Learning disability charity encourages community to steer new project

the image is a photograph of a mix of 7 people who are service users and project volunteers for the new Our Active Community project. They are stood on the beach, reaching hands together in the centre.
CHAOS Radio - Our Active Community service users and project leaders coming together to support the community

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Our Active Community is a new community-led project backed by learning disability charity Mencap and is set to launch in St Austell and the surrounding area, writes Tom Howe

The project focuses on listening to the voices of people with a learning disability and those who know them best, and working collaboratively to create an even more inclusive, physically active, happy and healthy St Austell and Clay Country. 

This is a project for the community, led by the community, and those with a learning disability are encouraged to have their say and play an active part in the steering of opportunities they would like to see in and around St Austell. 

Chris Ballett, community partner for Our Active Community St Austell and Clay Country, says the process of getting the community involved at this stage is ‘just as important as the overall physical activity outcomes’.

He told CHAOS Radio: “So, the project, in a nutshell, is to help people with a learning disability to become more physically active. We want St Austell and the Clay Country to be an even happier and healthier place than it already is. As a charity, we are a system partner for Sport England and are supporting them to unite the movement around physical activity, and obviously our focus as Mencap is to support people with a learning disability. 

“We are really lucky that we don’t have an age range that we have to target, so it is for people with a learning disability of any age. Obviously, in addition to engaging people with a learning disability in this work, we want to engage those that know people with a learning disability. Family members, parents, carers, support workers, teachers, you name it, anyone that is passionate about learning disability, about the community and about physical activity.

“We really want to hear your ideas about what makes St Austell a great place and what helps us to be physically active in St Austell. What are the things that you want and need to be more physically active? We are there to facilitate and to support but we want it to be a community-owned project. What that means is that the community will come together to decide what it wants to happen and we as Mencap will be there to support it.

“At some point soon, we are hoping to host community forum meetings so that people can come together, share ideas and work as a group to bring those ideas to life, and help people with a learning disability to become more active. We have got funds and some resources to bring this to life but, at the moment, we don’t know how it will look because we want the community to decide.”

Learning disability, or intellectual disability, is a reduced intellectual ability and a difficulty with everyday activities, for example household tasks, socialising or managing money, which affects someone for their whole life.

People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people. It is important to note, however, that a person’s lived experience of a learning disability is unique to them.

Ballett continued: “We have worked in this community-led way on a couple of other projects across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The way it begins is by the community partner, which is me, having lots of conversations to get to know the community better. That is what I am doing at the moment, having as many chats with as many people and organisations as possible, just to get my face out there, the name of the project out there and to build relationships. 

“After that point, what we want to do is bring people into the same space together. Ideally that will be in a physical space, maybe a leisure centre, or a community centre, whatever it may be, so that people can share ideas in the same space. There might be opportunities that happen online for people to find out more or to contribute their ideas. 

“We want to make it as easy as possible for people with a learning disability but also for anyone that is passionate about this project to contribute. So really, it is very much up to the community to find the best way for them to be able to have their say. We have been speaking to day opportunity centres for people with a learning disability, really getting in at a grassroots level and speaking to people with a learning disability but also support workers too. 

“We have spoken to local schools and colleges and to local charities, sports providers, coaches, practitioners, social prescribers and the local healthcare system, all of whom are going to be collaborating in this process. It is really clear that people want to work in this way because it gives people ownership. It is not about Mencap owning this, it is about the community owning the project and the community being the ones that lead the way and that itself I think is so exciting.”

Examples of the project’s work in other areas include supporting the progress of existing activity sessions for people with a learning disability, or identifying a gap in provision for the introduction of new ones. It could also involve education and training for coaches, instructors, teachers and members of the community to raise skill levels and awareness. 

“It is all about that interconnectedness,” concludes Ballett from Our Active Community, “building that network of opportunities and those are just a few examples. 

“It could be many other things. Anything goes as long as it is physical activity related and it is for the benefit of people with a learning disability. 

“The one thing we want to say is that we are not in a rush. We want to take action but we have to be patient with this process and let it run its course, making sure that we are bringing people with a learning disability along on the ride in the right way.

“We don’t want to be tokenistic. We want to make sure that they are fully immersed in the project and have their voices heard.”

For more information on Our Active Community or to get involved email chris.ballett@mencap.org.uk.