We all have a lot to learn about how to support children with learning disabilities
Children and young people with a learning disability often don’t get the same opportunities as other children and young people. They can face exclusion at all stages of their childhood – from early years support through to accessing education services, play and youth opportunities, and transition to adulthood.
We know that children with a learning disability can face a number of barriers that prevent them from having a childhood like anybody else. When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, it can be a real turning point in their life and also in the lives of their loved ones.
The barriers these children and their families face are significant. Children with a learning disability are often bullied by other children. They may also find it hard to take part in certain activities without them being adapted to meet their needs. What’s more, parents are often excluded from decisions and planning services, which in nonsensical when considering that they are the experts in understanding what their child needs.
Throughout our lives, from when we’re very small to when we’re grown up, we all imagine the same special firsts – such as your first day at school or your first day in a new job. With or without a learning disability, we all have the same hopes and dreams, but we don’t always have the opportunities to fulfil them. Someone with a learning disability may need to overcome many challenges in order to experience the same events as everyone else. In some cases, these experiences may even be denied to them.
I was talking to my colleague Ciara recently about her experiences growing up with a learning disability. She vividly remembers when she was diagnosed at ten years old: “I can still remember the day I was told I had a learning disability. I was angry and upset. The kids at school told me I was thick. The teachers told me I wouldn’t be able to do anything with my life. I just wanted to give up.” She was bullied by the other school children and was told, in no uncertain terms, that she wouldn’t amount to anything by a number of education and health professionals.
It is harrowing to think that children can experience so much injustice and discrimination purely on the basis that they have a learning disability. It is true that a lot has changed since Ciara was at school, but there is no denying that the 286,000 children with a learning disability in the UK still don’t get an equal start in life. And what a wasted opportunity this is.
If you met Ciara today, you would never think that she had experienced a difficult start in life. She is bright and brilliant, confident and eloquent. She is an incredible campaigner who raises awareness of the issues faced by people with a learning disability on both a national and an international stage. She is also married, has her own home and has a job that she enjoys and that helps to make a difference to other people’s lives.
A positive future
Most children and young people grow up imagining the kind of future they will have – a picture that is not inhibited by what they won’t be able to do. They might want to be a doctor when they grow up, or get married, or live in a nice house. But these hopes are more challenging for a child with a learning disability. They face many barriers when aspiring to have what, for most children, is seen as a normal life.
Growing up, the bullying and discrimination Ciara faced every day because of her learning disability stopped her from thinking she could have the life she dreamed about. However, once Ciara eventually got the right educational support, she began to flourish. She was spurred on by her parents and loved ones, who refused to let her give up. This meant so much to Ciara as she saw the battle her family was going through every day. “It must have been very hard on our parents, having the responsibility to make the best decision they could for Ciara but having to see her so upset as a result of that decision”, says Huw, Ciara’s brother.
Instead of it being a negative label, Ciara was able to turn her learning disability into a vehicle to access the support she needed to reach her goals. This must become the case for all children with a learning disability – with no exceptions. As Ciara puts it: “Here I am. I’m married, living in my own home, and working in a job I love. These are things I could only dream about when I was little. Sadly, these things are still a dream for many other people with a learning disability. This has to stop.”
At the heart of all the problems that children with a learning disability face is the assumption that they will not “be” anything. Eight out of ten children with a learning disability have been bullied by their peers because they are “different”. As a result, they can become excluded and miss out on the interactions that allow other children to develop emotional and social skills – skills which can stand them in good stead long into adulthood.
The right support
Every child and young person with a learning disability should receive the support they need in school to develop academically, emotionally and socially. Yet sadly this is not always the case. As Ciara’s case shows, though, when children and young people are supported to learn in a way that is best for them it can lead to something quite brilliant.
Children with a learning disability need to be empowered to believe that they can reach for the stars, just like every other child. And just like every other child, they need the appropriate help along the way.
I think Ciara sums it up perfectly: “I know that having the right support from people around me, from my family and friends, makes all the difference. With that support, I can choose the things in life that I need and want to achieve. I don’t want any child with a learning disability to go through what I went through. I want them to believe they can do anything they want and go on to reach their full potential. I want families to know that their children can have a great and happy life, like I now have.”
Hear My Voice
Every day, more than 1.4 million people with a learning disability and their families face issues like poor healthcare, hate crime and social isolation. But these issues are rarely, if ever, debated at election time and most politicians don’t understand how these things impact on people’s lives.
Ahead of the General Election in May 2015, Mencap is inviting people with a learning disability – and the family members, carers and support workers connected to them – to make their voices heard on the issues that matter to them. For more information, visit:
Jan Tregelles is Chief Executive of Mencap, the UK charity for people with a learning disability: