Using multi-media advocacy to empower people with learning disabilities

Barriers to learning disabled people shaping their own care and support are being broken down by technology and better relationships with staff, writes Andrew Mickel

(Pictured: Support worker Kath Field, left, shows service user Valerie how technology can help her express herself)

Finding ways to help learning disabled people navigate the ­options open to them as they shape their own care and support can be tricky. Multimedia advocacy is one solution. It involves using widely available technologies and software such as Powerpoint and digital cameras to help users create portfolios that explain what they are like and what they want from the outside world.

The idea has been developed by the Rix Centre at the University of East London, a research organisation that aims to improve the lives of learning disabled people through new media. It trains professionals to help service users to create portfolios.

See a video of multimedia advocacy in action (available from Friday 21 January 2011)

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Multimedia advocacy can help build relationships between service users and staff, while the results can be used practically to keep users involved in decision-making. Research centre manager Gosia Kwiatkowska says: “They can show it in person-centred planning reviews to allow them to be at the centre of the meeting and actively involved – they are the ones in the presentations.

“Rather than having professionals sitting around looking at paper, while the subject of the meeting sits there but does not know what’s going on, they can take ownership and be more involved in discussions.”

A typical 12-week training course will start by explaining the theoretical underpinnings of multimedia advocacy to professionals and ways to use the technology. Then service users are brought in for the final six weeks to put the theory into practice.

New technologies

Kath Field, a support worker with housing provider East Living in Chelmsford, Essex, took the course with one of her service’s quieter residents, Valerie. She initially expected to learn about new technologies – but instead used technologies she was already familiar with to learn about Valerie, with whom she had worked for 16 years.

Valerie started by taking 60 pictures of her feet, providing Field with an entry point to start a dialogue. “We started looking at what she thought of herself, with pictures of her body and of women in magazines,” says Field. “The more we did it, the more she opened up, and the more she remembered. And I learned so much about her, and from that she has learnt to trust me.”

After the end of the course, Valerie was able to express in a presentation to Field and other staff how much she wanted a cat, which she now has. “She went from being someone fairly quiet to being someone who determines things for herself,” Field says. “When she came here 16 years ago she was considered pretty non-verbal. After the course all I heard from other staff was ‘I can’t believe what Valerie’s like’. She never really shut up again.”

Field was appointed as a multimedia champion for East Living, promoting the work throughout the organisation. Technology has now become a part of everyday working at Field’s scheme in Chelmsford, not just for developing plans, but also to help promote users’ independence in daily life. Sequences of photos, for example, have shown another resident how to safely travel from his own house to his girlfriend’s alone.

Logging progress

So far, Rix has directly trained 1,500 professionals, with more benefiting from programmes that pass that information on to others. Much of the training is based on reflection, with attendees logging progress in diaries.

There are some barriers to making it work in practice, says Kwiatkowska, particularly encouraging other staff and managers to support the use of new technologies in the workplace.

However, the technologies are adjusted according to the provider, and what users are comfortable using. Although cameras are the most common starting point, video clips from holidays are also popular. New tools can also help staff review their practice.

For Field and Valerie, a 16-year relationship was reignited by the use of photos. But it was the intensive one-to-one support, rather than the technologies, that made the difference. Field says: “It was a combination of the time, putting aside one day a week that was just her and I, and the questioning of looking at your life and thinking: what am I happy about and what would I like to change?”

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