Chris explains why Learning Disability Week offers an opportunity to reflect on how much we still need to do.
There’s more to be done to help improve the lives of people with learning disabilities and, crucially, to shine a spotlight on the successes which so often go unnoticed.
On Friday evening more than 250 people will come together at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow for Scotland’s inaugural Learning Disability Awards. ‘Oh no!’, I can hear you saying. ‘Not another awards ceremony.’ But this one really is different. And here’s why.
It’s different because the awards aren’t gongs for the great and the good, so often the recipients at such ceremonies. Nor for organisations or senior leaders. These awards are for people with learning disabilities and those who are most closely involved in supporting them within families and on the frontline of social care.
They are awards for talented people and high achievers. There is no contradiction here but their achievements are against the odds. And they have done things not just for themselves but for people in their communities too.
Our ceremony is the culmination of Learning Disability Week in Scotland – a week to raise awareness and to reflect on how much we still need to do to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities. But it’s also a week to celebrate success which so often goes unnoticed.
There has been some political controversy this week about our understanding of learning disability. But the truth is, the notion that learning disability and mental health are the same thing is not uncommon. Sadly, such confusion also obscures the fact that the incidence of mental ill health amongst people with learning disabilities is unacceptably high.
But that’s not because they have a learning disability. It’s because of the stigma and isolation which still persists and which all too often has a detrimental effect on their physical health too.
I was at a conference on Tuesday organised by the Scottish Learning Disability Observatory. The theme of the conference was evidence about health and health care. A worthy focus given that health inequalities for people with learning disabilities remain scandalously high. If you have a learning disability you are more likely to die younger.
But as one leading participant rightly noted, the inequality faced by people with learning disabilities isn’t really a health issue, it’s an education issue.
We have made progress but we haven’t yet learnt as a society to treat people with learning disabilities with the dignity and respect they deserve. This isn’t just about education either. It’s about poverty of expectation and scarcity of opportunity. No wonder life outcomes are poor.
Let’s take one of the most obvious indicators, work. In Scotland, more than 70 per cent of people work, and more than 40 per cent of disabled people work. But the employment rate for people with learning disabilities is estimated to be a shocking 7 per cent. Why? Because we still assume that people with learning disabilities can’t or don’t want to work when in fact many of them can and do.
What a waste. I know from experience because (as you’d expect) our team at SCLD includes people with learning disabilities. They are talented individuals and we are lucky to be their colleagues.
And on Wednesday I had the privilege to meet a group of young people with learning disabilities who have been supported into work at Glasgow Royal Infirmary through Project SEARCH. They were as passionate about their jobs as anyone I’ve ever met.
Even more importantly their lives have been transformed by being able to work. The difference it had made to them was profound. They spoke of stability, self-confidence and independence which had previously eluded them. It was joyous.
Little more than a generation ago, if you had a learning disability you would be locked away in a big hospital. Not out of harm’s way, but out of sight, out of mind.
Our ceremony on Friday night puts the ambition and endeavour of people with learning disabilities centre stage. Success in the creative arts, in the sporting arena, amongst young people, in the workplace and in the community are our five award categories. We know that for every one of those categories we could have added another.
Such is the depth and breadth of the contributions of people with learning disabilities that we don’t get to hear about. We’ll be recognising inspirational family carers and exceptional frontline workers too. We owe them more than any of us really understands.
During the past few weeks, we’ve been out talking to our finalists and making a short film about each of them which we’ll release as the awards are presented on Friday evening. Every one of them captures something I can’t possibly do justice to here. They speak with crystal clarity about what is possible when we raise our expectations and create opportunities for skills, talents and abilities to flourish.
So this is one occasion when I’d say do go on Twitter on a Friday evening. Follow @SCLDNews between 9.30pm and 10.30pm to hear about our award finalists. You’ll be humbled and inspired, I promise.
A better life for people with learning disabilities is possible. But it’s within our gift as well as theirs. And we must more than match their undoubted ambition.