Today marks the 110th birthday of Judy Fryd, Mencap founder and an avid learning disability campaigner.
Like me, Fryd was the parent to a child who had a learning disability who worked tirelessly to build a better, more equal world for her child. In 1946, she founded Mencap and her vision to create a world where people with a learning disability are valued equally, listened to and included continues to live on today.
Next year, I will be following in Fryd’s footsteps by taking up the role of Chief Executive at Mencap. I wanted to use the opportunity of Judy Fryd’s birthday to reflect on how far we have come in the fight for the rights of people with a learning disability over the last century and also look forward to how far we still have to go.
For Fryd her campaigning started out with a simple letter sent in 1946 to Nursery World Magazine. After watching her daughter – who had a learning disability - experience rejection from different schools, Judy decided to take a stand. Judy invited other parents to join her in expressing their anger and frustration about the lack of services for children with a learning disability in a letter to the magazine.
Out of this collective of parents, Fryd established the organisation that became Mencap to start providing services for children with a learning disability like her daughter.
Fryd was a pioneer in social care. Mencap’s first project, the Orchard Dene short-stay residential home, was set up in 1955 and was followed by the ground-breaking Brooklands Experiment in 1958. This experiment compared the progress of children with a learning disability who lived in a hospital, with a group of children who were moved to a small family environment and cared for using educational activities modelled on those in nurseries for children without a learning disability.
After two years, the children in the home-like environment showed significant improvements in social, emotional and verbal skills, and the success of this experiment was published around the world. The legacy of the Brooklands Experiment continues in Mencap’s work today with people-centred and bespoke support in the community delivered hand-in-hand with the people Mencap supports at the heart of its work.
Since then Mencap has expanded to improve the quality of life of people with a learning disability and their families not only through support services but also its helpline, campaigning and lobbying, employment services as well as providing bespoke programmes for all aspects of life for people with a learning disability including programmes that support relationships and friendships, education, sport, health and wellbeing.
Legal change took a lot longer. It wasn’t until 1995 when the Disability Discrimination Act was passed with the aim to end the discrimination faced by many disabled people and to guarantee their civil rights. While it wasn’t until 2009 when the UK government finally ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which reaffirmed that disabled people have the same human rights as non-disabled people.
There are 1.5 million people have a learning disability in the UK today and sadly many of them continue to be treated unequally and experience with stigma and discrimination every day of their lives. Being bullied is one of the things people with a learning disability worry about most when they go out. As a result people with a learning disability are more likely to be socially isolated, with one in three people with a learning disability spending less than one hour outside of their homes on a typical Saturday. They are also nearly twice as likely to be inactive, twice as likely to be obese and die prematurely, on average over two decades earlier compared to those without a learning disability. Mencap is working hard to change this.
As someone who is passionate about ensuring that people with a learning disability are included, listened to and valued, I am looking forward to joining Mencap to continue to challenge society and the government to create real change, and fight for the equal opportunities that every person with a learning disability deserves.
It all started with a simple letter and a lot of passion to bring about this momentous change. I hope that we can look back in another 100 years and see that our work pushing for even greater change for people with a learning disability is complete.
So a big thank you - and a huge Happy Birthday - to Judy Fryd and I look forward to continuing her legacy at Mencap.