Opinion

How outdated misconceptions about people with learning disabilities are holding society back

This Learning Disability Week offers us all the chance to think about how to do things differently to stamp out stigma for good

learning disabilities

People with learning disabilities bring so much value to our lives and to society as a whole. Image: Unsplash

As a society, we sometimes carry the notion that accepting people who are different from us is a charitable and noble action. That we are somehow simply doing people a favour. But the truth is, if we don’t acknowledge the contribution of others, we’re missing out on so much potential.

Learning Disability Week (17–23 June) is upon us once again, and it’s a time where many of us can make a pledge to support others who might face barriers to fulfilling and productive lives. Indeed, our organisation, Bridge Creative, is asking employers to do just that. This is a positive step forward – but it certainly isn’t a one-way street. Of course, due to stigma and social norms, people with learning disabilities do sometimes need extra advocacy and support. But they also bring so much value to our lives and to society as a whole.

I’m not suggesting that people with learning disabilities are all the same – we are all unique whether or not we share similar experiences or challenges. But having worked with so many individuals with learning disabilities, I can say with confidence that our workforce, our social circle, is blessed with new ideas, fresh perspectives, passion, empathy and commitment.

When you consider this it’s hard to understand how so many people are still missing out on earning a rightful living due to stigma. In County Durham, where our community interest company, Bridge Creative, is headquartered, the current unemployment rate for people with learning disabilities is one of the worst in the country, with just 9 people out of 1,649 with learning disabilities being in paid employment. Quite frankly, this feels like a travesty.

The idea that people with learning disabilities are somehow ‘less’ than the rest of us is shortsighted and, simply, plain wrong. Difference certainly doesn’t mean less. Yes, we have a duty to ensure that everyone has equal access to earning a living, or taking part in social, cultural or leisure activities. But their access to such activities enriches everyone’s lives.

I’ve seen workforces thrive when diversity is championed and individuals are given the chance to contribute to the best of their ability. New perspectives and curiosity challenge the norms, encouraging us to think differently about our traditional ways of doing things. We often talk about positive disruption and the benefits this can bring – so why not find people who are naturally curious and who maybe haven’t been given the opportunity to reflect on social and business norms before. Let them influence what you’re doing – listen to their ideas. They could really help transform things for the better.

I remember one of our staff members, who was known for his infectious smile, was working at an event for us. He genuinely made the festival experience especially enjoyable for customers, and his motivation, curiosity and enthusiasm inspired others in the operations team to think differently, reconsidering their usual methods and saying, ‘Yeah, why are we doing it that way?’

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During the planning stages of our annual Christmas Town event, our events team, made up of autistic people and people with a learning disability, proposed the creation of a sensory-friendly zone to cater to attendees who might feel overwhelmed by the event’s hustle and bustle. Embracing this idea, we dedicated a quiet area as a retreat from the main activities, equipped with noise-cancelling headphones and low-lighting to reduce visual overstimulation.

The space featured comfortable seating alongside a variety of fidget toys and stress balls. This sensory-friendly space led to increased attendance, especially among those who might have previously avoided such events due to sensory overload, resulting in overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Many of the people we’ve supported into work have reported improved confidence and independence, and the opportunities they’ve had to meet new people and make friends has improved their overall wellbeing. One person we supported landed his dream job of becoming a lifeguard at a local leisure centre, which lead to him being signed off from mental health services as “no longer requiring support” – after more than 25 years!

If we give more people a chance, if we think differently about diversity, we’re all going to reap the rewards.

So, this Learning Disability Week, before jumping on the hashtags and just saying you support the week, why not think about how you can do things differently? How you can meaningfully create more inclusive social, cultural or employment opportunities for people with different perspectives to offer. We will all benefit. It’s a win-win situation. One day, once we’ve stamped out stigma for good, we’ll have a higher functioning, more fulfilling society that is genuinely inclusive.

Ben Tinkler is MD Bridge Creative – a nonprofit employability organisation for people with learning disabilities and autism. bridgecreative.org

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