Launch of Learning Disability England, June 14th 2016

by Jan Walmsley

It was an exceptionally showery June day in London when Learning Disability England was launched in the House of Lords. And what a tremendous event it was. Chaired by the inimitable Gary Bourlet, and attended by a fantastic number of self advocates (and others) from across the country. The message – we – self advocates, families and service providers – are stronger together. And boy, do we need that voice now. Gary Bourlet puts it well here http://peoplefirstengland.org.uk/gary-bourlet/were-launching-learning-disability-england/

Our host was Baroness Sheila Hollins, and she was joined on the platform by another redoubtable House of Lords campaigner, Jane Campbell. Jane’s speech was especially memorable, on an exceptionally memorable day. I liked ‘We are not vulnerable, we just find ourselves in vulnerable situations’. And, momentously, she acknowledged something people associated with self advocacy have been saying and thinking for many years, that the early disabled people’s movement, of which she was a leading light, failed to acknowledge the voice and different experiences of people with learning disabilities. She promised this will change.

A minute’s silence for all those who have died in Assessment and Treatment Units was incredibly moving. And, personally, I was delighted that my dear old friend Jackie Downer was one of a number of self advocates who were awarded lifetime membership of LDE.

As ever, I was prompted to thnk about the historical context. A united voice for people with learning disabilities in England (unlike Scotland and Wales which both have national People Firsts) has been a very long time coming – and, although I hope to be proved wrong, I am not sure it is here yet. I remembered a conference back in 1994 which sought to set up a national People First in England. Held in an anonymous hotel in Daventry, of all places, one man and one woman from every town or county was invited. Many places responded. Some delegates had never been out of their home towns before, let alone to a national conference, whilst others, like Lloyd Page, Nigel Lott and Ian Davies were experienced campaigners. Another amazing time observing self advocacy at work, one of so many I’ve been privileged to experience in my life. It was a harmonious occasion, and was crowned with a visit from John Bowis, then a minister (in a Tory Government) who offered £50,000 (as I recall) to set up a national organisation. Hard to believe it, but I saw and heard this. Unfortunately, there was one large and well established self advocacy organisation who refused to play ball. And the initiative foundered. Until today, that was as near as we have come to a united voice for self advocacy in England.

But there were significant absences yesterday too. Mencap, the self proclaimed ‘Voice’ of learning disability, was not represented. And I saw few National Forum members, although leading members of the National Valuing Families Forum were there. Is this ominous? I really hope not. As I said, this united voice really is needed, and it is to the credit of all involved that it has got this far, with many well wishers. If you agree with me then do join. LDE will need all our help and support as it seeks to establish itself. I really wish us luck.

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