-scenes roles.
Making a comment after a presentation on the skills crisis in horticulture, Sue Minter, director of horticulture at Eden, said the image of horticulture was bad enough already without showing the industry as a place where schools careers officers could dump their low-ability pupils.
She told the recent Green Skills Seminar that she receives dozens of requests to give people with learning disabilities work experience at Eden every year but she prefers to put them to work out of view of the public: “We place the disabled behind the scenes. We have a responsibility for professional horticulture’s image.”
She added: “It’s been traditional for low-ability people to go into agriculture and horticulture. This is a very difficult and controversial area. We need to have some way for dealing with it.”
A seminar attendee, who would not be named, said that Minter was “brave” to bring up the “non-PC” issue. Another said his views were “very different” to Minter’s on the issue.
Capel Manor College principal Steve Dowbiggin said: “It was an aberration, really. Sometimes people say things to exaggerate a point. But I don’t think it’s borne out by what they do there.”
Chief executive Nicola Carruthers of Thrive, a charity set up to help disabled people to garden, said: “We believe that disabled gardeners have an enormous amount to offer the horticulture industry, and they should be entitled to the same opportunities and choices as everyone else.”
She added that Thrive research shows half of the disabled people who attend UK garden projects “are being trained in the very skills that are currently scarce — potentially between 9,000 and 10,000 people who could join an under-resourced industry”.
“However, our experience in highlighting this potential workforce to horticulture and its associated businesses has been very disappointing. The industry is simply not geared up to perceiving disabled people as professional and productive employees, and could be ignoring a wealth of untapped and very capable expertise.
“We understand the diversity within the horticulture industry, and the pressure for profits companies face, however we still believe that trained disabled people can not only help to plug the growing skills gap but also offer new insights into customers.”
Mencap head of campaigns and policy David Congdon said: “Mencap feels it is wrong to say that people with a learning disability would ruin the image of any profession, including horticulture.”
Eden PR manager David Roe responded: “It’s not a view shared by me or other people here.” He later issued a statement saying Minter’s comments were not about Eden, adding: “Sue Minter’s remarks were made as a life-long horticulturist and were not specific to her position at Eden. She was making a general point about disabled people in horticulture.
“It is certainly not right to say that at Eden we put disabled people behind the scenes. Eden is about acknowledging diversity and using people’s strengths, not labelling them as able or disabled. We employ 40 horticulturists and around 10 per cent of them have one form of disability or another.”
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