Learning disabilities: beacon councils lead the way

When Valuing People was launched in 2001 it was described as a ground-breaking government strategy. We were told that people with learning disabilities were no longer to be seen as just service users, but would become equal citizens able to fully participate in society. A laudable aim indeed, but turning words into actions and creating a society more accepting of learning disabilities is not easy. As major players within the strategy, local authorities are having to change the way they think.

They could learn from the four local authorities awarded beacon status by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) last year for their learning disability services. The beacon scheme identifies excellence and innovation in local government and shares good practice. The IDeA specifically recruited a young man with learning disabilities to its advisory panel as a special adviser on awarding beacon status.

Rotherham Council was one of the four, and its director of learning disability services, Shona McFarlane, says: “We ensure that people with learning disabilities are represented and included at all levels within the council, through the People’s Forum, Learning Disabilities Partnership Board and subgroups, the authority’s health and adult social care scrutiny panel, and in the recruitment and selection of staff.”

Friendly information is used at every opportunity, in the form of DVDs and leaflets that are available also in community languages. Minutes of all meetings are provided in plain English.

Councillors provide strong support for people with learning disabilities, says McFarlane. There are partnerships with housing and health departments, and a “healthy lifestyles” approach led by the award-winning “Healthy Hearts Project” is adopted throughout the service.

Also, a successful campaign led by the employment subgroup of the Learning Disabilities Partnership Board and advocacy groups has led to the council setting targets for the number of people with learning disabilities it employs.

McFarlane adds: “Speakup Self Advocacy is contracted to organise the Rotherham People’s Forum. We organise four conferences each year for people with learning disabilities across Rotherham to meet and talk about important issues. People from advocacy groups, day centres, colleges and schools come to the meeting.”

McFarlane puts Rotherham’s success down to its commitment to involving service users. “Person-centred planning is at the heart of all we do,” she says. “Rotherham is one of the highest funders of advocacy services in the country, with service users and family carers agreeing their own quality standards and quality checks.

“Because of excellent links with the voluntary and independent sector, particularly Mencap Pathways, the number of people in Rotherham with a learning disability in paid employment is one of the highest in the country, at about 20%.”

Some people were suspicious of the person-centred planning approach as they thought it could cost more, but McFarlane points out this is not the case. “Some examples of what people want can be humbling,” she argues. “All one man wanted was to eat chips out of newspaper at the seaside – another wanted to see a Kylie Minogue poster in an HMV window.”

Being listened to is something Vicki Farnsworth appreciates. As a service user who also works full-time for the Speakup Self Advocacy project, she has a unique perspective. “In the past, services did not fund advocacy and people were sent to day centres,” she says. “Today, people have more choices to get a job, do voluntary work, have their own house and have children.

“The scheme gave me confidence. I chaired a meeting because we believe people with learning disabilities should be equal. I have never chaired a meeting before and I was nervous. But it was a good experience.”

Independent research has shown that after attending beacon events, 79% of council officers improve their council’s services. The future looks bright if these examples of good practice go on to become the norm across the country.

What works

The four Valuing People beacon councils – London Borough of Greenwich, Norfolk, Rotherham and Wiltshire – are spreading news of their exemplary practice such as:

Employment workshops for human resources professionals that explore how to give people with learning disabilities real roles in employment.
Funding advocacy groups, accessible information and meetings.
Ensuring that people with learning disabilities from black and minority ethnic communities are using services.
Providing mainstream accessible leisure classes.

Further information
Vsit the IDeA website

A Life Like Any Other campaign

This article appeared in the 12 July issue under the headline “Planning by the people”

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