Learning Disability Week 2015: our thoughts so far...

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This year’s theme for the Mencap led Learning Disability Week is ‘hear my voice’. This is very timely because Mencap and numerous other organisations have worked really hard during the past year to ensure people with learning disabilities understand their role in the voting system and for politicians to take note of this group. Giving people a greater voice is something we at the Foundation and our fellow charities strive to do in our work. We know our work is done when we no longer exist – that is when people with learning disabilities are seen as equal citizens. One new group that has emerged in the past year to push the agenda for equal citizenship is the Learning Disability Alliance (LDA). The LDA was formed as a response to the cuts to public funding, an increase in hate crime and the large number of people still living in institutions. Its vision is to describe a good society and was developed with the National Forum of People with Learning Disabilities and the National Valuing Families Forum. LDA is also made up of charities (including the Foundation), organisations and individuals who believe in uniting to form a greater voice to stop this injustice.

At the Foundation we were delighted to run a citizens’ jury event on behalf of the LDA in March, just ahead of the election. Representatives of all the major parties were invited to come and speak to a group of people with learning disabilities and family carers.

As well as running the citizens’ jury, the Foundation has been giving people a greater voice during the past year through a number of our projects. For our hate crime project, we formed a very educated and passionate reference group of people with learning disabilities and they had very clear ideas of what should happen to reduce hate crime. One key area they felt should be tackled was the way people with learning disabilities were portrayed on the television, which tended to be stigmatising and focussed on what people cannot do rather than what they can do. They developed a list of five ‘top tips for broadcasters’ and made a short film to accompany it, along with a campaign.  Following this we were asked to meet the Disability Executive at Channel 4 and two of the reference group met with her to explore the way people are represented on television. We have also been contacted by script writers for the BBC day time soap ‘Doctors’ and have worked with them on two different shows advising on how they should and shouldn’t portray characters with learning disabilities, and we have been asked by a journalist from BBC 5 Live for easy read materials.

Another key area from this project was the development of the ‘Staying safe online’ guide because we learned that many people are nervous to use the internet and social media, yet it can be a positive way to keep in touch with friends. Again, with the expertise and support of the reference group we developed the easy read guide which has been disseminated to schools, colleges and service providers who are keen to support people to access the internet but in a safe manner.

One of the main ways of increasing people’s voices is to find a valued role in society. For most of us, this is through our job, but with only 7% of people with learning disabilities in work we have a long way to go to demonstrate how such people can have a valued role in society. The concept of Social Role Valorisation was developed by Wolf Wolfensberger and he argued that to make these changes as a society, we need to raise the social value of people with learning disabilities so that they develop important roles in society.  What better way to achieve this than through getting a job? Through employment people gain confidence, develop social networks and friends, gain financial independence and have choice and control over their lives.

We ran a number of employment focused projects that each sought to increase the number of people in work. These included building the capacity of job coaching support, supporting people to set up their own businesses and raising aspirations and opportunities for young people with learning disabilities in  three schools in West Berkshire, Kent and the London Borough of Redbridge. These are creating employment opportunities and are all having an impact by supporting individuals, families and those that support them to not only create jobs but to move towards a world where all carry a presumption of employment. Two pupils have found Saturday jobs (one was asked if he wanted a full-time job but he choose to complete his college course first) and other pupils are starting to have work experience placements based on their interests and skills rather than the limited choice previously available.

We must also remember the voice of those with more complex needs, particularly those people who spend unneccessarily long periods of time in assessment and treatment units. We were pleased that the Department of Health were genuinely keen to hear the views of people with learning disabilities and their families on the recent Green paper ‘No voice unheard, no right ignored’ and that they asked charities like ourselves to gather the views of people it affects the most. The consultation process was by no means easy, the paper brings together complex issues and trying to adapt some of these into something more concise was a challenge to many of us, however it felt good to be asking these questions to those who are more likely to be affected by such guidance.

Whilst Learning Disability Week is just seven days long, I hope that in the next year we continue to gain a momentum and an even bigger collective voice to ensure people do get heard and changes can be made to achieve a better life as described in the LDA manifesto.