Some notes on language
I use person first language for people with learning disabilities because my understanding is that most people with learning disabilities prefer PFL and my own preference for identity first language is irrelevant because I do not have a learning disability.
The people who attended the day centre are referred to as customers because this was the term the majority preferred.
Learning Disability and Accessibility
Back when I first became a social worker I worked with people with learning disabilities in a day centre. When I first started there we were based in two old Victorian houses that had been converted (and made accessible) in the suburbs. It was a lovely place and I feel happy when I remember it. It was very homely and many of the customers had been going there for decades. People were comfortable there. The problem was that it was so far from any community resources. There was a park close by but no café’s or shops or colleges. It was very much an institution and at the time we were trying to move away from institutionalisation. We (some of the staff and most of the customers) wanted to be part of the community. We wanted customers to be able to go out for coffee, get their hair done, go shopping, go to the theatre and do all of the things that most people take for granted. Some of the customers had ambitions that they hadn’t been able to work towards because of where we were based. They wanted to attend college courses and get jobs.
Many people take it for granted that if they are based on one side of a town they will be able to do something the other side of town but for many adults with learning disabilities this just isn’t possible. Many adults with learning disabilities require support to do things but may not have funding for one to one support. For most of the adults there would be one support worker for four people. So if you had only one person who wanted to attend a college course they couldn’t because the support worker was needed back at the centre. And even if you had four people who wanted to attend the college course most of the customers were wheelchair users and you can only have one wheelchair user on a bus. One of the biggest issues was lack of accessible toilets. Most of the customers needed changing places toilets (which are basically bigger toilets with hoists and adjustable benches) and back then there weren’t any in the city where I worked (and even now there are only three). This meant that the longest many of the customers could go out for was a couple of hours.
Management made the decision to move to the town centre. They found a great building and adapted it to make a base for the customers. There were still some activities going on in the day centre but for the most part it was just a base. Because we were closer to the college it was possible for one member of staff to accompany someone to college at 9AM and be back for 9.30 to support other customers in activities. Because we were so central it meant that customers could be spontaneous and decide to go out for lunch or do some shopping instead of having to plan these things a week in advance. It meant that we didn’t have to worry about an inaccessible transport system. We could go out for the day and come back quickly to use the accessible bathroom.
It was a good move for the customers and I think it’s right that day centres make the move to just being a community base for people with learning disabilities. But I also felt that in many ways we never really addressed the problems. We never addressed the fact that only one wheelchair user can get on the bus, or that the government funds the bare minimum amount of support that a person needs and this isn’t enough for many to live the lives they want, and even now there are less than 1,000 changing places toilets in the UK.
As a community we need to do so much more to make things more accessible to people with learning disabilities (and other disabled people too).
If you would like to support the changing places campaign you can find information here: http://www.changing-places.org/the_campaign.aspx