Straight Talk
Lucy Hurst-Brown

Lucy Hurst-Brown explores how people with learning disabilities must become truly connected in the community.

The ultimate aim for any organisation working with people with learning disabilities and autism must be to actively reduce the time they spend with each person they support because they have been effectively connected in the community.

Brandon Trust was established 20 years ago with a clear remit to seize the opportunity offered by Care in the Community by supporting people with learning disabilities, many of whom were recently ‘freed’ from institutions, to live in the community.

The extent of the public outcry that followed revelations of widespread and ‘insidious’ abuse at Winterbourne View private hospital rightly focused minds on the continuing plight of people with learning disabilities and shared discussions have sadly clarified that this broader societal shift from institution to integration is far from complete.

With this in mind, the social care system needs to be turned on its head to provide better support and value for money. The current system of allocating support according to need, known as the ‘deficiency’ model, is counterproductive and not cost-effective. Instead, an ‘asset-based approach’ must be adopted, directing resources towards building on what people can do and what is already available to them.

This is built on the premise that every single person has capacities, abilities and gifts. It considers successful intervention to be that which enables people to use these assets in a way that contributes to wider society – to become part of the action.

Rather than an exclusive focus on what is absent, asset-based approaches look to what already exists in a community and attempts to build from within it. This does not ignore the fact that some people in society may require more support – and therefore more resources – than others. The success of this approach can be measured by the extent to which allocated resources reduce people’s dependence on future resources.

The less support required from organisations like ourselves, means the more the people we work with have forged connections in their local communities. The more links the people we work with have in the community, the more they will be able to challenge society’s views about them. From the perspective of people with learning disabilities, contributing to society undoubtedly increases dignity and self-worth. It is the antithesis of the institutional approach in that it is all about creating connections that free individuals from the world and language of social care.

These connections equip people with new skills and, therefore, increase their value to society. The simple truth is that by failing to enable people to do what they want and establish meaningful non-paid social connections, the social care system risks denying them access to new skills, opportunities, society itself and, of course, the experience of true citizenship.

In the UK today, there are 1.2 million people with learning disabilities. The vast majority of these do not live in institutions, such as Winterbourne View. They live in a range of different homes, ranging from family homes to privately rented accommodation, from social housing to small, purpose-built supported housing. But does this signal a triumph for public policy? We know that people with learning disabilities are rarely seen. They simply do not feature in the everyday lives of most people unless they are a family member or paid employee. It is uncommon to share a bus, a workplace, a classroom, a hobby, a sport, a dance floor or a queue at the Post Office with someone who has a learning disability.

We are determined to promote the role of staff as ‘community connectors’ and tackle 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 contacts there are between those supported and family, friends, neighbours and other people in their community. There must be an emphasis for all staff to get out of their way. 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.

From a fiscal point of view an asset-based approach is far more cost-effective than an approach centred on what a person needs i.e. that measures their problems and funds them accordingly.

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.  The community in turn has a great deal to gain from their involvement. Just like any ‘real’ 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.

This article is based on extracts from Lucy’s essay ‘From patients to invisible citizens’, part of ‘The Future of Disability’ published in partnership with VODG.

Do you agree with Lucy? What are your thoughts? Add to the debate in the comments below. Subscription required.

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