Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

A very social circle

A small pilot project to explore ways to help people form relationships has grown into a thriving network of clubs. Laura Kerr reports…

Our initial idea was to set up a Stars in the Sky-style dating agency, but was this what people wanted? We decided to find out by talking to around 150 people with learning disabilities, their parents,families, carers, social workers and other professionals.

The response was overwhelming. Those with learning disabilities told us that they desperately wanted to make new friends and meet up socially. They wanted to do everyday things that other people take for granted, like going to pubs, cinemas, restaurants, theatres, sporting events and cafes.

They did not already do these things because they found it too difficult to organise or because they felt uncomfortable and unsafe in the community, particularly, and especially, at night. Very few had support to make or meet friends outside work or day centres, and it was clear that a co-ordinator was needed to ‘bring people together’ in their own local communities.

A start was made by putting on monthly events in three towns. Not knowing how many people would turn up, we were carefulto choose venues that were safe, unlikely to be busy and had disabled access. We also had to make clear that with one co-ordinator and limited volunteers, anyone who needed support would need to bring a carer.

Within six months, almost 200 individuals had attended a variety of Friendship Club events including theatre, pub nights out, nightclubs, cafe, karaoke, afootball match, community festival and workshops.

As Dorset is a rural county we thought transport might be a problem, but ingeneral, most people were able to get to events easily. Some sharedlifts or travelled together, and with the introduction of personal budgets some people are now using direct payments to pay for a taxito get to events further afield. Based on the initial success, wemanaged to secure more funding to expand the project countywide, allowing five more clubs to form. Now over 340 people have attended events.

It was no surprise to read Dorset County Council’s 2009survey of 1,004 adults with learning disabilities, which reported that the top favourite evening activities were going to the pub,group activities, live music/concerts, cinema, visiting friends andhaving friends to visit.

What has worked?

It has been encouraging to see and hear how people with learningdisabilities who have regularly attended events have grown inconfidence as they get out more, meet up with friends, and generally become more visible and accepted within their local community.

Those attending as a group choose where they want tomeet and we set it up. We have seen friends reunited, others meeting up on their own, and new relationships forming. People arenow using public transport to get to events in other areas, which they had not done before. We have also supported some individuals to organise and promote their own events.

All people with learning disabilities are welcome and have mixed well together. Often individuals who are more able support those who are less able, such as ordering food and drinks.

A steering group of individuals with learning disabilities who attend also meet up regularly and act asrepresentatives for the club, where they discuss issues, plan events and explore ideas.

Strong links have been forged with other organisations such as Mencap, Dorset V (young volunteers), arts organisations (for workshops, local festivals and theatre visits),local charities, Dorset History Centre, ITV fixers, community clubs, churches, the Letts Scheme (similar to Timebanking), as well as pubs, nightclubs, cinemas and cafes. Developing mutually beneficial activities which are low cost and sustainable is key tomaking the project work.

Although a few pubs and nightclubs were slightly anxious when we initially approached them, we have been welcomed in the community. Even those who were uncertain at first have been very supportive after witnessing the benefits adults with learning disabilities gain by being out and having fun in thecommunity. Not only is everyone well behaved, but the venue takings are generally well up after our visit.

We are also focusing on the issue of safety by working closely with community support officers.They attend some events to get to know people and give safetyadvice, enabling them to address ‘hate and mate crime’ in a relaxed and friendly environment.

This has gone some way to reassureparents and carers who may be nervous about people going into public places. We are also promoting ICE (in case of emergency)cards to those attending and we support town radio link schemes.

Thinking ‘outside the box’ has been vital to make things happen.The group wanted to make a DVD about friendship but this was going to be expensive and time consuming, so we teamed up with ITV fixersand Dorset V to work on a short documentary on people with learning disabilities in their communities.

Also, instead of arranging events exclusively for people with learning disabilities, we attend local leisure events including comedy, cabaret, film and dancing.The Friendship Club also acts as a signposting service, directing people with a problem to appropriate support. This is particularly useful for those who do not receive any services or support. Other organisations send us information about events, which we are ableto pass on via our ever expanding database. We have also been able to introduce people to existing clubs and groups such as a bowling and church drop-ins.

What has been difficult?

One member commented: “I was feeling really depressed with all the cold and snowy weather and I had not been out for a few days. Then the post came with the new diary of Friendship Club events and I feltso much better as I had something to look forward to”. But it is not enough that people like it – we also have to prove tocommissioners that it is a sensible use of funds. However, with ourlimited budget, quantifying the social and psychological benefits and potential savings is difficult. It is clear that from thenumbers attending this is a much needed service, but identifyingadditional benefits or ‘soft’ outcomes needs more research. Another tricky area is the fact that we have over 60 people who havevolunteered to support activities, but they all need police checks,training and support. To ensure the clubs can continue to meet and become sustainable in the longer term we will need to attract moreregular volunteers and create a circle of support in each town.Until we are able to appoint another co-ordinator, we have teamed up with Dorset V and their young volunteers who have beeninstrumental and proactive in supporting the activities. We alsohave volunteer support from professionals like social workers and community nurses.

What next?

In order to keep going we need more funding and are currently applying to theReaching Communities Big Lottery Fund to employ three part-time development co-ordinators across Dorset for three years. This willinclude expanding our current work as well as exploring ways ofmaking the club sustainable in the longer term. We would also like to put on friendship and relationship workshops. But, most importantly, we want to keep listening and working with people with learning disabilities, who have made it clear to us they desperately want to have friends and be part of their community. www.dorsetpeoplefirst.co.uk

About the author Laura Kerr is Friendship Club co-ordinator for Dorset People First [email protected]

DARREN: “I’m enjoying myself” Darren Jones lives with his parentsin Gillingham. He didn’t have much of a social life so his parents were delighted to hear about the local pub nights. They brought himalong and he was also supported by a worker from Dorset Advocacy.Darren says: “Since joining the Friendship Club, I am getting out,meeting people and enjoying myself. I know more people now than I did before and I am more confident than I was before, especiallytalking to people. “I have organised a successful ten pin bowling outing to Yeovil. I am organising another trip. I rang the bowlingcentre to find out about times and costs and I booked a minibus. Iam now arranging an outing to Yeovil Football Club to watch my favourite team, Southampton, play.”

WILLIAM: “It’s given meconfidence to get out there” William Parminter had one friend before his community nurse suggested he go along to the FriendshipClub. He now has a group of people to meet, is on the club steeringgroup committee, and has organised his own event and is representing the Friendship Club at Mencap meetings. He alsoregularly attends a church drop-in, which he was introduced tothrough the Friendship Club and has gained enough confidence to take the bus to other towns so he can meet up with friends he hasmade there. He is also meeting up with some of these friendsoutside Friendship Club events too and he has spoken about the club at a volunteer conference. “It’s given me more confidence to meetup with people, get out there, to events in the community and takethe bus to other towns.”

JOSEPH: “It’s the best feeling”Joseph Bevan is on the Weymouth steering group and wanted toorganise Friendship Club T-shirts. So with support from a volunteerhe researched printing costs and demand from people attending. He has now sold over 80 T-shirts and is expanding the range to hoodiesand baseball caps, now with minimal support. Joseph says: “It’s really helped me get out more, especially in the evenings and givenme more confidence. I’m doing things now I would never have donebefore I came to the Friendship Club. It feels like a big family of friends and I’m very lucky because otherwise I wouldn’t have got toknow them. “I also feel much safer going out in the community andpeople have been really friendly at pubs and places. “When I see someone wearing or ordering one of the club T-shirts, it is thebest feeling ever. I feel overwhelmed with joy because it was myidea and I got them made with help. It’s great the way that has turned out. I think we should do lots more things and I want tohelp to do more things at the Friendship Club.”

What people said about the Friendship Club

“It has made so much difference to my son’s life. Since attending the friendship club hehas had social events to look forward to that also allow him tomeet new people. He writes all the events in his diary so he can show friends and family at every opportunity! I feel the friendshipevents have boosted his confidence and self-worth.” A parent

“Our residents have severe learning disabilities as well as physical disabilities. We have 10-15 people who use this veryworthwhile club … it is a facility that is much needed and highly appreciated by all of them. The club enriches their lives – withoutit, they would not have a social life at all.” Residential care home

“This has been an extremely worthwhile exercise in terms of service user community development and I believe that activitiesof this nature should become an integrated part of the programmeoffered at our day centre.” Day centre services officer commenting on a series of workshops at local arts centre.

“It is amazing to see how confident some people are becoming.”Occupational therapist, Learning Disability Team

“It’s changing people’s lives.” Independent Day Service Provider

“Since the start of the Friendship Club, I have noticed a hugeimprovement in the social skills and confidence of many of the service users attending the club events, and I have certainly foundit easier to get people out to other events now that they areaccustomed to, and enjoying, their increased social life.” Leisure co-ordinator, West Dorset Mencap

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