Despite the introduction of a number of supportive government initiatives in the past five years, the stigma attached to people with a learning disability is still a significant challenge faced by the care sector. The impact of this stigma can be a barrier to many aspects of social inclusion – a vital part of everyone’s well-being.

For an adult with a complex condition or learning disability, social inclusion plays a huge part in increasing self-confidence and independence. Going out, being part of a group, learning new skills, meeting people are all key elements of social inclusion. Encouraging the right level of social inclusion should run through the core of any individual care plan and there needs to be a collective effort between family, support workers and friends to ultimately help individuals to achieve their life goals.

A recent study underlined how social workers caring for disabled and older people are at tipping point because of the squeeze on local authority funding. According to the research, which surveyed 469 social workers from across England, 69 percent feel they are expected to reduce care packages because of cost pressures in their local authority.

This means that the emphasis is very much on the role that we play, as carers and family members of those with learning disabilities. How we provide support is crucial in ensuring that the people we care for are able to integrate with the community and can rely on us to create a variety of happy, safe and comfortable environments.

There are many ways in which enriching social inclusion can be woven into the fabric of everyone’s life but these are my top five methods for encouraging adults with learning disabilities:

1. Weekly routines and activities

Social inclusion and a sense of belonging to a community can be encouraged through a person’s weekly routines. For example, in the heart of Uttoxeter, we have a community-based facility, The Hub, which acts as a gateway into the community for many people with learning disabilities. It can be accessed independently or through supported care as a number of qualified care workers are on-hand to help.

Whether it’s a breakfast club where service users can learn to cook, a ballroom dancing class where light exercise is encouraged or arts and crafts that focus on creativity and the importance of expression – these core activities provide adults with learning disabilities with a solid routine where they can interact with their peers and meet new people. The groups also regularly go out for day trips as well as working with other organisations and enjoying visits from weekly guests. Such regular activities not only build confidence but also encourage socialising, engage family and friends and most of all, they provide a sense of friendship and community – and so the foundation is laid.

Even if such a facility doesn’t exist near to you, there will certainly be opportunities for you to recreate similar experiences.

2. Enterprise

With the right guidance and support, encouraging an individual with a learning disability into a commercial role can be key to helping them grow their independence. Active employment provides many benefits: improving skillsets, building confidence and overall quality of life. Not only does employment provide clients with their own income and allow them to manage their own finances but it inevitably encourages social interaction with colleagues and customers.

For example, allowing an individual to run their own tuck shop or snack bar within a community environment gives that person the opportunity to learn all-important life skills such as handling money and customer interaction whilst building an overall sense of belonging. Also, people with certain conditions, such as autism, can be a real asset in the right environment.

A recent study by Mencap revealed that only 6% of people with learning disabilities have access to meaningful employment.

3. Team working

Giving individuals with learning disabilities the opportunity to work within a group can also provide a new dimension in terms of social inclusion and building self-confidence.

For example, at DE Healthcare, we work with a professional theatre company to provide clients with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the arts. Each week, a number of our clients visit the theatre company to enjoy choir sessions that often result in performances that family, friends and staff come to watch.

We’ve even had local MPs in the audience! The choir group can include all sorts of people: care providers, youth groups, charity workers, volunteers, friends and family. The uplifting nature of this creative, carefree activity is perfect for bringing people together and creating a natural, positive bond between people. It allows adults with learning disabilities to gradually expand their social groups and socialise with more of their peers, building confidence to allow for further integration in the community.

4. Promoting independence

Our primary objective, as carers and family members, is to encourage greater choice and increased involvement in decision-making for those in our care. Although the concept of building independence is measured differently depending on the severity of a person’s condition, with a tailored care support plan and loving family, the opportunities are endless.

There are many things that some might take for granted - such as using public transport, ordering a meal at a restaurant or even doing the weekly shop at the supermarket - that play a huge part in building independence, confidence and instilling a sense of community.

5. Put a strong support system in place

Living life with a learning disability can be a challenge and, depending on the level of severity, some individuals need much more hands-on support than others. Family and friends play a huge part in everyone’s life and are an important part of the support system.

We know that consistency is crucial so having a key support worker and main point of contact within the family goes a long way to ensuring nothing is missed. The support system then expands around these two key people but by having them at the core, it’s less likely that the individual will feel flustered or confused in challenging situations.

Way forward

Ultimately, encouraging social inclusion among adults with learning disabilities should always be an integral part of the support and care we provide. Looking for natural and comfortable ways to create community-based opportunities for the people we care for is the way forward and crucial if we are to be successful in removing the stigma attached to our clients.

“Social barriers are related to the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, learn, work and age – or social determinants of health – that can contribute to decreased functioning among people with disabilities” [Source: cdc.gov].

Removing stigma starts with changing attitudes. This can only start if there is a clear appreciation of the obstacles faced by people with learning disabilities. Ironically, this starts with greater social acceptance through increased inclusion and community participation.

DE Healthcare is a provider of specialist care services for adults with learning disabilities across Staffordshire.