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Keys to making life easier for Scotland's learning disabled

Jul 22, 2013

WHEN you revisit a revolution, you can be on a hiding to nothing.

WHEN you revisit a revolution, you can be on a hiding to nothing.

While many of those affected by learning disabilities, and those who look after them, were happy to see the Scottish Government updating its strategy for providing them with of services and support, there was always a danger it would be anti-climactic.

In the music world it is known as the second album syndrome. The policy review The Same As You, which was published in 2000, was the first fresh look at the issue for a generation.

It was ground-breaking and led to the closure of Scotland's remaining long-stay hospitals for people with learning disabilities. It also helped bring about an attitudinal change which saw those people given the chance to live independently in the community, often for the first time, and a level of visibility which had previously been denied to many of them.

The following 10 years saw individuals with learning disability setting up in their own homes, negotiating for the type and quality of services they needed, and speaking out in a range of other ways on the issues that affect them.

So the Scottish Government's recent revisiting of the topic in a new strategy and substantial report The Keys to Life, was always going to be following a hard act.

This latest strategy is unlikely to have quite such far-reaching effects, but still has a significant job to do. For all that The Same As You had a remarkable impact, some of the problems it sought to address still look intractable.

Despite the widening of horizons for people with learning disabilities, the vast majority still cannot find work – all the more frustrating in the context of efforts to make education and training more equally available to them. Many are lonely and isolated and have fewer friends than their non learning-disabled peers. Bullying and harassment are still depressingly widely reported.

The transition from provision for children with learning disabilities to the much less well-resourced support for adults still feels to many of those affected – including family and carers – like stepping off a cliff.

The Keys to Life does attempt to address some of these issues. It calls on local authorities, charities and health boards to take the initiative on the employment issue, by opening up a range of supported employment positions by 2018 in order to "lead by example". It calls for a review of the role of local area co-ordinators (LACs) who work with people affected by learning disabilities to help them access services and settle better into their local community, making more friends and connections. The review is specifically charged with working out how much expansion is needed and how this can be achieved. This is not insignificant, given that the role of LACs has been questioned by several councils looking to make cuts.

The report also makes a series of recommendations covering various aspects of the health of people with learning disabilities, with a clear view to making an assault on the inequalities that mean they die on average 20 years younger than their peers, are in poorer health, and tend to be disproportionately affected by public health issues such as obesity.

However, it doesn't contain any earth-shattering new directions or philosophical insights.

That is no surprise, according to one of the people charged with helping to deliver on ministers' goals.

Chris Creegan, the newly-appointed chief executive of the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability (SCLD), says the heavy emphasis on collaboration in the new strategy inevitably puts his organisation in an important position.

SCLD was set up as part of the original Same As You recommendations to bring together 13 partner organisations to help deliver improvements to services for people with learning disabilities.

Mr Creegan argues it is wrong to expect the new strategy to deliver seismic change.

"Strategies don't change the world, it is all about the implementation," he says. "We have come this far and there was a need to refresh the strategy to maintain momentum.

"The Same As You was the first time there had been a strategic look at learning disabilities in Scotland for decades. But you can't change decades of institutionalisation and prejudice and relative invisibility in just a few years. There is still a lot of work to do."

Expectations are high, and rightly so, he says. "There is a real sense of achievement in the closure of the long stay hospitals and the sense that people have made their voices heard. But issues like the lower life expectancies of people with learning disabilities show that there are problems still. The strategy makes it clear that specialist health care is important, but it is really important to make health care for people with learning disabilities part of the core duty of the NHS."

Before taking up the role of SCLD chief executive, Mr Creegan had worked in London for six years, although he continued to live in Edinburgh. His career has seen him take a series of roles involved in issues of equality, diversity and human rights, and he is an enthusiastic blogger and tweeter on such topics.

The launch of The Keys To Life at Hampden Stadium was an emotional occasion, he says. "It was a powerful remind of why I wanted this job. That was about hearing people's voices and realising this is what it is about – these people, their futures and their lives."

SCLD is working and will continue to work as a centre of excellence, looking at issues such as employment and befriending, health and training, he points out.

In terms of the issue of employment, for example, while people with learning disabilities now have more access to colleges and other training, and volunteer at a higher level than the general population, they still struggle to find paid work.

Is this because of inadequate training, prejudice from employers? The cost of supporting them in work? "I think it is a combination of all those things. Historically people weren't even in a position where they were considered to be employable," he says.

SCLD is involved in research about this and other issues, it is partnering with Enable on a befriending project and working with the organisation Dates and Mates, it will help host a conference in the autumn to help look at the issues of loneliness and relationships for people with learning disabilities.

But there are threats as well as possibilities in the current climate. There is no doubt that some in the sector fear the life opportunities for people with learning disabilities may go backwards, rather than forwards.

"There is a general concern at the moment around the impact of cuts and restructuring. There is a real challenge for public and third sector organisations around how you can deliver results when resources are very tight."

Overall though, he is optimistic that this can be another new dawn.

"We are currently digesting the strategy, but I do believe the SCLD can come into its own because we are a consortium of different organisations across that spectrum. With the updating of The Same As You, I see this as the end of the beginning."

Midsteeple, High Street
Dumfries DG1 2BH
t: 01387 257770
e: info@dgvoice.co.uk

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