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Disability awareness training helped us all communicate better

In our latest blog, communications intern Frank Fitzpatrick reflects on our recent co-produced disability awareness training day, led by our Shared Lives Plus ambassadors and supported by Sam Clark, CEO at Learning Disability England.

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In an organisation like Shared Lives Plus, disability awareness training is essential. Our fantastic ambassadors play a vital role in raising awareness and understanding of Shared Lives across health and social care, as well as the wider public. Their experiences are essential in helping us hear the most important voice in the social care process, that of the person receiving care.

That’s why two weeks ago all Shared Lives Plus employees took part in disability awareness training with our ambassadors; Tom, Heather, Abby, James, Rachel and Meg. They played a key role in planning and leading the session.

Our ambassadors began by talking about the damaging affect labels can have on them. Tom explained how the issue of labels is a tricky one; they can allow people to understand the issue someone has, but far too often they can define that person. Heather told us how her experiences of labelling when working in a café left her feeling disheartened:

“When we first opened we were worried what judgements people would make. One day I was asked if I actually baked the cakes. When I told them I did, they look shocked” says Heather.

This was a key theme throughout the session: how societal attitudes can at times be more limiting than your disability. This is called the social model of disability. The term, coined by British sociologist Mike Oliver, refers to both physical barriers placed upon disabled people, such as a lack of disabled toilets, and barriers caused by people’s attitudes, such as those mentioned by Heather earlier. I have to say, this really made me contemplate how controlling society can be for disabled people, and how they a rarely consulted on major policy changes surrounding disability.

The ambassadors wanted to stress the message of equality; they have agency over how they act and they’d like to be able to use it. They want to be treated equally and not patronised, but also for people to understand that when explaining something you may have to be more patient than you’d normally be.

“There are loads of different ways you can give instructions, but they can mean different things to different people, so we need to be more specific and precise, otherwise it would confuse or stress me” says Rachel.

Whilst the ambassadors acknowledged that the support they received was important, they pointed out that everyone receives support in their lives. We were put into break out rooms and asked to discuss the different types of support we all receive in our lives. A whole range of things were put forward, from the more defined forms of support such as medication and loans, to much more abstract forms of support such as exercise, which personally helps me massively to deal with stress and anxiety.

The ambassadors told us that though anxiety can play a role in everyone’s life, it can be particularly debilitating for them. A big contributor to this is what Abby called ‘Friday afternoon behaviour’. This refers to sending emails that will be received late on a Friday afternoon giving no time to reply, leaving the recipient anxious about their interpretation of the email over the weekend. I think many employees could relate to this feeling, and many admitted to being guilty of ‘Friday afternoon behaviour’.

This got the whole team thinking about not just how we communicate with our ambassadors, but how we communicate with everyone. We all recognised the importance of being thoughtful and inclusive when communicating with others. This perhaps stemmed from the view that our ambassadors are equal to us, so if we are to treat them inclusively and equally we should treat everyone in this way as well. Alex Fox, our CEO, echoed these thoughts after the session with his message to the ambassadors.

“You not only got everyone thinking about disability in a really helpful way, but you also got us all thinking about how to communicate with each other and be more inclusive and thoughtful. We are lucky to have you as colleagues in our team.”

Following the lessons learnt in the training I am inclined to agree.