Learning Disability Week 2020 is certainly one we will not forget. But these difficult times gave us the opportunity to show the wonderful friendships and acts of kindness that were taking place across our organisation and throughout the learning disability community at a time when we all needed to see positivity.
The week is a key time in the year when the whole community comes together to amplify the voices of people with a learning disability around a number of issues and themes. In previous years, themes have included sports and inclusion, health and Hear My Voice, which asked politicians to listen to people with a learning disability.
This year was a little bit different. The whole country had gone into lockdown and we knew from our helpline and online community about the specific challenges that people with a learning disability and their families were facing during the pandemic.
Bringing people together
With daytime support services closed on top of the difficulties of staying active and keeping in touch with friends, it’s no wonder that people with a learning disability have faced unprecedented levels of loneliness and social isolation during lockdown. We decided that our theme for this year’s Learning Disability Week had to be around the importance of friendships, human connections and positive stories from the learning disability community.
Our theme, ‘friendship during lockdown’, set out to bring people together online, celebrate friendship and the resilience and resourcefulness of people with a learning disability, their family, friends and support services at a time of national crisis. We felt it was an important time to put people and storytelling at the very heart of a campaign.
The challenges of adjusting to digital
Every year we have a Learning Disability Week working group which brings together key stakeholders and teams from across the charity and the Mencap network. This year was no different, except for the fact our meetings had moved to virtual video sessions which had its own challenges. We also had a much shorter lead-in time as the whole organisation had been focused on supporting our fantastic, vital, frontline support workers and our lobbying and accessible information around COVID-19. The stories we were hearing directly from frontline staff inspired the theme and the content for the week.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, we had to work at speed, get to grips with new ways of virtual working as well as focus our energy and resources on what would have the most impact. Some of our ideas we simply didn’t have the time or resources to pull off at the scale we would have liked. We had some technological challenges to overcome and fast-tracked our plans to increase co-production and user-generated content with people with a learning disability, as well as accessible easy-read guides. The photography and videography we gathered during lockdown was raw and authentic – we uncovered some talented content creators and storytellers amongst those with a learning disability.
Our activity was focused on our social channels, to connect people through our virtual befriending services and to share stories of what friendship means to them from across the learning disability sector. It was vital for our campaigns to have spokespeople with a learning disability to increase public understanding and break down inclusion barriers.
What we achieved
Downloads of our accessible guide to making a ‘friendship flag’, a home-made decorated paper flag that celebrated the individual’s friendship reached nearly 700 and the photos and videos of people’s flags and interactions with their friends were wonderfully heart-warming. Each personalised flag showed what friendship means to different people.
We were delighted when over 100 people emailed us about joining our friendships volunteer project. We also worked with our partner, Virgin Money by matching their staff with someone with a learning disability to establish friendships and write positivity postcards to each other during lockdown.
Social media during lockdown, like for many people, was a vital lifeline in virtually connecting people with a learning disability. We worked with Facebook to deliver a bespoke session to the network of Mencap groups across the UK about how to make the most of the groups to ensure people are connected and combat loneliness. We also collaborated with BBC Radio 1’s Breakfast host Greg James to create an accessible Mencap TV Makaton version video of his poem, ‘The Hope-o-potamus’ which he shared with his 1.6m followers, enabling us to bring learning disability to a whole new audience. We had five national pieces of coverage including ITV News’ feature on our local group’s booster bus which travelled around visiting people in their own homes, with a different theme each week – one week it was VE Day, the next under the sea – lifting everyone’s spirits.
Through the process, we learned new, agile and strategic ways to tackle stigma through increasing the visibility of learning disability. In doing so, we established new and innovative ways of working to generate accessible and impactful content that changes attitudes and brings people together.
Image: Matthew Fournier on Unsplash