“Wow I’ve just been in tears. I rang one of our members to tell her I have an iPad for her and her staff started crying saying how amazing we all are and can’t thank us enough !!”
“I love the chair exercise session with Helen, Helen has such a calming and relaxing voice, Thank you x”

Just two out of hundreds of thankful, emotional and positive online messages from people with learning disabilities who have connected via social media and Leep1’s online Facebook group during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This success comes amidst a host of internal pressures and obstacles that organisations in the sector are facing including furloughing staff, financial uncertainty, members’ mental health, isolation, online abuse, needing the right information, PPE, getting people online who weren’t before, needing more technology, testing and digital exclusion for the most isolated. The response from organisations has been amazing, but it also highlights some of the social and health inequalities already present and faced by people with learning disabilities in our communities.

Leeds has a tight network of brilliant learning disability organisations, linked through the Forum Central network, all of whom are working in similar ways to respond quickly in creative and ingenious ways to the rapidly changing environment and pressures.

To name them all would mean example after example that stretches over pages, but to pick out a few examples; Leeds Autism Aim’s Covid 19 Toolkit; easy read from Easy on the I and the Covid 19 cover sheet for the hospital passport, organized by the learning disability and autism team at LTHT; Through the Maze navigating us through all the information; Andy Rawnsley’s daily update with song of the day and Bob’s lovely Zoom video, picked up nationally and translated into different languages; quick setting up of online services from People Matters, Pyramid of Arts, Purple Patch Arts; getting creative in services from HfT, Health for All; working on keeping connected from Leeds Autism Services, Outside the Box and Leeds Weekend Carers Association; despite the adversity, planning and collaboration on creative ways to host activities during Learning Disability Awareness Week continues; and the list goes on.

What next?
Now that the restrictions have been eased, a little, and we look into the future to further rounds of adjusted restrictions, what does this mean for the organisations and the people they support? After listening to the great and experienced minds from some of the organisations in the Learning Disability network, a new round of innovation is key.

Connectivity, collaboration, creativity and kindness are now critical to planning and strategising for what is to come. How do organisations adjust their programmes and service delivery models to accommodate for shielding and non-shielding members? To what extent are services left virtual, and what is the impact on evidencing quality to commissioners and funders? How do we connect with and get information out to the most isolated? How do services continue with reduced member rates due to digital exclusion? How do we maintain the health and wellbeing of staff, including support workers and family carers? And how do we organise financial sustainability in a very different economic state? Just some of the questions that I don’t have the answers to, but with collective discussion and action we can answer together.

The restrictions have been disempowering for us all, limiting our independence and choices, but these restrictions fall on people in our communities, whom in many cases are already hidden, isolated, and disempowered. So much of the brilliant work in the city is empowerment based and led by people with learning disabilities. There is great effort all round at the intersection of people, voluntary and community organisations and health and social care in overcoming barriers such as access to information, health inequalities, isolation, independence and owning decisions. With restrictions forced upon us, I hear awareness about the potential for restrictions to settle, set us back and become the new norm. When I listen to the people I speak to, I feel confident and secure that we have a brilliant group of organisations working flat out to work with and be led by people with learning disabilities and/or Autism to overcome new and pre-existing barriers. We are very thankful that during a difficult time such as this, that they all exist and are continuing to operate.

By Jez Coram, Development Worker – Learning Disabilities