We need a radical change in the way we approach our work

The other day I was chatting with a support worker who wanted to find a Gig Buddies volunteer for a young man they supported. As we chatted, I realised the reason for this was the team were older and this young man wanted to go out in the evenings. They explained this was something which the team “weren’t really into.” We need radical culture shifts in social care to move away from this way of thinking. If we can do that we can change everything.

How do we change this mindset? If you’re being paid to support someone, you shouldn’t get to choose what you do. That’s not your job.

We need to be recruiting support staff who are a good fit for the people they’re going to be working with. People who have the right energy and shared interests and the personal attributes that will make them a good support worker.

It’s not about you!

What we don’t need is this sense of entitlement. That means we think we can go into someone’s life and impose our views and tastes on them.

If they love football, and you don’t, tough.

If you don’t like horror films, tough.

If you hate ABBA tough! It’s not about you.

I once had a support worker tell me they couldn’t support someone to go to church because they were an atheist. I couldn’t see how that was at all relevant. I supported someone to see Holiday on Ice once I got over it. It didn’t harm me, even though it’s not my thing.

You’re being paid to support someone to live their life, so your job should be to approach this with an open-mind and throw yourself into it. That’s a highly responsible, and precious, job. Imagine what it would be like if every time you went out to a gig the person with you was all disgruntled and sullen, looking at the clock every 5 minutes. You wouldn’t have an enjoyable time, I’m sure.

People with learning disabilities face a lot of obstacles in having good social lives, so let’s not let our inability to get over ourselves be the biggest one.

poster of man with down syndrome with halfpint of beer. It says "drink up it's p o'clock, time to go home", culture shifts
Stay Up Late campaign poster from 2007

Culture shifts and overcoming the major barriers

SPOILER ALERT – the one thing that we don’t need to improve things is more funding. Whilst it helps Stay Up Late started as a campaign in 2006 before the financial crash and austerity. There was an endemic culture of inflexibility and not valuing people back then. Austerity has made things worse. However I also know loads of wonderful support workers who enable people to lead great lives by being resourceful and community minded.

Here are the major obstacles we see people face:

Lack of the right support

Not having support staff, and a management culture, with a culture of curiosity and wanting to make great things happen. Just sticking with the status quo and not dreaming that things could be so much better.

Community safety

Some places aren’t safe to go at certain times of the day, others may seem intimidating. Community safety is knowing where and how you can be part of your community safely. It’s also being supported to address any perceptions, or unfounded fears, you may have that are getting the way of people going out. These fears may be from the person with a learning disability or from support staff and management.

Transport issues

The lack of accessible transport is an issue, so it seems obvious to say we need to find opportunities for people that aren’t difficult to get to.

Or you can find a project like Gig Buddies, or a similar one, where volunteers connect as a friend.

Low confidence and lack of motivation

Many people with learning disabilities also experience mental health problems, and these create a vicious cycle. You don’t feel like going out so you don’t go out and so you feel less confident and able to go out.

Being active and making connections is not just good for our mental health but also for our physical health. So we need to find strategies to help motivate people to get up and out.

We know that there is a long-term impact on people’s mental health through loneliness and not being active. So simply, we ought to treat it as a serious safeguarding issue. Isn’t our job as support workers to enable people to live safe and fulfilled lives. Not miserable lives wrapped up in cotton wool and staffing procedures?

Nobody to go with

Imagine you have a learning disability and you love death metal. You hear there’s a band you like coming to town. But your support worker says “oh, no that death metal is just not for me”. Who are you going to go with?

I don’t enjoy going to things on my own unless I know there’s a very good chance I’ll see someone familiar when I get there. I enjoy experiencing things with others.

So as a support worker, your job should be to either support that person (you can always wear some earplugs). Even better connect them into their local metal scene. Maybe support them to hang out at a local bar and meet like-minded people. (Or find them a Gig Buddy).

Not knowing what’s on

I find out about a lot of things through a friend of mine. Without him, I would be clueless, as he has extensive knowledge about good local music nights.

There are many ways to find out what’s going on and it doesn’t just mean that information needs to be more accessible. It’s coming out thick and fast and a lot of it is very local.

So support the people you work with to investigate what is going on locally, trying it out, having a laugh if it’s awful, or investigating more of the same if you enjoy it.

By doing that, you’ll also find you become part of a new community which you can support them to grow into.

The pandemic

Before the pandemic, we used to get sent loads of information about ‘inclusive club nights’ for people with learning disabilities, which we used to share. We hardly get any these days, as many of these nights stopped in the pandemic and never restarted.

I see this as a great opportunity, and a call to find something else. Why not just go to mainstream events? You could even go wild and support them to stay after 10pm!

Not to forget the trauma that the pandemic caused too and how long it has taken some people to regain their confidence. The pandemic caused us all to change our habits and it can take effort to build positive new habits back.

The cost-of-living crisis

In a world where a pint of beer costs £6, or more, something as simple as going out with your mates for a couple of pints becomes something you have to save up for and blows most of your weekly budget.

As support workers, we need to think about ways in which we can enable people to navigate these times without losing their opportunity for connection.

That means finding cheap and free local gigs, providing people with advice on cheap alternative drinks (lime and sodas). Or support them to budget and save so they can have a good night out with a few beers and maybe even some chips.

Don’t let the excuses stack up

When I look back over my time in social care, I’ve seen many excuses being used as the reasons things can’t happen. There may be some substance behind them, but they transform the reason into some nebulous thing that you can’t argue with.

It always starts with “No we can’t do that due to [.. insert excuse…]

Excuses have included

‘Health and safety reasons,’

‘Working time directive rules,’

‘Safeguarding issues,’

‘Risk assessments,’

‘It didn’t work the last time we tried it.’

‘GDPR rules,’

‘Covid,’

‘needing to respect the needs of the staff team.’

The good news – radical change costs nothing (other than losing our egos)

Most of these culture shifts are free, they just require a different way of approaching our work. Because it’s more than our work, it’s someone’s life.

And for too long, too many people with learning disabilities have just had to nod along to this stuff. We need to change our work cultures to value support workers and empower them to bring value to their work by recognising their role as community connectors and barrier breakers.

It’s not that hard. It costs nothing, but it changes everything.

One final hack for your own life to change how you approach your work

This is a really simple trick. Try approaching your work with an inquistive eye asking yourself questions about the way someone is supported and then things you see.

Then simply ask yourself the question:

“Would I like that?”

If the answer is ‘no’ you know what to do about it. That’s where culture shifts start to happen. With all of us taking responsibility for being part of making things better.

Read more on this topic Person-centred support – one ingredient to make it great

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Paul Richards Executive Director, Stay Up Late

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