Jeff Parry, Assistant Director, Learning Disabilities, at Milestones Trust, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities, mental health needs and dementia
It’s a Saturday morning in Bristol; it is grey and drizzly in the park, but it’s busy. It’s parkrun day, and Sheila is sitting in her wheelchair, checking her bar code scanner as the red-faced and sweaty runners go past.
She shouts encouragement as she records their times. As a veteran of 30+ parkruns herself, and with a half marathon and a 10k under her belt, Sheila is part and parcel of the local running community. The fact that she uses a wheelchair is irrelevant – since witnessing the triumphs of mighty Paralympians in 2012, disabled athletes are no longer an unusual sight on our screens or in our public spaces. The fact that Sheila has a learning disability is more unusual. People with learning disabilities are much less visible and are much more likely to be on the news as victims of abuse than as figures to admire. Yet, here she is – part of a network of runners; part of friendship circles; part of a sub-culture that takes her at face value and appreciates her input as an equal.
This contrasts with the recent election campaign where people with learning disabilities were invisible, despite the social care debate and the fact that this group are vulnerable to austerity and the changes to funding, healthcare and housing. All the parties did produce some accessible information, and nationally providers did a sterling job in getting support and information to people – the Voting Passport produced by Dimensions and videos produced by Brandon Trust were particularly useful resources and widely shared.
At Milestones Trust, we ran a workshop to which all the main parties were invited and three of the four came and answered questions set by our service user council. Despite earlier excitement however, very few people with learning disabilities came on the day. Chatting to one person afterwards, he told me that he felt he needed more time – that this was good, but that we needed to hold sessions all year round, not just in the week before an election.
What links these two events – the parkrun and the election – are ideas of belonging, community, having a role. Supporting someone to explore their interests and linking them with a group of people who share that passion is not easy, but it is achievable. Creating bonds like this, on a one-to-one basis, has been a bedrock of person-centred approaches in learning disability services for many years. Creating bonds which link people to a wider society is more difficult, especially when those people are invisible in mainstream culture. Mental health services have understood this for a while and the recovery model, with the three pillars of hope, agency and opportunity, recognises the importance of citizenship in both the narrow and broadest senses.
Sheila’s learning disability doesn’t get in the way of her being accepted in that community; it’s as important and unimportant as her pillar-box red hair – whilst it is part of who she is, equally she doesn’t allow it to define her. Behind Sheila’s natural, easy interactions lie a wealth of hard work by those supporting her – creative, nuanced support that introduces, promotes and reassures but never overshadows. It took time, not just a few sessions in the week before a race.
There are lessons here for wider citizenship. Citizenship is not just about voting – it is about being a good neighbour, about contributing your time, about sitting in the rain with a barcode scanner waiting for soggy mums to jog past. It takes skill, creativity and time, but ultimately it is about participation, and participation enriches everyone.
Jeff has worked with people with learning disabilities in a variety of roles since the late 80s and currently works for Milestones Trust, a Bristol-based charity offering support to a variety of people with a learning disability, mental health needs or on the dementia pathway. Hobbies include photography, learning Latin, and shouting at the television during ‘Question Time’.