Michael McEwan speaks to Chris Creegan, Chief Executive of the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD) about Learning Disability Week 2017.
The theme for this year is: 'Looking back, thinking forward', which will celebrate achievements, ask searching questions about what needs to happen going forward, and engage the general public on the subject, in the hope of changing attitudes. Chris also gives us some information on SCLD - its ambitions, and current and future focus.
MM • Michael McEwan (interviewer)
CC • Chris Creegan (Chief Executive • Scottish Commission for Learning Disabilities)
MM We are going by Chris Creegan, now Chris Creegan is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Commission for Learning Disabilities. Thanks for talking to us. First off, what is happening this year? What's the theme?
CC Okay so, just a little bit about the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, and I'll explain what our role is and then talk to you about the theme for this year, yeah?
CC So, the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, lead on the organisation of Learning Disability Week in Scotland, and what we do in that lead role is that we act as a link between government and the learning disability sector and beyond, to really drive as much activity during Learning Disability Week as possible. And in a sense what we do is we act as a broker, a facilitator, for others to do everything they can to promote the cause of learning disability and people with learning disabilities and their families and carers for one week of the year. Of course, Learning Disability Week is every week at the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, but this is a special week when we really try and raise the profile of learning disability in Scotland. And we do that in a variety of ways, as I say mainly as a kind of broker for others to organise their own activities. So, you'll know for example, that since earlier in the year we've had a whole series of videos on Twitter and elsewhere on social media, where people with learning disabilities themselves, I think, have been explaining far more eloquently than I can, what Learning Disability Week is, what it means, what it means to them and, you know, really why it's important. And the other thing we've been doing is we've been promoting our "Get Involved" pack, which is a pack that is available to learning disability organisations - big ones, small ones, medium sized ones -• all over Scotland, who want to get involved in organising activity during the week itself. The theme of Learning Disability Week this year is "looking back, thinking forward". And we thought that that was a really important and valuable theme for a couple of reasons. One, we've had, as you know, The Keys to Life, Scotland's learning disability strategy in place for the last 4 years. So, we're almost half way through the life of a 10-year strategy in Scotland and so it seems a really important moment to start to ask ourselves the question, when we look back to the launch of the strategy and when we look forward, what's happening? How are we moving forward? What are the lives of people with learning disabilities and their families and their carers, what are they like in Scotland today, and how are they changing in the context of the delivery of The Keys to Life? But actually, it's much bigger than that, so The Keys to Life is the successor strategy to The Same as You, which you'll be very familiar with, the previous learning disability strategy. So really since around about two thousand, two thousand and one, we've had, so that's sixteen, seventeen years now, we've had a concerted effort to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities through first, The Same as You and then The Keys to Life, and looking back then, we were on the cusp of some very big change in terms of what those lives looked like. The most obvious thing that we talk about often, but I think it's important that we talk about it because we need to remember it and we need to remember that this is not how we want life to be in the future, is that back then people with learning disabilities were only just starting not to be sent into big institutions and hospitals to spend their life there, effectively locked away out of sight, out of mind. And back then we were only just starting to move into a period when people with learning disabilities were treated as citizens who had rights, who had entitlements, for whom we had aspirations to be engaged and involved in their communities and where they can to work and to participate in activities, right throughout their communities and throughout society. We were only just beginning to do that then, so an enormous amount has happened just in the last sixteen, seventeen years. We've seen, thankfully, the closure of those institutions, we've seen a strategy in place and we've seen now a second strategy in place to improve the quality of people's lives and we've therefore, we're living through a period of huge change. I hope we are, for people with learning disabilities and their families and so actually, it's really important to take stock, how does it feel for people out there? What has changed? What is changing? What still needs to change, because it's looking back but it's also looking forward.
CC How do we achieve the very lofty aspirations that we have for people with learning disabilities, and I don't mean that in a negative sense. They're lofty because, we need to be big and bold and ambitious. We need lives to change, we need people to have independence, have choice and control, lead healthy lives, be active citizens, and those are the four strategic outcomes of The Keys to Life strategy itself. We need all that to happen. So, we need to be bold and ambitious so in looking back, that can help us think about how we think forward as well.
MM So why is it important to have a week specifically for people with learning disabilities? Why is it important to have a Learning Disability Week?
CC Sure, so I think it's important because, as I said at the beginning, at the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, Learning Disability Week is every week. It's what we do, it's what we live, eat and breathe, and you know that...
CC ...you've been involved with us for many a long year, and that, it's our bread and butter. It's what we do. And that's true for other organisations as well. So, if you think of organisations that work with us, like the big service providers in Scotland, Enable Scotland and Capability Scotland and Quarriers and Carr Gomm and Cornerstone and there's probably names I haven't mentioned there, but you get the picture. There are lots of service providers out there, Cornerstone is another who provide services. Learning Disability Week is every week for them as well, and it is for Downs Syndrome Scotland and it is for PAMIS, who work with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. So, for us it's an everyday thing. We're constantly about trying to improve the quality of life for people with learning disabilities, but with the best will in the world, it's not an everyday thing for absolutely everybody. Now, I think the really important thing is that increasingly what we're doing in terms of the implementation of The Keys to Life is, we are engaging with people way beyond what sometimes people call learning disability land. We're engaging with people in policy areas like housing and employment, and children of families, not just in the Scottish government but out there in local authorities and integrated joint boards and elsewhere in the third sector. So increasingly we are engaging with those other organisations for whom learning disability is not an everyday thing - it's an important part of what they have to do because they need to meet the needs and aspirations of people with learning disabilities just like anybody else in the population, in the communities that they represent and they work with, but they also do lots of other things and so, it can't be Learning Disability Week every week for them, and if you look beyond, those organisations, those policy organisations, those service providers, you've got the whole population, and for people with learning disabilities and their families and carers, it's Learning Disability Week every week for them.
CC But for other families and organisations, local organisations and communities, where there isn't a person with a learning disability, or where learning disability isn't the kind of mainstay of what they do, then perhaps it is out of sight, out of mind. And so, what Learning Disability Week does is it provides an opportunity for those of us who learning disability is what we do, and Learning Disability Week is every week, it provides an opportunity to say actually, here's a really big week when we're going to not just talk to each other and to ourselves, but we're going to talk to everybody out there and we're going to talk to Scotland at large and we're going to celebrate what we do, and we're going to ask some searching questions about what we do. And also, we're going to ask you, all those of you who are beyond learning disability land, for whom it isn't Learning Disability Week every week, we're going to ask you to have a think about us and to engage with us and to think about what you can do to celebrate the lives of people with learning disabilities, to involve people with learning disabilities, and to work with organisations who work with people with learning disabilities and to make, for one week at least - it's not a big ask is it - to make learning disability part of your spotlight, your highlight for the week, and I think what we aim to do by doing that is not just to change and influence organisational policies and practices and the way in which services are provided to people with learning disabilities, and the kind of opportunities that are made available to them, but what we also hope to do is to change attitudes because we all know that one of the reasons why people with learning disabilities don't yet have all of the opportunities that they should have in a society where they have genuine, choice and control, and are genuinely active citizens in the same way as others, we know that the reason why that doesn't happen is because there are still many negative attitudes to people with learning disabilities out there, and there are still many who don't understand learning disability, who have far lower expectations of life and wellbeing for people with learning disabilities than they should have, or that they could have. So, it's about turning the whole thing on its head, and those negative expectations and attitudes, and celebrating the achievements and the potential of people with learning disabilities, and it's about talking not just about how life is, but how life could be and how life, would be if we were to really succeed in our aim of improving the quality of life for people with learning disabilities.
MM Taking into consideration this year's theme, is looking back, thinking forward ... what's changed in the last 5 years for people with learning disabilities till today?
CC So, I think it's hard to be precise about that.
CC We do need to measure it precisely and one of the things that we need to be focussing on increasingly at the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability and in our conversations with the Scottish government and others is how are we going to measure the impact of this strategy over the course of its ten years, and we are increasingly involved in those discussions. But anecdotally I think, we know what is happening is that, for example, we are having an ever increasing spotlight on employment, for example with people with learning disabilities. People with learning disabilities are some of the people who are least likely to work in Scottish society. So, if you think, and I may get my figures wrong, in terms of precision here but more than 70% of the population work. Actually more than forty percent of people with disabilities work, but we think the figure for people with learning disabilities working is probably less than twenty percent. It's somewhere I think between, we don't know exactly, but we think it may be between seven and twenty, twenty five percent. We need to be more precise about that and we recently commissioned a major study of the employability landscape for people with learning disabilities in Scotland, and as a result of that study we have now established an employability task group which is bringing together learning disability organisations and skills organisations and employment organisations and government officials, to really thrash out what do we do to raise our game in terms of employment for people with learning disabilities, and that task groups going to be meeting throughout this year and will be reporting back to ministers next year and the minister for mental health, Maureen Watt, who has responsibility for learning disability, has already been to meet the group. We've also had a meeting with Jamie Hepburn, who's the Minister for Employability and Training, and we've had discussions with Jeane Freeman, who's the minister for social security. So all of those Ministers are aware of what we're doing, they're engaged with what we're doing and our job is to make sure they are engaged with what we do throughout the year, and that we report back to them next year on how we can bring the recommendations in in the report that we commissioned, how we can bring those recommendations to life, because ensuring that those who are able to work are able to get a job, and I mean a real job with equality in the workplace, in relation to others in Scottish society. When I say that, when I say a real job I don't decry people who have access to volunteering opportunities or to other meaningful day opportunities, those things have their place, but what we're talking about here is work. We're talking about jobs. So, you asked me what is changing and I think employment is one of the things that I would highlight as something that we are actively involved in and seeking to change and is really critical because employment can open the door to so many other possibilities and opportunities for people with learning disabilities to live more independently, to have choice and control over their lives. We're also involved in a whole variety of work in other policy areas. For example, as you know, around the position of parents with a learning disability and similarly we've had a cross government, a cross sector working group on that area for some time to promote the Good Practice guidelines which we published and then ... published some time ago and then republished over the last couple of years. In a similar vein to the employability work that I've just talked about, we also commissioned a study on parenting to see where we had got to. To what extent are those Good Practice guidelines actually being adhered to out there? And that report was conducted by academic researchers at the University of Strathclyde. It was published last year, and on the back of that report we've taken the opportunity to refresh the working group that we already had in place and refocus it in a similar way to the employability task group that I talked about and, we are meeting with government officials and others to talk about how we can drive the work of that group forward and ensure that the recommendations and the report that we published are implemented, and that's about giving people with learning disabilities who are parents or who would like to be parents or are going to be parents, the opportunity, if they can, to raise their own children in their own family settings with the right level of support and intervention and care from organisations who are supposed to be providing it. So those are just two examples. We've recently also commissioned a new piece of research which is out in the field at the moment, it's being conducted by Ipsos MORI Scotland, and they're looking at housing for people with learning disabilities and they're looking in a similar way to the work we did on employability and parenting, really to kind of map the landscape in Scotland and understand where have we got to in terms of housing for people with learning disabilities? To what extent are their needs and aspirations actually being met? Where are the gaps in provision? How can we ensure than provision is improved in the future? So, these are examples of work that we're doing on the back of The Keys to Life, which are about taking policy area by policy area, different aspects of people's lives and saying beyond learning disability land, how can we engage with policy makers and providers and others to really drive change and improvement in the lives of people with learning disabilities? There's lots more but I think that gives you a kind of flavour of some of the work that we're involved in.
MM I think the employment one's a big issue. It's never going to go away overnight, but just to go back to what you were saying about employment is, I'm a good advocate where if you see somebody in a wheelchair you just can say well, you can't work because you can't do the job as well as Chris or anyone else, but given a chance but also with employment, usually you find where people are not very confident but when they get the job they become more confident and they get more, they get a big network of pals to go out and about with, but before that they're very isolated and in the house 24/7 just because they haven't got any ... maybe it's down to the parents as well, maybe they're not very supportive of the individual people with a disability.
CC And do you know, that's one of the things that when we commissioned the research that we did, that was conducted by the University of Glasgow's training in employment research unit, one of the things that it told us and told us very clearly was that one of the problems is that we have, we all have, lower expectations of people with learning disabilities than we should. That's colleges, that's training providers, that's employers, but you're right, that's also parents and families as well. Sometimes for the most understandable reasons.
CC People want to protect their children and it's not for me to criticise parents and families who do their very best in very difficult circumstances, to look after the interests of their children, but with the best will in the world I think we know from talking to parents and from talking to organisations who work with parents, that they haven't always from a variety of reasons had the kind of expectations that they might have had for their children in terms of achievement and in terms of the option for example of working. Not everybody with a learning disability will be able to work, but then, not everybody out there who hasn't got a learning disability is able to work. It's about ensuring that those who are able to work are able to get access to training and employment and the opportunity to do real jobs and make a contribution in the workplace, and as you say, you talked about social isolation, and employment can be a game changer for somebody with a learning disability. We know social isolation is a big issue for people with learning disabilities. We know that people with learning disabilities are more likely to experience mental health problems than some other groups in the population and we know that's because people can be very isolated and because they don't have the kind of opportunities to socialise and to connect with others that many of us take for granted and employment is a fantastic way of enabling that to happen. You know?
CC Personally I can't imagine what it must be like to be in that position. I've worked for a long time now, so I'm getting on in years. So, I've been working for the best part of 35 years since I left university back in the early 1980's. I've never been out of work.
CC Work to me has been a really important source of comfort and confidence. It's been a key part of who I am in the world, of my identity, my ability to connect with and reach out with others. Some of the most important friendships I have in my life have been forged through work and through the workplace. Some of the most meaningful things I've done in my life have been done through work and in the workplace, and so I'm lucky. I've been able to take that for granted. I had a good education, I went to university. I was expected to do well and hopefully I did do reasonably well. Others haven't had those expectations around them, and surprise, surprise, they haven't always done as well as they could have done, partly because of those expectations not being there of them and partly because, because our expectations have been low, the provision in terms of education and training has not been what it should have been, and so by the time it gets to the point where they would otherwise be ready for work, many of them aren't ready for work.
CC They're not confident, they're not skilled, they're not trained in the way that others have had the opportunity to be and so they, it's a kind of a double whammy they face, you know, not just the uphill battle that anybody does when they're looking to make their place in the world and to find a job and make a life and make a career for themselves, they're doing that from a place where they are dealing with deficits. Not their deficits, but the deficits that our poor expectations of them have dealt them, and as you know, our approach to what we do in terms of employability and to everything we do with people with learning disabilities is about focussing not on deficits but on assets.
CC It's about focussing on people's strengths, their capabilities, their potential. So, it's really, you know, you're right to be concerned about it as an issue. It's really important. It can make a huge difference and you know the thing is, it can make a great difference to a workplace as well.
CC To have people with learning disabilities in it, just as it can to have a whole variety of other people because a diverse workplace is a more interesting workplace, it's a workplace full of capabilities and talents which it might not otherwise have if we all looked and sounded the same and we know that here at the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability because of course, we employ people with learning disabilities here and they do jobs and you know some of them. They do jobs that I couldn't do.
CC So, because they're better at them than me, because they have skills and talents and abilities that I don't have, those so, for me, we're very much one team here and they're just as important as anybody else in our workplace.
MM I just want to take you back Chris, one more question from me about Learning Disability Week and, I suppose it's a big thing for SLD, but also it's a big thing for, I would say, the whole of Scotland, I know it's got on the website that you have an award ceremony ...
MM ...during Learning Disability Week. Tell us more about that.
CC Yeah. Well, we're so excited about this. We're super excited about it, it's the first time it's been done in Scotland, in this way, and we're really proud and excited to be involved in establishing and hosting the Inaugural Scottish Learning Disability Awards, the ceremony for the awards takes place on the nineteenth of May, which is during Learning Disability Week, so for us it's like a culmination of, it's not the only thing we'll be doing during Learning Disability Week, but it's a very big part of it and we have seven awards. We have an award for creative achievement, one for youth achievement, for sporting achievement, for employee of the year, for, carer, inspirational carer, and for frontline support worker and the seventh award is our RSA impact award with the Royal Society of Arts manufacturing and commerce, which builds on the RSA fellowships that we awarded last year and our partnership with RSA Scotland. So it's seven awards there, they're all for people with learning disabilities and people who work most closely with them, they're not for organisations and they're not for the great and the good, they're for people with learning disabilities out there achieving extraordinary and amazing things in their lives, and that's why I'm really excited about it more than anything, because I think what it will do on the night is it will provide the opportunity for us to showcase just what people with learning disabilities are capable of and can achieve, and do achieve all the time. So, seven awards. We had more than one hundred and twenty nominations and entries for those awards, so we had a pretty hard job judging, and lots of people have been involved in that judging over the course of the last few weeks. I haven't been involved. I've stayed quite out of the process. The judging has been lead very much by people with learning disabilities themselves, from our expert group of people with learning disabilities that we facilitate on behalf of the Scottish government, and people from a variety of organisations who have decided that they would like to associate themselves with the awards and so ... for example, Young Scot are involved in supporting the youth achievement awards and Active Scotland are involved in supporting the sporting achievement award and so on. So, it's not just us, it's other quite prestigious organisations who we've been lucky enough to work with, who've put their seal of approval if you like, on the awards and have been involved in helping us judge. The judging's done. We know who the winners are. I'm not going to tell you, obviously. That's all going to be revealed on May the nineteenth. But I know a little bit about some of the winners now, because once all the judging was done, even though I wasn't involved, I talked to the staff here who've been coordinating the work in that area and they've shared with me where the judging got to and who some of the award winners are, and I'm really, I'm really delighted a, that we had so many entrants, and obviously that means some people are going to be disappointed but we'll make sure we're in touch with everybody who was nominated and everybody who entered, so that they achieve some form of recognition just for having done as much as they have to achieve a nomination, because that's an achievement in itself. And I'm super excited because I know from the little glimpse I've had that we've got some amazing and talented people there and I'm really looking forward to kind of, them receiving their awards on the night and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity that the awards ceremony provides for us to share their stories and to share their stories, not just on the night but through work that we'll do on social media and with printed media, to share those stories with people across Scotland, because to go back to what I said earlier on, Learning Disability Week is one week in the year when we can lift out heads above the parapet, lift our heads out of learning disability land and say very loudly and clearly, from the world of learning disability to the rest of Scotland, here is what it's like to be someone with a learning disability in Scotland today, here are people with learning disabilities, this is who they are, this is what they can achieve, this is what they're capable of. That may confound your expectations, and it should confound your expectations because our expectations have been too low, and here are some real-life examples of people who have won our awards, and they've won our awards because they are achieving extraordinary things and, you know, those people, they will be our award winners on the night. That will be a fantastic achievement for them, but we know and you know that those people will just be the tip of an iceberg, because they represent not just their own achievements, but they represent the achievements of so many people out there who are doing great things.