Interview with new learning difficulties tsar Nicola Smith

Nicola Smith, a self-advocacy campaigner and trainer has been appointed as a government learning difficulties tsar.

Her post is the first of its kind for a person with learning difficulties.

Smith, 43, will work alongside Rob Greig, the current national co-director for learning difficulties.

She welcomes the creation of her post as “a sign that society is slowly changing,” but is determined that there should be no complacency.

 “There needs to be a lot more change, and I’m glad to be part of this challenge. It will be a learning curve,” she says.

Smith, from West Sussex, is firm about keeping close to her roots in the service user movement.

She founded a self-advocacy organisation in Sussex 10 years ago and was its first chair.

“At the time, we had no money and no office – the office was in my house,” she says. “Now, we have our own office and full committee of 30 members. Everyone involved has a learning difficulty.”

Despite her new job, which is part-time and salaried, Smith is keen to remain in touch with the work of the group.

“Some people were worried when I got this job, but I am not going to fly too high in the sky,” she jokes. “I’ll still be in touch with the group – it’s my baby.”

Smith will also continue her part-time job as a trainer promoting awareness of learning difficulties.

Her CV also includes stints as a national assembly member of Mencap and the south east representative for the national forum of people with learning difficulties.

Smith’s personal experience is an undoubted asset to her role.

She started out in a Mencap college, and lived in residential care including long-stay hospitals before “rebelling” and living in her own flat.

With the vast majority of long-stay hospitals now closed, Smith wants to focus on moving the estimated 3,000 people with learning difficulties in NHS campuses into the community as one of her first priorities.

“People still being classed as inpatients, don’t have the same rights as everyone else. They are sharing bedrooms and have no choice over who they share with,” she says.

Smith also wants to see improved access to health, education and employment.

“There is a need for better health screening and information for people with learning difficulities that is easy to understand, “she says.

“People also need to get into paid work and have a choice of jobs. There also needs to be more training in how to do interview and fill in forms.”

Smith also wants to see that funding for learning difficulty services is being used to provide “better services and the right support”.

Above all else, she wants to see people with learning difficulties “being treated equally – just like anyone else”.

She asks: “What is a ‘normal’ person or a ‘disabled’ person anyway? The best thing is to have no label at all.”


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