By Jamie Stone, adult learning disability social worker at Hertfordshire County Council
True citizenship and communities are about more than just local shops, clubs and saying ‘hello’ to your neighbour. Citizenship is also about being able to have a say and influence how your community is led and represented both locally and nationally.
Perhaps most citizens take this form of everyday democracy for granted when considering the huge sacrifices our war veterans and groups like the suffragettes made to give us the freedom and civil rights we have today.
But if these ‘taken for granted’ rights were ever put at risk, we would still fiercely fight to protect them – we need to do the same for the rights of people with learning disabilities.
People with learning disabilities remain marginalised and can still experience a distinct disadvantage in relation to exercising these rights, especially in relation to voting or being involved in the wider political process. We demand a just and decent democracy, but people with learning disabilities don’t always have the choice to participate.
Whether we like it or not, stigma and assumptions about people with learning disabilities continue to happen. We even hear reports of people being turned away from polling stations. This is a frightening reality and one that most people are not even aware of, but they would probably be very ashamed if they were.
Adult learning disability social work has a responsibility to challenge society’s current oppression of people with learning disabilities. This must be done with them and not for them, through real investment and co-production into people’s lives. We need decent advocacy to enable those with learning disabilities to have their voices heard and acted upon.
This is not a new concept – as a profession social work has always embedded the principles of anti-oppressive practice by challenging stereotypes and assumptions in every day practice.
This work is often invisible to wider society because social workers usually only work with people with learning disabilities on an individual basis, while campaigning is left to sectors outside of the local authority.
That’s no longer the case in Hertfordshire. There has been a sea change in our responses to these challenges. There is more than just a desire to champion human rights; it’s expected to be at the core of all adult learning disability community social work practice.
As a practicing social worker, I have been provided the time, space and freedom to practice creatively via our ‘Great Leap Forward’ initiative. This has given me the opportunity to work with people with learning disabilities as members of their wider communities and to respond to community needs and requirements through real co-production.
One example is a project I have been able to devise and co-produce with a citizen who has learning disabilities. Simon James lives in his own supported living flat in a small town in Hertfordshire and receives commissioned support to help him to remain independent. Being an active member of his own local community is as important to Simon as the political issues around voting.
The project we created was called ‘Think Vote’ and we worked alongside the Parliamentary Outreach Service to run a series of workshops for adults with learning disabilities. The workshops helped to explain voting and the political process, with the aim of increasing understanding and participation amongst this group.
For Simon, his role in the project has been crucial. He really cares about his local area and it is important to him that he has a local MP who cares too. As he puts it: “Voting and having your say is so important for everyone because it gives people the opportunity to say how their local area is represented. This is something I want to carry on with and see what else I can do to help other people with learning disabilities understand what it all means.”