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26 Nov 2013
Helen Baker, chair of the board at Dimensions

Opening up parliament to people with learning disabilities

Are political parties trustworthy? Why do we send our army to other countries? Should the police have more training in supporting people with a learning disability or autism?

Helen BakerThese were just three of the very important topics raised and debated with a panel of people who have expertise in politics, social care, autism, human rights and accessible communications.  It was the first ever Ask Your Question event designed just for people with learning disabilities, held at Portcullis House, Westminster.

Hosted last week by Dimensions, a national not-for-profit provider of support for people with learning disabilities and autism, the session was inspiring and varied. Pete Le Grys, Director of Photo Symbols and accessibility expert, chaired the panel and was great at keeping the audience members ‘on topic’ and including lots of people’s responses.

Ask Your Question was organised as part of Parliament Week, whereby a series of activities and events took place to reach out to many groups and raise their interest levels in parliament and politics. It links to Dimensions’ current Love Your Vote campaign to raise awareness of the importance of voting, which is seeing a series of workshops for people with learning disabilities being hosted around the country.

Panellists, MP Dame Anne Begg , autism awareness campaigner Kevin Healey, social affairs journalist Saba Salman and human rights lawyer Christopher Stanley, all made very reasoned and informative responses to questions and debates. Their expertise helped us all to learn more about these topics.

Graphic facilitatorThe event was attended by a mix of people supported by Dimensions and people who aren’t. There was a real demand for places for the event; which I find very humbling as chair of the Dimensions board – it’s good to lead the way in this respect and really give people opportunities to speak up and make a difference. Some people had travelled across the country to attend this innovative event.

Some of my highlights included speaking afterwards to Sebastian, who has learning disabilities. He told me: “I wanted to come because I like to talk to people and hear their views. I think that people with learning disabilities need to be heard.”

During the debates, audience members were encouraged to challenge bedroom tax, to stand up to hate crime and bullying and to talk to their local MPs. Asked about trusting politicians, MP Dame Ann Begg said: “Most people who come into politics come in for absolutely the right reasons – they want to make the world a better place.”

One audience member shared that he had been helping to train the police about how to help people with learning disabilities. Another said: “WE know what a learning disability is – police don’t.”

Panellist Saba Salman, social affairs journalist, said that things had changed a lot in terms of hate crime related to race but change was too slow for people with learning disabilities. She added that more positive stories about people with learning disabilities needed to be in the media.

Ask Your Question panel and audienceSo how was Ask Your Question accessible? What I thought worked well for the 30 audience members with a learning disability was the how the meeting was made accessible.  People with learning disabilities can often get anxious when they are not prepared in advance. For me, the idea of people being able to submit their questions before the event helped to boost their confidence.

Also, visual feedback of the debate through graphic facilitators and live camera images of people on the panel allowed the session to be interactive. As part of Dimensions’ policies and focus on personalisation and person-centred tools, each panel member also prepared a one-page profile in advance of the event.

It takes time to set up the accessibility elements and Dimensions planned these thoroughly in advance, with the help of panel chair Pete Le Grys. We hope we will be able to use some of these techniques in future meetings where we share a platform with people with learning disabilities.

In my opinion, there is no substitute for inclusiveness. This session allowed people to feel included, to speak up and ask about the things that matter to them; but that didn’t necessarily mean things that affect just them.

I feel strongly that this kind of event shouldn’t just be a one off. People with learning disabilities need access to more events where they can participate, share their knowledge and opinions on important issues. We need to remember that like everybody else, people with learning disabilities can vote and are entitled to have their say in democracy.

Graphic facilitatorFrom speaking to audience members afterwards, I sensed people enjoyed being able to meet and talk to ‘experts’ as well as others with a similar thirst for sharing information. But added to this, they appreciated having their opportunity to talk. To be heard. And to be answered like anybody else would be should they attend the BBC’s version of Question Time, for example.

As for the panellists, they all were genuine, knowledgeable and informative in their approaches and responses. They built up a rapport with the audience and dedicated their afternoon in order to take part. I would like to thank them enormously for their time and their expertise.

* For more information about Ask Your Question and about the work that Dimensions is doing to encourage people with learning disabilities to engage with politics, visit www.dimensions-uk.org/loveyourvote

(Photos provided by Dimensions)

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