People with learning disabilities need friends

Contributing to society and being part of a community increases dignity and independence

The most important thing we can do as an organisation is to hear first-hand from those we support. That’s why Brandon Trust launched its first annual 100 Voices conference four years ago, bringing together as many of the people we support as possible.

Over those years we have discussed some of the most pressing issues they face; such as accessing transport, securing meaningful employment and the ugly but undeniably pressing issue of hate and mate crime.

All of these issues share a common theme – one of connectedness. Since the advent of care in the community and “liberation” from institutions, just how integrated into society are people with learning disabilities?

This is one of the questions we are exploring during our 20th anniversary year. Last month we held our biggest 100 Voice conference yet, focusing on connectedness.

Over 350 of us – made up of more than 200 people with learning disabilities and their support workers – spent the day at the Emirates Stadium in London, home of Arsenal Football Club.

Together we looked back at how far we’ve come in the past 20 years and what the challenges and priorities are for the next 20.

A series of interactive and engaging exercises delivered powerful messages about what is and isn’t working in the lives of the people we work with. These exercises were carried out with a view to offering better, more effective support but also to help us contribute to the national debate and shape the future of social care.

The desire to belong, to be connected and to forge meaningful, reciprocal relationships was palpable. From every table came a resounding call for help to make friends, to meet new people and to take part in new hobbies, activities and secure employment opportunities.

Challenging as some of this might be, in terms of welfare and safeguarding, it is a message we cannot and must not ignore. And of course it should come as no surprise that those we support value the same things as the rest of us.

But despite the physical move from long stay in hospitals to small domestic settings in local communities, most people with learning disabilities spend the majority of their time with paid carers and have few real friends.

Failure to deliver on the pressing issue of integration runs the risk of replacing one form of institution with another.

At Brandon Trust we have long worked to involve people in community activities. Experience tells us that those we support have much to give, can be real assets to their communities and are frequently their own best ambassadors. And the community in turn has a great deal to gain from their involvement. Just like any relationship, these new, deeper connections can and should involve a degree of reciprocity. Getting this right will mean improved physical and mental wellbeing, safer and more enriched life experiences, and a more robust, effective and efficient care sector.

As we face the pressing issue of an ageing population with ever increasing demands on health and social care, this will also have a direct fiscal impact.

The more links the people we work with have in the community, the less reliant they will be on paid-for care. From the perspective of people with learning disabilities, contributing to society undoubtedly increases dignity, self-worth and a sense of freedom and independence.

That is why at Brandon Trust we are supporting our staff to understand their responsibilities as community connectors and to challenge the idea that paid staff are the main solution in people’s lives. It is vital for anyone working in our field to actively measure how many regular and meaningful personal interactions there are between those we support and their family, friends, neighbours and other people in their community. This is something we need much greater research into, and a subject we will explore further in our forthcoming anniversary report.

But the message from 100 Voices was clear: while there are strong bonds and hugely beneficial relationships between support workers and the people they work with, there must also be a clear emphasis for staff to get out of their way. In fact, this should be the measure of success reflected in public policy, organisational strategies and any employee’s sense of what it means to do a good job. Ultimately we must strive to do ourselves out of a job.

For more information on Brandon Trust and 100 Voices click here.

The adult social care hub is funded by Liverpool city council and Liverpool clinical commissioning group. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.

http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2014/oct/23/

 

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