USEL: Meet the NI team supporting people with disabilities and health conditions into employment

You may not have heard of it but for the past few decades, the team at USEL have been changing the lives of thousands of people with disabilities or health conditions by helping them find a lasting career they can progress and flourish in.

Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USEL), an arm’s-length body of the Department for Communities, was established to provide supported paid employment for disabled people.

Established in 1962, today USEL is the largest supporter of people with disabilities within Northern Ireland with offices in Belfast, Derry and Portadown.

READ MORE: Ability Cafe's threatened closure creates community fury and fight for survival

READ MORE: People power saves 'lifeline' NI learning disability centre from closure

Each year, the social enterprise supports over 1,200 people with disabilities in more than 750 companies to enter and sustain economic employment through its various programmes. such as confidential shredding, industrial sewing and mattress recycling.

USEL boasts a manufacturing operation producing a range of products such as satchels, portable kits for emergency services and an extensive array of bedding materials.

The initiative to help people with learning disabilities get a job is not just changing lives - it's also helping to boost employment.

Usel is Northern Ireland`s largest supporter of people with disabilities or health conditions into employment
Usel is Northern Ireland`s largest supporter of people with disabilities or health conditions into employment -Credit:Belfast Live

Scott Jackson recently stepped into the role of CEO at USEL and he shares that passion for championing ability and focusing on the strengths of clients and employees.

He told Belfast Live: "I've seen many young men and women come through the programmes and the direct employment side with the factory and it's great to see how they change, particularly with their health conditions.

"We had one particular individual come into us who was a wee bit withdrawn into himself and wouldn't talk to anybody. After six months working internally with a staff member in the operations division, you could see this person coming out of their shell.

"It basically transforms their lives and if I'm honest I love watching that - it's the best part of the job and makes it all worthwhile."

Scott Jackson, the Chief Executive and Accounting Officer of Usel
Scott Jackson, the Chief Executive and Accounting Officer of Usel -Credit:Belfast Live

Approximately 70% of employees at the USEL manufacturing and recycling facility in North Belfast have a disability or health related condition.

Local man Thomas Bradshaw works in the USEL Warehouse, where he plays a role in each of the social enterprises, mainly recycling and shredding.

Thomas said: "Before I started here, I was in a bad and dark place and diagnosed with chronic depression, stress and anxiety.

"When I came here, I started in mattress recycling as an operator. Let's just say, gradually things started getting better. I started socialising with people, finding myself a purpose for getting up and going back into work. From them to now, I have developed in a very big way."

Thomas Bradshaw in the Usel Warehouse
Thomas Bradshaw in the Usel Warehouse -Credit:Belfast Live

USEL also has three Ability Café locations across Belfast - at The Foundry on Shankill Road, The Stables in Lady Dixon Park and the Treetop at Belfast Zoo - all delivering top-quality coffee, food and service.

The Ability Cafés provide accredited training in health and safety, food preparation, kitchen hygiene and customer service before giving them practical work experience. They also show how employing people with disabilities can benefit an employer, the workforce, and customers.

The cafés provide a safe and supported environment for employees to develop the skills and confidence they need, to progress into employment in the hospitality sector. This also benefits and strengthens the local economy, which is currently facing recruitment difficulties.

Simon Dobson, who has autism, is a prime example of how USEL helps young people with health-related conditions get to work. and is now highly successful in his roles across all the cafés.

Simon Dobson at The Stables Cafe in Lady Dixon Park
Simon Dobson at The Stables Cafe in Lady Dixon Park -Credit:Belfast Live

He explained: "Because I'm autistic, I struggled with a lot of what would be mainstream tasks but as I've worked here in this coffee shop and others, I've been able to learn to control my stress and attitude and be able to look at a situation without stressing out about it.

"USEL has helped me through their wonderful team and Ida, the coffee shop manager, who has amazing patience and skills for all of us to learn.

"I'm extremely thankful to her and everybody in the company for helping me through this journey with the coffee shop because while it has been a struggle at the start, being here has made things a lot easier for me."

For more information on the work of Usel, visit

Video by Belfast Live videographer Harry Bateman.

For all the latest news, visit the Belfast Live homepage here and sign up to our daily newsletter here.