Guest writer Bernice Hardie considers what the church can teach us about mixed–ability socialising. 13/03/2020
What images or words come to mind when you think of the term “social care” in relation to learning disabilities?
Your answer may be rooted in the prevailing imagery of vulnerable service users receiving care from anonymous paid providers. You may think of societal concerns around the shortage of care workers. Recent devastating stories of the abuse of people with learning disabilities in “care” may also come to mind.
I am grateful that the term social care has taken on a different and more positive meaning for me in recent years, thanks to changes seen in my local community of Muswell Hill.
I co–founded Wave (We’re All Valued Equally) in Muswell Hill ten years ago when, along with other parents of young people with learning disabilities, I felt that we had reached a cliff–edge regarding inclusive social opportunities for our children. We decided to do something to rectify the situation.
The name Wave has two meanings, both of which explain the purpose of what we do in our groups and activities. A wave is a universally recognised and simple gesture of friendship. A wave is also a force that is constantly moving and sufficiently powerful to break down barriers – in this case any ignorance, fear and prejudice that exists around learning disabilities.
Wave has grown organically from small beginnings to provide spaces where people with and without learning disabilities can comfortably socialise, create, eat, work, worship and learn together – in the heart of our local community. This is what we call mixed abilities socialising. As a result of these and other inclusive initiatives that happen in Muswell Hill, there are measurably higher levels of mixed ability connections and friendships in our community: 18% of those interviewed in Muswell Hill said that they often mix with people of different abilities as compared with 12% of those in the rest of Great Britain. This has in turn led to greater familiarity with, concern for, and confidence in being with people of different abilities to our own. Those who are normally ignored or avoided are included and valued. We look out for each other more.
For me, this represents a much–needed form of genuine social care: those of all abilities mix together and have fun doing things with, not for, one another.
The church is a haven of friendship for many families with a learning disabled member.
We long to see the much–needed hope that Wave represents shared with other communities – and findings from our report show that 81% of adults in Great Britain are potentially interested in going to mixed abilities social places.  Yet these places are currently few and far between.
Having started Wave out of a local church, I believe that places of worship (particularly those that see their role as one of encompassing the social, as well as spiritual, well–being of all people) may hold the key to enabling Wave to ripple out of North London into other communities.
First, churches are places where mixed ability friendships are already more common: 19% of churchgoers say they have a friend with a learning disability compared to 10% of the population as a whole. Furthermore, 44% of churchgoers are “Experienced Pioneers” in mixed abilities socialising – that is, they already mix quite often with those of different abilities and are interested in going to places that enable this to happen – compared to just 28% of the population as a whole.
The media tends to focus on occasions when the Church falls short with regard to safeguarding, accessibility and inclusion. Yet the fact is that, despite its shortcomings, the Church is a haven of friendship for many families with a learning disabled member.
How can we harness this potential within the Church and other places of worship?
Religious leaders can encourage and enable those who may often be overlooked in places of worship to become “change–makers”, drawing on their existing experience and building new initiatives to encourage more widespread mixed–ability socialising.
There is untapped potential among individuals with a learning disability, their family and friends. They can show others the benefits of mixed–ability socialising and through this initiate genuine change within their communities. In the same way that starter sourdough is much treasured and nurtured by bread makers, so too should the mixed–ability friendships that already exist be nurtured within congregations.
When my daughter was born 29 years ago with Downs Syndrome, much of the grief and fear that I felt was in anticipation of her future – the probable rejection and loneliness that she would face as an adult with a learning disability. The growing engagement with Wave groups in our community has given me hope that this depressing scenario is not inevitable. There is a sense that my daughter and others with learning disabilities are less likely to be neglected and invisible in our community once we as parents are no longer present.
We have seen the positive benefits of Wave and other grass–roots projects beginning to challenge the status quo. Using available community resources (passionate people and welcoming places) to help build genuine “social” care must be the way forward.
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