ONCE AGAIN – IF YOU WANT TO SKIP THIS AND SCROLL DOWN TO THE DIARY, GO RIGHT AHEAD!
Where it meets the North Sea, the mainland on the west coast of Norway breaks up into islands and slim, elongated peninsulas. So while Ålesund town centre is on the mainland, everywhere you look there’s sea – as someone pointed out to me, it’s hopeless to use the fjord as a landmark because bits of it are everywhere.
With a mountain backdrop that even Norwegians find breathtaking, it’s been voted Norway’s most beautiful town. But the Sunnmøre Alps aren’t the only reason it’s special.
In 1904, there was a catastrophic fire in the town that left 10,000 people homeless. The vast majority of Norwegian houses are still built of wood to this day, so it’s scarcely surprising that just about every settlement in Norway has its own, similar tale to tell.
The difference for Ålesund was a generous benefactor – Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, no less, who often holidayed in the region and sent money and materials to help the town rebuild. The result was that within 3 years, the town centre had been completely redeveloped in the new and fashionable Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, style. Because all the building work was done pretty much at the same time, it’s completely consistent and strikingly picturesque.
Oh, and it’s also twinned with Peterhead, near Aberdeen. The Blue Tooners have taste.
THURSDAY 5 NOVEMBER
I’m here to spend 2 days at Spesialistbedriften, which employs skilled, innovative thinkers with Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD as consultants to a range of companies and organisations. Founded a year ago, the company’s objectives are clear. It isn’t an employment agency, and it certainly isn’t a support service – although support, both for their employees and the clients who use their services, can be part of the deal.
People who work for Spesialistbedriften are highly skilled and in most cases highly qualified young people in their 20s and early 30s, who but for the fact they have a learning difficulty would have expected to have a clear pathway into employment.
The focus of the company is on providing digital and visual support and this is key, says general manager Merete Alnes Mostue.
“We have a valuable resource we’re offering to businesses so they can operate more effectively,” she explains. “We’re not asking them to do us a favour by providing someone with work experience. This is about providing a capable and qualified consultant to fulfil a role the client has identified, for the length of time that role is required.”
I interview two of Spesialistbedriften’s employees (I’ll meet a third tomorrow). Both had difficult paths through school and experienced little useful in the way of work experience. Both are highly intelligent, articulate and skilled.
I can hear the voices now, from those who think living on welfare is somehow a lifestyle choice. Why should my taxes pay salaries (which they do to an extent, in Norway) and benefits for people like these, when they should be in jobs?
Exactly. Give them work with the right support, and your taxes won’t need to.
FRIDAY 6 NOVEMBER
My second day at Spesialistbedriften is with Arne Bjørdal, who started the organisation after realising the young people with Asperger’s he taught represented an untapped resource of skill and innovation.
Today he works with schools and potential employers to raise awareness of Asperger’s and what expectations can, and should, be for these young people. He’s clear about what teachers can do to make classes work better, not only for the pupil with Asperger’s but the class as a whole.
I go with Arne to visit the college he taught in and am hugely impressed. It’s true the building is new, well designed and equipped. But that’s not the most impressive thing. The thread that runs through the conversations I have, with just about everyone from the janitor up, is that students with special needs are not a problem to be solved, but a resource that enhances the experience of education for everybody. It’s evident this is as true for students with neurodevelopmental difficulties as those with more obvious physical needs.
In this college, diversity is a strength and has value. The head teacher has created a culture of inclusion, support and achievement for staff, as well as for students. And it’s underpinned by a system flexible enough to cope with the fluctuating demands of real life.
I guess it’s flexible structures that are best placed to make adjustments when they need to: it’s inflexible ones that collapse. That’s as true of social structures as of buildings in an earthquake zone. At the moment the rigidity of many services in the UK at age 18 strikes me as dangerously inflexible.
I like the attitude at Spesialistbedriften: they’ve identified a need and staff are using their transferable skills to tackle it. It’s great they’re working on social skills and rules around being in an office, because these are as important as technical ability – or maybe even more so – when making the transition into work. I was made to feel very welcome and included, and I hugely appreciated being able to interview the employees and their families.
I hope we stay in touch and I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop!