Mencap’s Changemakers project has been mobilising an army of young volunteers with a learning disability, to challenge perceptions and make changes in their communities
One year on from the summer riots, young people in England have a less than favourable reputation among many. Latest figures from the Department for Education show that 16% of working age young people under 25 are NEET (not in education, employment or training) – research suggests that those with a learning disability are three times more likely to be NEET.
The Olympics have really helped, with the Young Games Maker programme recruiting 2,000 volunteers aged 16 to 18. Meanwhile, a project to rally hundreds of people with a learning disability to become volunteers has been gathering pace throughout England.
Changemakers is a year-long project that will see 50 community impact projects established across the country. Launched in April by Mencap, it aims to involve 850 young people with a learning disability, between the ages of 13 and 25, in community volunteering and activism. It is the first national project of its kind.
In essence, Changemakers is about promoting a culture of volunteering. But it’s also about politicising young people with a learning disability, getting them to think about issues in their communities that affect them and how they can influence change.
The project has received £600,000 through the Social Action Fund – a Cabinet Office fund designed to encourage organisations to create social action opportunities, as part of the Big Society initiative. Changemakers works alongside Mencap’s Inspire Me project, which aims to change the lives of 25,000 young people with a learning disability and their families.
The project operates in 10 areas across England. Within each area, it has been working to recruit five groups of young people. The first groups came together in June, with an average of 17 young people in each. “It’s an ambitious project,” says Claire Smith, Mencap’s participation and learning manager for children and young people, who leads the project. “We want to give the young people new skills and teach them about their rights – so they can speak up about issues that matter to them.”
One of the challenges faced by staff supporting the Changemakers project is to guide the volunteers to focus on an important issue. “We don’t want 50 projects where groups are tidying their local park, because that’s not challenging the public perception of what they’d expect young people with a learning disability to do,” says Claire. What’s vital is that the projects impact the community and are youth led.
In Liverpool, the Changemakers group voted on different topics – from housing to hate crime – before agreeing to focus on the lack of employment options for people with a learning disability. As with all groups, the workshops resulted in a community impact project.
Calling themselves the Want to Work, Can Work group, the Liverpool Changemakers wrote to Maria Miller – who was then the disabilities minister – detailing their personal job-searching experiences. They are also contacting employees of local businesses, to show them what great colleagues they would be. “It’s an approach that’s original and quite intriguing,” says Stephen John, who supports the group.