For Learning Disability Week, Mencap Ambassador Emily Nicol, who has a learning disability, interviews Justin Tomlinson, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work. They discuss confronting the discrimination and social isolation faced by people with a learning disability and how to bring people together through sport.
Emily caught up with the Minister as he joined Mencap on Wednesday 18th June to play in the charity’s inclusive 5-aside football match – an idea she came up with after Mencap supported her to beat her personal best in 5k races.
"Educating the wider public about learning disabilities is an important first step in combating bullying and social isolation."
This football match, supported by Arsenal in the Community, is one activity in a series of ‘Here We Are’ sporting events taking place across the country, organised by the charity with the support of Virgin Money. The year-long partnership with Virgin Money includes Mencap being charity of the year for the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon. It will help fund the launch of an inclusive schools programme ‘All Move’, which will bring young people with - and without - a learning disability together through sport.
Emily: What are you doing for Learning Disability Week and why do you think it is important?
Justin: Learning Disability Week is incredibly important because it raises awareness about the issues disabled people can face and it brings people together to challenge those head on. Mencap’s fantastic charity football tournament highlights how important it is for those with learning disabilities to stay active, and shows us how we can use sport to bring people together from all backgrounds to help create a more inclusive and fair society. Everyone should be able to live their life without fear of discrimination, but one in three people with learning disabilities are scared to leave the house due to bullying. Learning Disability Week is important because no-one should be barred from participating in any aspect of life because of a disability, whether that’s playing a sport, going to the shops, or doing their job. Our priority is to build a more inclusive society, with schemes like Disability Confident that helps employers to recruit and retain disabled people in the workplace, and this week we announced the Blue Badge scheme is being extended to cover hidden disabilities.
Emily: What does inclusive sport mean to you?
Justin: To me, inclusive sport means that anyone and everyone has the opportunity to reap the rewards that come from participating in sports within their community. The London 2012 Paralympics showed just how powerful sport is in building bridges within communities. But you don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to reap the benefits. Those with learning disabilities are twice as likely to be inactive and twice as likely to become obese, but two out of three say they want to take part in sport with both disabled and non-disabled peers.
Emily: As Disability Minister, what do you believe are the most important issues facing people with a learning disability? And what are you doing to tackle them?
Justin: Combating discrimination, social exclusion, and a lack of understanding is crucial to improving the quality of life of those with learning disabilities. Whilst it’s great news that 950,000 more disabled people are in work now compared to 5 years ago, we know that for people with learning disabilities progress has been slower. That’s why we offer a range of tailored support to help people with learning disabilities find a job that’s right for them – from our Access to Work scheme to our Work and Health Programme. Through our Disability Confident scheme we work closely with employers to encourage them to think differently about recruiting disabled people to help ensure that people with learning disabilities are able to thrive in the workplace.
Emily: How do you think we can put a stop to bullying and social isolation which Mencap's new research shows? Do you think sport can play a role in tackling this?
Justin: Educating the wider public about learning disabilities is an important first step in combating bullying and social isolation. Sports such as football, which bring together wide groups of people together from various walks of life, are a great way to do this. However, we need to improve representation of disabled people across the board – in our workplaces, on our TV screens, and at social events. It’s also important to note that the reasons behind this exclusion include the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ – that is, not knowing what to say or how to act around people with learning disabilities. Combating this requires not just inclusion but further education. I am proud that my Department is involved in establishing a Regional Stakeholder Network to improve the way we engage with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations. This network will actively involve disabled people across the country in the decisions that matter to them.
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Emily: Mencap is the official charity partner for the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon. How do you think this can help people with a learning disability? Are you going to run for us?!
Justin: The London Marathon raises millions for charity every year and Mencap will benefit hugely from its association with the event through additional donations and also increased exposure about how Mencap assists those with learning disabilities. High-profile events such as the London Marathon also help assist us in making those with learning disabilities more visible members of society. While I’d love to participate myself, with a baby on the way I suspect most of my time will soon be spent running around the house!