Poverty is often thought of in simple financial terms but without worrying first about an individual’s access to money, groups of people can find themselves marginalised, without opportunity and facing big disadvantages to being involved in society at all. GMPA is in Tameside to visit People First Tameside, an organisation working with local people with learning disabilities.
Three people in every hundred will have a learning disability, and they are likely to have difficulty with everyday activities and struggle with the same things the rest of us take for granted: understanding information, managing money, living independently, making and sustaining friendships and relationships, and finding and maintaining work. This makes it hard for them to join in with the community, and a vulnerable target for abuse and manipulation. One tragic story is that of the death of David Askew, a cherished and much loved individual member of the People First Tameside community who suffered bullying and abuse for most of his adult life from generations of families around where he lived. David eventually died of a heart attack in 2010 after youths had made another attack on his family home, and the following police investigations into David’s case made national headlines: over 26 young people were involved and one person was given a prison sentence.
“It’s really about tackling disadvantage and inequality”, says Liz Wright, People’s First Tameside manager, “because people with learning disabilities want the same as everyone else. A loving relationship, friendships, good food, travel, to have fun and laugh, to have opportunities in life”. People First Tameside puts people with learning disabilities as central decision makers in the organisation. Where other organisations might describe ‘service users’ for those engaging with their services, here any person with a learning disability that comes through the doors is a ‘member’. All members vote for which of them should be on the Committee, which then makes the fundamental decisions about where to spend the money, which staff to employ, and what activities to pursue. Craig, for example is Secretary and ‘does all the paperwork, typing up the minutes’ while Jenny the financial officer jokes, “I pay the staff”.
The model of total inclusivity moves away from the old almost Victorian model of isolated, top-down and directed care, where people with learning disabilities were looked after in separate institutions, shut up, locked away from ordinary society. “People don’t want others feeling sorry for them”, says Liz, “people want to be part of their community, to be respected and have the same opportunities in life”. And here, they are very much part of the community and they design the resources and help to be able to best integrate with wider society. Several members laugh with pride announcing that “I am part of the furniture”, a wonderful way of expressing a sense of belonging to a community that isn’t simply short term and will be gone tomorrow.
Core to the services then offered by People First Tameside focus is the “Our Way, Our Day” service, where special one day events and workshops are organised for members to enjoy. GMPA joins People First Tameside for a BBQ, where groups are chopping onions, preparing kebabs, wrapping bananas and chocolate in foil to go on the grill. Terry plays music as the DJ, and there is a lot of laughter and friendship between everyone. It’s a happy space, and members are easily enjoying themselves. Planned activities include trips to the local nature reserve, arts and crafts days, visits to the National Football Museum, bowling, and trips further afield, to Blackpool for example. Added to the “Our Way, Our Day” is a simple social club and drop in, where members come to relax and spend time with their friends, or ask the staff for help with a letter, for relationship advice, for support to feel safe.
People with learning disabilities often face disadvantages and stigma, whether in accessing services or directly experiencing hate crime, and this has led to Disability Awareness Training being a central pillar in People First Tameside provision. GMPA attended a practice session for the Disability Awareness Training, later to be given in a school. A Powerpoint presentation is projected onto a big wall and members take it in turns to present each slide to the group, reading the content. There is a passion in the room as members talk about their own personal experience of hate crime and vulnerability. The aim of the training is to raise awareness in schools, targeting our next generation of young people giving them positive messages around disability and difference, with the hope that they will become a much more aware and less likely to discriminate against others for being seen to be different.
There is another crucial pillar to the work of People First Tameside too, “My Life, My Way”, which is bespoke one-to-one support for members around their personal needs and desires and designed specially to help them flourish. This helps individuals into employment, such as Denzel who now has a job two days a week as a cleaner. Through all of this work, it is clear that the people with learning disabilities are put centre stage, empowered, and given opportunities to become full members in society. “It is the most simple things, sharing a meal, passing the salt, going to the pub or sharing a bottle of wine that people with learning difficulties often have no access to” explains Liz, adding “just because you have a disability, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on life”.
The inspiring work of People First Tameside helps us reflect that the challenge of tackling poverty is about giving everyone in the community opportunity to be fulfilled, to thrive and to feel welcomed. The great potential of community organisations to make a difference to the lives of those in their neighbourhoods can only be
More information is available on their website or follow them on Twitter @Pftameside