While most organisations supporting people with a learning disability in Britain today are solely service providers, campaigning has been at the heart of our movement, Harrow Mencap, since the very beginning.
Harrow Mencap was founded in 1946 by a group of parents who wanted to push for the recognition and rights of their children in wider society.
Nearly every charity or company supporting people with a learning disability has the potential to campaign, even if they see themselves as delivering care first and foremost.
"Everyone stands to benefit if these services and amenities create conditions that are more accommodating to your clients’ needs".
Times are tough. Gone are the days when not-for-profits could rely on grants. Organisations must now become financially independent by going into the business of health and social care, or risk going under.
“What does that have do with campaigning? It isn’t in our remit, we’re stretched and busy enough as it is,” a support provider might say.
The answer is simple. In addition to its other benefits, campaigning is an important business development tool which has the potential to improve both your client and staff experiences for the betterment of your organisation.
Campaigns can cover any number of issues; from access to local transport to improving NHS services. Even if your organisation doesn’t campaign at all, you can be quite sure your clients use public buses or trains while out with your support staff. They may visit GP practices and hospitals. Everyone stands to benefit if these services and amenities create conditions that are more accommodating to your clients’ needs.
For instance, sensory overload and distress caused by noisy train carriages or routine-disrupting bus delays can trigger "challenging behaviour". This is distressing for clients and can also be difficult for staff. Campaigning to make local services more sensitive to your clients’ needs provides a crucial long-term solution to these problems. More inclusive public services make life easier for clients as well as support workers.
If life is easier, both will most likely be happier. If they are happier, you stand a stronger chance of retaining them. As we all know, holding on to quality staff is a challenge throughout the health and social care sector but this is crucial to the success of any organisation.
Improving quality of life
Taking part in public activities like campaigns can also positively improve client experiences by giving them new opportunities to socialise. With up to 40% of people with a learning disability in Britain also living with mental health issues, campaigning has the potential to address this problem by empowering individuals and bringing them out of the social isolation that they face all too often.
At Harrow Mencap, our campaigns have emboldened the people we support by giving them the opportunity to show leadership and have a say over the decisions that impact their lives. We have seen this time and again in our campaigns around transport, voting, and healthcare.
This came to the fore prominently when a group of our self-advocates engaged with the Greater London Authority (GLA) over accessible transport. They invited our local London Assembly Member to one of their weekly meetings and visited City Hall to discuss the matter with Mayor Sadiq Khan. The entire project has been empowering for those who took part.
“City Hall was really interesting, we talked to the mayor all about transport, freedom passes and everything. We enjoyed going, we loved it, I’d be keen to go again,” said our self-advocate and client Hinal who took part in the campaign.
The group’s work was productive, important, and inspiring. Fom a business perspective, as Hinal’s words show, it also gave us the chance to provide clients a new, enjoyable activity experience that was quite different than what they were used to. When an organisation offers a broader range of activities to clients and families like these in addition to more traditional health and social care services, the larger the client-base it can appeal to.
Campaigns like these can improve a client’s quality of life immensely, and isn’t that exactly what organisations like ours are there for?
Another of our public transport campaigns has also helped bring business-friendly benefits beyond its intended aim.
A team of our self-advocates, clients, and other campaigners banded together with different local groups to call for step-free access to Harrow-on-the-Hill Tube Station. Our group collaborated with fellow citizens who could also have additional mobility needs to show how step-free access can benefit a wide range of people in the community.
“On this campaign partnership worked brilliantly, we were on the ball and knew what needed to happen and how to get there,” said Harrow Mencap trustee and veteran activist David House who played a leading role in the initiative. "Over time, people with a learning disability and other residents including older people, parents with push chairs and other people who use the station met up, discussed how to improve the station as a group and then lobbied Transport for London, the local council and the GLA together".
After steady, united, and focused engagement with these public bodies, the campaign triumphed, and we are expecting work on the step-free access lifts at Harrow-on-the-Hill to be completed this year.
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However, the process that led to this achievement was just as important as the result. The fact that the people we support not only took part in the campaign but lead on it had the valuable effect of helping to shape positive perceptions around learning disability, dispelling the traditional and inaccurate stereotypes that so often portray them as unable to participate in society.
So, if you want your organisation to perform to the best of its ability and ultimately have happier clients and staff, why not get out there and campaign?
Edward Rowe is Harrow Mencap's Information, Communications and Engagement Coordinator.