Helping people with learning difficulties live independently

Kate Linsky looks at how beacon councils have been helping people with learning difficulties live independently

In the wake of the damning report on NHS care for people with learning difficulties in Cornwall, local authorities and primary care trusts across the UK need to assess the systems in place for evaluating their own services.

People with learning difficulties must be viewed as active citizens with a valuable role to play in their communities. They must not be prevented from exercising their rights and choice.

The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 puts a positive duty, which comes into effect this December, on councils and other public sector organisations to promote equality for disabled people. The government and self-advocates are encouraging councils to take action to ensure that people with learning difficulties are given proper representation and equal opportunities to be involved as active citizens.

One of the most important steps a local authority can take for people with learning difficulties is to engage them in decision-making for all council services. This helps them to take an active role in their communities and leads to greater self-advocacy and self-reliance.

The current seven beacon councils under the Valuing People theme provide examples of how weaving together good work across the council can help people with learning difficulties take their place in everyday life. The councils include issues raised by people with learning difficulties in its corporate planning and support is offered to people with learning difficulties and their family carers to become involved.

Councils also improve opportunities in more mainstream life. Councils are able to work with partners to make sure that people with learning difficulties have paid jobs, are supported to live in their own homes and have access to everyday leisure facilities. Councils should also make sure that people with learning difficulties have the opportunities to take responsibilities as citizens.

Jonathan Evans from Rotherham is 25 and lives in his own home thanks to a partnership between the council’s learning difficulty service and Keyring Living Support Networks. A Keyring scheme is where someone with learning difficulties who just needs a bit of support to keep their independence lives as part of a network of nine houses spread across the community.

Jonathan receives an hour’s support each week from a volunteer Keyring worker, who lives in a house paid for by the scheme.

Jonathan doesn’t need services, he needs the same things everybody does: a job, a home and some mates, and the chance to enjoy his leisure time in the way he sees fit. He works for voluntary organisation Speakup Self-Advocacy in Rotherham, writing articles for them as their lead journalist and plays an active part in many of the learning disability partnership board’s sub groups, particularly housing, employment and the improvement group. The latter is made up of service users, carers, independent providers and learning difficulties staff who ask people what they think of the service and any gaps. This is fed back to the learning disability partnership board or the senior management team to become part of service planning.

Jonathan enjoys socialising and going to the pub, helped by the friends and colleagues he has made at Speakup and through Keyring.

Engagement with people with learning difficulties gives them the confidence and ability to self-advocate and allows an authority to develop and deliver its services better. This can lead not only to less need of support, but also open communication and active relationships reduce the opportunity for abuse and neglect to take place.

Wendy Lawrence lived at Waverley House, a residential hostel for 20 people with learning difficulties in Melksham, Wiltshire. The council decided to close Waverley House, which was not a popular decision for all residents and staff. Independent advocacy helped service users voice their choices about moving on, which motivated support staff to help. Wendy is now living independently, with some visiting support, and also uses direct payments. She employs staff to support her, who she knows well and trusts and she is now enjoying doing things when she wants to do them. She loves having her own house and garden: “I was told that I would never be able to live independently but I’ve proved them wrong.”

Joan Scott, from Norwich, demonstrates how self-advocacy can lead to full civic and community participation. Joan is 68 and has learning difficulties. She has always been busy with her family, seven children and 15 grandchildren. As her family grew up, Joan had more time for herself and started going to a day centre. But this only made her depressed as there was nothing much to do. But through the day centre, she became involved with People First of Norfolk, the local self-advocacy group. Joan worked her way up to being a trustee and then became the first person with learning difficulties to be the co-chair with the director of social services.

Joan had the opportunity to do things she never dreamed of. For example she worked with a national training organisation, and went round the country helping partnership boards to learn from what People First were doing in Norfolk. The Department of Health asked her to help them do the interviews for the director of Valuing People and several Valuing People Support Team regional workers. Joan also worked with different government departments to make sure the voice of people with learning difficulties was heard.

Mainstream services
Partnership working is also key to reducing opportunity for neglect. Local authorities can increase and strengthen the access to mainstream services through partnerships with the local primary care trust, the police, housing and leisure providers, local employers and the voluntary sector. These partnerships can provide more chance for two-way communication, increase involvement and empower self-advocacy, which allows service users to take an active role in shaping the services they want and need.

For example, the London Borough of Greenwich got together with Transport for London to improve local transport facilities for people with learning difficulties. The development of the Out and About guides for using public transport has probably had the most far-reaching impact in improving life chances for residents with learning difficulties. Consultation with Greenwich residents revealed that one of the biggest barriers preventing people getting a job, going to college or just meeting up with friends was having to rely on others for transport. Three booklets were developed that included information about community safety, travel training skills and independent travel. A community safety training course was also developed.

Travelling independently gives people more confidence and a better understanding of community safety. It also helps people to gain employment and attend further education courses, and gives them opportunities to become more actively involved in their communities.

These four examples show how councils can work with people with learning difficulties to provide innovative schemes that can improve all aspects of their lives. 

Kate Linsky is principal consultant at the Improvement and Development Agency. She is also the theme manager for the Valuing People beacons, responsible for co-ordinating spreading good practice from the beacon councils during the year.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

Last month, the Healthcare Commission and the Commission for Social Care inspection report revealed abuse and neglect in NHS care facilities in Cornwall. Local authorities across the country must examine the systems they have in place to provide support and services to this client group. Here, beacon councils provide advice on serving the members of their communities with learning difficulties.

Further information

  • Improvement and Development Agency, for further information about the beacon scheme.
  • Keyring Living Support Network
  • People First of Norfolk

    More information on how the beacons achiueved such excellent services is available from their websites. Each council is also hosting an Open Day for other authorities to come and learn from their experiences

  • More from Community Care

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