Hounslow’s Travel Buddy Service, winner of a Community Care award, is a unique one-to-one travel service provided by people with learning difficulties for people with learning difficulties. It was born out of measured risk-taking and the desire to put service user involvement and social inclusion into action.
In June 2000 the London borough launched “speaking-up groups” – self-advocacy groups to give adults with learning difficulties the opportunity to speak up about the services they receive.
Service users said they were unhappy with traditional community transport and would prefer to travel by public transport with one-to-one support. Sandra Bentley, Hounslow’s social inclusion manager, says: “They were unhappy with community transport because they could be on the bus for two hours when they might only be travelling 10 miles.”
Nicky Bitar, the borough’s new deal project manager, says: “Some of the travel-trained people with learning difficulties who were already travelling independently had expressed an interest in care work, but it’s difficult for them because of the qualifications needed. We thought ‘why not get these people to be travel buddies?'”
Bentley recalls the negative response they received when this suggestion was put forward: “People said the risks were too great and that it couldn’t happen.” But they continued to talk about it at the speaking-up groups and to raise it on agendas in management meetings.
Eventually, says Bentley, things began to change. “Employment started to liaise more with day services and we started to talk more about employment opportunities for people with learning difficulties.”
Bentley and Bitar worked together to manage the risks and develop a way for the travel buddy role to become an employment opportunity for people with learning difficulties.
“From the employment angle we had to be careful about the health and safety aspect,” says Bitar. “We realised that the travel buddies would need formal training if they were to be seen as safe.” After consulting parents and carers they developed accredited training through Thames Region Accredited Training Centre. Buddies have to study a minimum of 60 hours in three modules: using buses, road crossing skills, and basic health and safety.
The Travel Buddy Service was launched last January with four fully-trained travel buddies who each provide support to between three and five service users a week. They collect people from their homes and accompany them on their journeys to colleges and day centres on public transport.
Travel buddies Paul Bennett and Marlene Wilson say working as travel buddies makes them feel valued and more equal. And there is the added benefit of earning their own money. They like to identify people who they judge will eventually be able to travel independently. Wilson says it makes her “happy” when someone she has “buddied” can travel independently because she knows she has helped them.
The benefits are greater than anticipated at the service’s inception: using public transport promotes social inclusion, gives service users greater control and flexibility over their travel arrangements and provides opportunities to develop social and communication skills.
Bentley says that, although they “still get parents who say ‘no’ because they think people with learning difficulties can’t do things like this”, they have had more referrals than expected and are now considering the feasibility of the service becoming a social firm.
“Through working with schemes like direct payments there doesn’t seem to be any reason why people couldn’t choose to buy the Travel Buddy Service,” says Bitar, adding: “It’s about the person-centred approach. In future why shouldn’t service users say ‘can I have a travel buddy to go to a concert’?”
The award is recognition of the service’s success: for its contribution to changing the lives of users; for the job opportunities it has provided for the buddies; and for those who have worked so hard to make it effective. “Winning the award is very positive,” says Bentley.
The £5,000 prize money will help fund the appointment of a co-ordinator who will be directly responsible for the development of the service.