Today is International Day of Disabled People, a chance to promote the rights and celebrate the successes of disabled people around the world. The day has led Zoe Richards, Acting Chief Executive of Learning Disability Wales, to reflect on the power of inclusion, and how it has enabled young people she has worked with to build successful futures for themselves.

November was a month of bumping into people and catching up with people. I say people, but today I am talking about young people. At least they were young when I first met them. For 13 years I led a local youth theatre in Neath and some smaller groups in other areas. Some young people joined in my first year (when they were aged 5) and left in my last year (aged 18). We were a part of each other’s lives. We still are, even though we don’t often see each other.

A huge highlight of the month was going to see the Hijinx and National Theatre of Wales collaboration ‘Mission Control’. I am a huge fan of their work but what made me go was my connection with Ashford and Gareth (two actors in the production). I had received a text earlier that week from Charlotte (another actor in the show) as I was heading from a meeting into Brixton tube station, in London. It was a photo of Charlotte and Ashford, with the message: “look who I am working with!”. For someone who rarely shows emotion I entered the tube station with a big lump in my throat and a warm feeling that along the way we all changed lives in our youth theatre.

On the weekend I ran into Jordan (a primary school teacher) in Tesco. I hadn’t seen her for a long time and was a bit shy (sometimes I’m not very good at one to one conversation), but she gave me a big cwtch and we chatted about life. I left smiling.

Last night I had dinner with Benjamin (an  actor) and later Callum (I don’t know how to best describe Callum!) and we laughed around the dinner table and made plans for Christmas.

Through the power of social media I’ve also seen all the wonderful things many of the young people I know have been doing. Nathan (a professional actor) is off to panto; Annie (a secondary school teacher) is teaching in her first teaching post in my old school in Merthyr Tydfil; I have seen Oisin’s (a mechanical engineer) snapchat from a techno night on the weekend (less said the better!). These are just a few of the many.

I had never intended to run an inclusive youth theatre, but I had never intended not to either. It happened when a young person joined who needed the youth theatre to be inclusive for him and he set about changing me, changing the youth theatre and changing all the other young people. We had 13 wonderful years together in that youth theatre and today on International Day of Disabled People I am reflecting and celebrating our time and our connection with each other, knowing that all who joined will go on understanding inclusion and just how enriching and wonderful that was for them.

Zoe Richards
Acting Chief Executive
Learning Disability Wales

Young man in smart clothes celebrating his birthday with friends