How Community Circles can empower people to be good neighbours to people with a learning disability

In my last blog, I talked about how Community Circles can complement support from health professionals, by helping to address practical, everyday problems that may be getting in the way.  We know that alongside this practical support, the experience of being part of a Circle can also reduce a person’s loneliness and isolation, through the connections, conversations and community developed through the meetings themselves.

This blog will look (from my perspective as a Community Circles Connector working for a learning disability charity) at how Circles could help to tackle the urgent problem of loneliness and isolation for people with a learning disability in a different and broader way, through empowering neighbours and others in the community to offer support for someone through a Community Circle, when they otherwise might not feel able to offer, and thus help to change attitudes of people in the wider community to learning disabled people.

Isolation and loneliness are big problems for people with a learning disability. Recent Mencap research reported by the BBC and in my colleague Cath’s recent blog: showed that nearly half of the 18-35 year old learning disabled people interviewed by Mencap want to spend more time outside their homes. Nearly 34% were worried about being bullied and more than a quarter are worried about being laughed at when they leave the house. We clearly have work to do in both tackling prejudice and discrimination against people with a learning disability, and finding ways to give learning-disabled people the confidence to go out, and speak out about discrimination they suffer. Research commissioned by my own organisation, Brandon Trust, backs this up. Our Chief Executive Lucy Hurst-Brown summarised the research by saying that “Scratch under the surface of ‘care in the community’ and the reality for most people with a learning disability – despite the fact they live in a town, village or city – is ‘care without the community’.” Only 46% of those interviewed for Brandon Trust knew someone with a learning disability, and just half of those who did know someone, said they would describe that person as a friend.

But a more positive finding of the Brandon Trust research was that a huge 91% believed people with learning disabilities should be given greater opportunities to build relationships in their community. I think a large majority of people do recognise that this loneliness and isolation is a problem, and they want something done about it: for example, 93% of people interviewed ‘would have no issue’ if someone with a learning disability was part of their community group or neighbourhood (compared with a very small proportion who would ‘have concerns’ or ‘be uncomfortable’ about it). I dare-say many of these people don’t just ‘want something done about it’, but they want to be part of the solution themselves.

So I think we also need to find ways to support and encourage the majority of people who genuinely want to be good neighbours or friends to people with a learning disability. I would love to see further research exploring to what extent people’s fears of not knowing HOW to support someone, or lack of confidence in reaching out to them, or the thought that “I’m not qualified…I’d better leave it to the professionals”, or the fact that they’ve just never been asked, is stopping people reaching out the hand of friendship or neighbourliness and building these relationships with learning disabled people in their community.

One way to support and encourage the untapped goodwill of these neighbours, community members, and acquaintances is by inviting them to be a member of someone’s Community Circle. Indeed, such people, who perhaps up till now have been on the fringes of a learning disabled person’s life, are often invited into a circle, to join the person who needs some support, their close friends and family, and the trained Community Circles facilitator. Being invited into someone’s circle in this way can be a really illuminating and empowering experience for the circle members, as well as for the person with a learning disability. Being around someone and the people they care about, and having the open, honest and supportive conversations that a circle encourages gives a real insight into the person’s life. It can also give invited people a very real experience of making a positive contribution and of supporting someone with all the kinds of everyday problems that Speech and Language Therapist and Community Circles facilitator Anita told me about in my last blog. It can show or remind them, that in so many ways, learning disabled people are just like everyone else, facing the same daily joys and struggles as everyone else, often needing just a little bit of the right kind of support at the right time – and that in more cases than we might think, this support can be provided by neighbours, friends and family, without specialist knowledge and qualifications.

I’m optimistic that we could see a really positive ripple effect, as we start to develop circles at scale, across the country, and as these people who have been invited into circles talk to their own friends, family members, colleagues and neighbours about their experience.

I’d love to hear from people who’ve been involved in Community Circles if any of this rings true with your experience. Were you nervous about being invited into someone’s circle? Were you able to support someone in ways you hadn’t imagined? What did being a circle member teach you? Did being a circle member increase your confidence in being able to support others? Have you had any of these conversations that educate people about the reality of having a Learning Disability (or a health condition like dementia, or any other support need)?

David Rinaldi

Volunteering Manager, Brandon Trust