Community and creative approaches are needed to make sure people with a learning disability are connected, can socialise and have friendships. Before Covid-19, we know that people with a learning disability in Wales were 7 times more likely to be lonely than their non-disabled peers. The pandemic has created greater problems but has also offered some creative solutions. We will need to be innovative and bold in new approaches.
People’s lives during the pandemic
At Learning Disability Wales we set up our new network Connections Cymru. People across Wales met online for the first time at the end of March to look at some of the issues that create loneliness and social isolation as well as finding creative solutions to these problems.
Most people have adapted well during the pandemic. Many more people are now connected online and are using technology to keep in touch and socialise. The amazing Insight App (Innovate Trust) has grown over the last year, keeping people and groups connected with many daily activities for people to participate in – check it out, it is fantastic! But we still know that many people have been left behind. Some people have not got the technology, reliable internet nor the support to get online.
At Learning Disability Wales we run the Gig Buddies Cymru project in South and North Wales. This project matches people with a learning disability with a volunteer who shares the same interests, so they can go to gigs and events together. Although people have not been able to meet up in person, we have been keeping connected online with tea parties, evening ‘Kazoom’ parties and quizzes. People from all over Wales took part and made new friends in other areas, which they would not normally do if it was in person.
Issues coming out of lockdown
Some people are struggling with confidence or feeling anxious about going out and about as lockdown eases. Also, some people have moved back with their families. For some this may make it easier to come out of lockdown but for others it may be more restrictive. There is a reluctance to use public transport because of fears of safety. There is confusion about what local authorities are doing about re-opening services as in some areas there has been little communication. There is still confusion over changing rules and different rules between the 4 nations.
Moving forward creatively
The pandemic has shown how important friends and family are. The momentum gained from people with a learning disability being highly skilled in the use of digital technology needs to be harnessed such as upskilling others, including support workers. Online connections work but we need to be careful that people do not become ‘technologically institutionalised’. There needs to be a blended approach that is based on people’s choice.
This is a good time to plan the way forward and evaluate lives pre-Covid. This is a genuine chance to co-produce what comes next, be more creative and not to return to how services were offered before the pandemic. We need to harness the community spirit that has grown rather than paid workers and volunteers in people’s lives.
But there are barriers. Mencap Cymru’s Oral Histories Project revealed that there is a power imbalance that permits staff and family members to prioritise protection and safeguarding at the expense of autonomy and agency. Staff and families need to play a proactive role in securing and nurturing friendships, especially intimate relationships. So a more positive approach to risk taking is needed.
There is an opportunity to build on an I-Team approach that is based on Circles of Support. This is a person centred approach supporting people to plan their life through friends and professionals. Mark John Williams has been developing this approach through Flintshire Do-It and the North Wales Transformation Programme.
Gig Buddies Cymru is needed more than ever. With few events taking place, the need for friendship and social contact is more important than ever. We are looking for more participants and volunteers. If you are interested, please get in touch.