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What if we’d all known someone with a learning disability as a child?

16 July 2015
Naomi Contopoulos

People with a learning disability can often face prejudice and exclusion in society on a daily basis, but could this be different if all of us knew people with a learning disability from an earlier stage in life? I went to Millfield School in Somerset to find out how some of the best friendships start at an early age.

I work at Mencap and very aware of the many challenges facing the 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK. I hear many anecdotes about people too scared to travel on the bus when school children are around for fear of ridicule or worse.

I hear stories of people who are side-lined by employers because of an assumption that they are not up to the job. And people who don’t get the healthcare they deserve because health staff don’t understand about their condition or quality of life.

I was lucky, as my parents worked in a Camphill community where many people with a learning disability live. I must have been about 7 or 8 when I first met someone with a learning disability. I remember feeling a bit scared at first but because everyone around me was so relaxed, I felt relaxed too. Very soon many people became my friends. Especially Betty, she was lovely. I found out later she had given my parents a silver spoon when I was christened.

Without that positive exposure, what might I have done with that fear? Could I have become one of those bullies on the bus? Or a professional who assumed that people with a learning disability have nothing to offer?

This was really brought home to me at the end of last month’s Learning Disability Week. I was lucky enough to go along to Millfield School’s annual Mencap Day when they throw open the doors to people with a learning disability from groups right across the South West.

The students and staff are all involved in planning and hosting the day, working closely with Mencap’s communities team. On the day there are close to 100 different activities on offer, from tug-of-war to cooking, face painting to beadwork. There’s a delicious lunch thrown in too.

Of course, many guests look forward to the event all year. But for some it is their first time attending. I spoke to Sarah from Barnstaple Abbey Gateway Group (pictured below) who told me: “This is my first Mencap Day. I’ve been doing face painting, I’ve also done the bucking bronco and I’m having a go at the bead making; I’m having a great day. The best thing has been meeting all the new people.”

I also spoke to Averil, who’d come along with her son Matthew: “Matt is able to access sports that he would be unable to in his everyday life. He has experienced squash for the first time, and in the past, Archery. Our students this year, Henry and Olivia are amazing. They have encouraged Matt to do so much, and really engaged with him.”

But what about the Millfield students? There were really touching scenes everywhere, from a young teenager gently holding the hands of an older woman to steady her on the bouncy castle, to a group of students, arms waving in the air and being the adoring fan club as a lady belted out karaoke hits.

David Holmes is head of design at Millfield, and passionate about the positive impact Mencap Day has on his students: “I find it brings the best out in our kids. Even some of our more difficult kids really shine. It makes me very proud to work here. I think it’s fantastic that our students meet people who have different backgrounds and experience because I think there is always a risk if young people live in a bubble.”

Kahan, another Millfield student agrees: “People with a learning disability should be appreciated for what they can do. There are many things they are better at than us and we should respect that.”

The warm glow I felt from such a wonderful day left me more convinced than ever that parents, schools - all of us in fact - should do more to make sure we all get to know someone with a learning disability when we are young. How different our world might look then?

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