By Warren Belcher
My first memory of people ‘with’ a learning disability was at primary school. I was 7 and recall they had their own classroom with at least two teachers and a load of other adults around too. I didn’t understand as there was only about five or six of ‘them’ kids whilst my class had more children than ants in an ‘english country garden’. It made me cross because they had in my mind something I wanted which was fun and attention. It’s odd that I had such consciousness of internal jealousy given my tender age and things came to a bit of a head when I also found out they had an actual ‘fun’ bus with regular day trips out. I wished I was like ‘them’ as I kicked my usual wall by the pegs in protest. Looking back I should of articulated an evidenced based complaint to the headmaster about this blatant form of discrimination towards us ‘normal’ kids to save my toes from hurting (AGAIN !)
My own school week consisted of sitting next to Michele, she was deaf and would regularly turn her hearing aids off because I was acutely annoying apparently ! (It’s interesting though as hot desking seems quite popular when I’m in the office these days !) So whilst the ‘special needs’ kids went out on ‘their’ fun bus trips I had to learn to read and write ( without Michele’s help I might add ! ) I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of why do ‘they’ have it so good before being quickly distracted with lunchtime and running into the playground to call my mate Wayne a ‘spastic’ which would result in him pulling faces at me which made everyone laugh because Wayne was really funny and he could be a really good ‘spastic’ when he wanted to be ! My earlier version of self was clearly rather horrid and so was Wayne and everyone else in 1984 probably ! My main achievement at 7 was eating lead from pencils in a daily and futile attempt to try and impress Michele in the hope she might at least help me with maths. At the same time the concept and impact of such discriminatory and hateful language was as far away from my young mind as the Star Wars galaxy is from Earth.
Throughout primary school I never ever mixed with those kids, not through my own choice, it just wasn’t facilitated or thought about by anyone. We knew nothing about them, they knew nothing about us and as far as I was concerned they were just lucky because they didn’t have to endure ‘our’ assemblies with the daily grind of ‘kumbaya my lord’ and ‘who put the colours in the rainbow’…..we never spoke, we were never introduced, we never played, we never enjoyed each other’s achievement and our language was never questioned or challenged. We sometimes saw ‘them’ they sometimes saw ‘us’ and that was that !
The first time I do recall directly meeting a person with a learning disability was with my gran during the school summer holidays. She would take me to jumble sales almost every other day. It was so boring but it broke up the monotony of eating maltesers whilst watching ‘Why Don’t You’ followed by the snooker on her black and white television. I would now give anything to repeat those times and it’s funny how memories of regular dullness is something you cling onto in later life. Retrospectively it’s those moments I treasure given the hectic and frantic pace of our modern and connected world. The most ordinary of times with those we unconditionally love is one of life’s most special gifts afforded to us individuals I think. I’m thankful I had those opportunities because not everyone does.
I remember the smell of stale biscuits at the jumble sale and the chaos of clothes spread uncaringly across borrowed decorating tables. My gran would speak to an older lady with pink hair who would push a girl around in a wheelchair which squeaked and had navy blue handles. I thought the girl was bossy and rude. She always wore a brown hat with straps under her chin with her hair poking through the top. I was a bit scared of her but I was also impressed with how she would shout at adults without any consequence of getting told off.
When I was 14 I met her again after a lady came to my school, she wanted volunteers to help at a summer play schemes for kids ‘with’ disabilities. Me and a few mates thought it would be something to do plus we were told you would get paid a whopping 3 quid a day. The mercenary I am, I immediately signed up before the lady had even finished her presentation. I loved that summer. It was 1991, my mates had just discovered early Prodigy and Nirvana songs whilst I was purchasing ‘er’ Michael Bolton records with my new found earnings !
I also discovered something else, I discovered other kids and teenagers who were different and not like me and my pals because they ‘had’ autism and learning disabilities. Meeting the girl with the brown strapped hat again was also different this time because we were both teenagers and I was now supporting her but it didn’t feel like support at all, we just had fun. I slowly worked out we were different because she was funny and I just wasn’t and that was it. She was still bossy and I was sarcastic but we ended up having the best of times, I wasn’t scared of her anymore, she was my pal and I was hers. Looking back it was quite astonishing how much responsibility we had whilst our play scheme leaders felt more removed. They were much cooler older kids of around 18 or 19 and posh university types who didn’t pay much attention to us because they just fancied and flirted with each other. I was in awe of them though and it was just us and the ‘special needs’ kids all in it together with no risk assessments but plenty of Bensons ! One minute I was a horse galloping around the grounds with a skipping rope and the next I was emotionally supporting someone who was upset or experiencing ‘challenging behaviour’ or as I saw it they were just really pissed off about something so we sorted the ‘something’ out and it worked. The summer went fast and we enjoyed lots of community outings. Sometimes members of the public would stare, sometimes people would make comments and we bit back and had a right go at them (totally inappropriately really) but we were together and we were all ‘special’ that summer so we were brave and we didn’t care.
I remember going back to school and longing for the next summer so the next play scheme could get started. I ended up doing three play schemes in total and I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my life thanks to those kids and the friendships we made and the togetherness we had. In a twist of fate today I have been or still am a social worker for lots of those children who are now adults and for their families. It means a great deal to me and I think it does to them too. So next off for me it was to local college for a two year GNVQ in Heath and Social Care which to this day was one of the strangest things I have ever done and a million miles away from those play schemes and I didn’t meet anyone with learning disabilities! Then in 1996 I started as a full time support worker which at the time was at a residential school for children ‘with’ learning disabilities and or autism. It was a very closed community in a small village and rarely with any actual connection to the local community itself which I hated. Those kids however received really exceptional care and support and I loved the job more than anything else I have done. I walked into something really good and it paid well too. I supported kids who I really developed a love and affection for and I met the most incredible families. It was brilliant and the retention off staff was great and it had the very best of leadership and colleagues who became good friends. It wasn’t without incident of course and I had a lot to learn. I was ok with the kids but domestic tasks was an entirely alien concept to me ! I was still a young lad living at home with my parents with bowls of weetabix under my own bed with mould that would of interested any scientist due to previously undiscovered elements to be added to the periodic table. So when I was told to iron a load of clothes I did my best not realising ironing shell suit bottoms would cause significant burning, melting and smoke damage. Everyone I worked with was actually terrified to tell the mother because she was very particular about her sons clothes (colour coded hangers) at the best of times. So I called her, I was honest and she was great with me, we laughed and I apologised. The thing is I have always understood why parents get cross if support staff don’t look after their loved ones clothes or property properly. It says a lot about the wider standard and values we have for the people we are privileged to support. These days nothing quite prepares me more for full on battle mode than witnessing people who receive support being dressed in clothes which either don’t fit, have odd socks on or buttons not done up properly or zips left open. It’s proper crap-ness and worthy of loosing your rag over !
When working at the residential school, I myself gained a lot of skills, I learnt to cook proper food, I learnt to be domestic, I learnt how to converse with people professionally, I learnt how to write reports, administer medication, contribute to meetings as well as lots of other things……but I also learnt about relationships and advocacy and how to enable those I support to be themselves to learn and develop their own skills and communication. I also ensured we did real things like going out at night or going on holiday or eating more than one packet of crisps at a time or the delights of eating an entire box of Jaffa Cakes occasionally. I also learnt to think about our connections and kindness towards each other as people. When I became the ‘head of house’ I encouraged others not to view people as living in goldfish bowls by over analysing everything they did or how they behaved. The model wasn’t perfect but it was their home first as we made sure of that. Today criticism of such places is easy to understand. These kids sometimes lived a long way from home and from their own natural communities, schools and families. I saw the conflict and heartbreak many of those families went through.
I myself went onto become a social worker because the head teacher at the residential school literally threw a UCAS book at me and told me to pick a university because she had already started my application form. I’d never thought about university or indeed social work before then but she had and she invested in me as much as she did for the children under her care. I’m forever grateful to her. My current job is still as a social worker. I really love it especially when it’s stripped back to what it should be which is about people and just people leading lives as citizens. Right now for me this means ensuring ‘WE’ are not invisible by campaigning, challenging and being together in our shared communities by ensuring we do our best with and for people who have disabilities to stay healthy and happy. Human rights are not a ‘something’ to do to someone else, it’s about an embedded shared value enshrined in law for togetherness and common decency. However such human rights need to be protected from those who wish to see them go. In my lifetime our language may have changed since my days on the playground but have our actual actions and support for people with learning disabilities made any real impact ? The evidence suggests not. Report after report and outcome after outcome lead to a dusty quiet or vague to non existent statement or an empty parliament.
Ask yourself this, when did you last see a person with a learning disability at your work, in parliament, in a club, in a pub or in your community instead of being just on the fun bus ? If I had any advice for my 7 year old self perhaps I would say being on the fun bus really isn’t any fun at all……….but I wouldn’t want to frighten him because those kids at my primary school might not even be alive now to look out the bus window as many tend not to live as long as me or maybe you.
Today the ‘rightful strife’ continues for children and adults with learning disabilities and my best guess is even my old school mate Wayne would be appalled by this because it’s 2018 now not 1984….. We have ‘ALL’ moved on haven’t we, haven’t we, haven’t we ?