Oi Parliament – are you listening? – Building confidence and citizenship in uncertain times

Is the Government trying to silence the voices of people with learning disabilities? It’s not so easy to silence the self advocates in the North West Regional Forum as Rosemary Trustam found at their annual conference in Blackpool.

No one could accuse the North West Self-Advocates of lying down in the face of cuts. The Government’s withdrawal of funding for the National Forum of People with Learning Disabilities – their direct line to government –  has spurred them to action. With no alternative offered, the North West Regional Forum decided to start a campaigning arm and lobby their local and national politicians directly.

Full inclusion

Supported by Pathways Associates – a not-for-profit organisation committed to people’s full inclusion in community life – self advocacy groups across the region have representation in the North West Regional Forum and vote annually at their conference for national reps and regional task group members. They work in partnership too with the North West

Association of Directors of Adult Social Services on key issues. This annual conference in Blackpool is a tribute to their development across the years and is one of the few conferences that is truly owned by the people.

“There are 1,825 days to speak out but just one day to vote”, said Gary Hart from the parliamentary outreach team. Addressing the workings of government and how to influence things, he urged delegates to speak out. He spoke of successful campaigns, such as United Response’s on voting and the National Autistic Society’s leading to the Autism Act. As an example of individual action he told the story of how one Liverpool disabled voter could not get into the building to vote and so got the voting booth brought outside.

In the parliamentary workshops people were helped to think about their big issues using talking mats, verbal discussion supported by Total Communication’s Alison Matthews and Shahnaz Ashraf. Issues were raised by e-mailing and tweeting MPs and local politicians.

Joanne Kennedy, a delegate from Blackpool North, e-mailed her concerns about the planned benefits changes to reduce the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG) rate by £30 per week. This takes no account of the extra costs for disabled people of carrying out some activities as compared to other job seekers. She said disabled people are very worried about this. She also complained about the lack of proper information suggesting this will deter people from trying to develop towards work. Her MP’s disappointing reply reiterated the rhetoric of ‘work incentivisation’, saying that the money will be recycled into better support into work.

However, the letter did say:‘There will be no cash losers among those who are already in receipt of ESA which, with further safeguards, mean they will not lose the extra payment, even if they are reassessed after April and placed in the WRAG.’ Other reassurance was that if people try out work and fail they won’t lose out.

Delegates voted on the top three issues arising from workshops. These were social care funding, the NHS and cuts to self-advocacy funding. These will now form the focus of the campaigning group’s work. There was also table work facilitated for people to think about how they can make sure they have a voice which is heard. There were  workshops led by self-advocates on hate crime projects, consent in relationships, speaking out and understanding emotions, as well as a  comedy workshop  and a dance workshop led by DanceSyndrome.

Sam Sly was an inspiring keynote speaker, talking about the Keys of Citizenship  (see Keys that unlock the doors to true citizenship, Community Living, 28.3).

Diverse topics

Final workshops covered topics as diverse as annual health checks, preventable deaths, ‘using my rights’ (human and disability), tackling isolation, getting the best out of your  health and social care assessment or review, and getting ‘somewhere we can call home’.

The last day also had the ‘bosses’ from the North West doing short keynote speeches, with Lancashire’s Director of Adult Services talking about their Shared Lives project.

The encouragement, the real engagement and contributions made showed in the confident voices at this conference – a lively and active event with a real buzz .