Most of the talk about inclusion in the world of disability focuses on how disabled people can be involved and supported to operate on an equal footing with their non-disabled colleagues or fellow citizens.
But have we also thought as much about what support their allies without disabilities need in order to effectively contribute to the cause of challenging and eliminating barriers faced by disabled people?
I am a trustee of learning disabilities charity Values Into Action. I have not lived in a long-stay hospital, been at risk of having my children removed simply because I have learning disabilities, been targeted on the street because I have a disability, or experienced the joy of really feeling part of the vibrant, fun and fierce self-advocacy movement that is going strong in this country. How can I be qualified to speak and campaign on these issues as a trustee or guide the organisation in prioritising the key campaigning issues when I have not personally experienced the discrimination and energy that characterises what it means to have learning disabilities today?
While my colleagues with learning disabilities may be more likely to need help to follow long discussions, complicated budget sheets and archaic voting systems that characterise most board meetings (although I think that these are challenges to us all), I and my colleagues without learning disabilities equally need help to make sure that we really get our head around the big issues facing people with learning disabilities in their everyday lives. And sometimes we all need help to admit when we really don’t get it.
Values Into Action is a partnership between people with and without learning disabilities who are members of the board of trustees as well as employed on equal pay and conditions as members of staff. It is my and a couple of other members’ task to examine how accessible our board is to all members and come up with ways to improve support and ultimately, the functioning of the board.
The first step we took was to ensure that we weren’t reinventing the wheel. We found a fantastic guide to improving inclusion and decision-making for groups made up of people with and without impairments created by Shaping our Lives (www.shapingourlives.org.uk) and decided to adapt it for our own purposes. We have adopted its practical ideas such as keeping papers as short as possible, ensuring that ground rules are followed, and that people all feel comfortable to stop the meeting when they don’t understand what someone has said or the information that is being presented.
We have also introduced our own version of a buddy system so that people from different points of view and knowledge can support each other to prepare for meetings and understand issues as diverse as what it might be like to experience discrimination as a person with learning disabilities as well as the latest budget figures. The plan is that this work will support the alliance that Values Into Action represents to be as strong as it can possibly be.
Joanna Perry is policy manager, Victim Support and a trustee of Values into Action ➔ Are you a practitioner with first hand experiences of front-line social work? Please tell us about your most interesting experiences. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the 20 September issue under the headline “How can non-disabled board members best contribute?”