Richmond Mencap have a self-advocacy group, which meet at our offices every two weeks.
The group has been in existence for about fifteen years, ten of which I have had the privilege to oversee. We cover all kinds of issues that are important to people with a learning disability; from feeling safe and accepted, to feeling supported in a relationship, accessing education, securing a job, understanding transport systems and getting the right health care – all the issues that are important to people with a learning disability and have been for many years.
A big part of supporting people to be self-advocates is flexibility, and so we make sure we fit the sessions in around the people we support and find a time to suit all. Travelling can also be an issue for some self-advocates with a learning disability as they often don’t leave their borough and so we always ensure the location is accessible.
We believe that self-advocacy groups can be incredibly important and empowering for the people they support. Recently I looked back through the notes from sessions I ran in 2008 and the issues still remain the same today. It’s very rewarding to see how committed and passionate the people in the group are, most of which have been involved for many years.
The group gives people the opportunity to help others with a learning disability who might not feel as confident to speak out about things. Self-advocacy and public speaking isn’t for everyone. Giving vulnerable people responsibility and giving them a voice to speak up for themselves and others is very important and I’ve seen all our advocates grow in confidence over the years.
At the minute we are working on raising awareness of reasonable adjustments for Mencap’s Treat Me Well campaign, which is being highlighted during Learning Disability Week, 18th June. I’m working with the self-advocates to put together training for health professionals, explaining some of the adjustments people with a learning disability might need when it comes to healthcare and hospital treatment.
The group really enjoy writing up notes and delivering training – they are the experts in learning disability, not me, so it’s only right that they can to have their say over important issues. We work with hospitals, the police, British Transport Police and schools to make sure every area is covered. Three members of the group sit on the local Learning Disability Partnership board, which is fantastic. They stand up and present PowerPoint presentations to the group – they love it!
Working as a group and discussing the issues that matter to them is so important. The key point of a self-advocacy group is to be able to speak out for themselves and others. Our main aim is to try and get the group used to being heard and speaking up, when they may have spent much of their life having other people speak for them.
A key element of supporting people to become self-advocates is to know when to step back. I give them the tools they need to speak up and help them to pin down which issues they want to discuss, but then I need to step back and leave them to it. I encourage them to write their own presentations and notes and deliver them in the way they want. I am there to help of course, but part of the support is to leave them to it so they can develop self-confidence. It’s important to remember that they are the expert and I make sure they know this. Their contribution and what they have to say is valid and very important.
I hope that by becoming a self-advocate, this will give people much confidence in other areas of their life, too.