For young people to have a fulfilling adult life it's essential that they're able to achieve across all four of the Preparing for Adulthood outomces. Namely, employment, good health, independent living and community inclusion.
However, the one that would have been most important to me as a teenager is having friends, relationships and being part of my community. Unfortunately for many disabled young people this can be one of the most challenging parts of growing up.
When I started to think about what community inclusion means to me I thought back to when I was a teenager and tried to think of the first time I felt part of a community. At 15 I joined a local Venture Scout unit and I think that was the first time I had really felt part of a community that was independent of my family. We met once a week to do activities either in a local scout hut or at local leisure facilities but we also went camping at weekends and took part in projects and volunteering which also gave us a sense of the wider community in which we lived.
The more I reflected the more I started to think about what it was that made me feel included, gave me the confidence to make new friends and participate in the opportunities that were presented to me.
It didn’t take long to realise that it was largely the attitude of the people running the group and their influence on the young people attending. When I arrived on the first night I was greeted with smiles and welcomes and introduced to a group of young people my age. I was also listened to and given time to adjust to a new environment and new people and instead of being forced to participate before I was ready I was encouraged to watch and join in when I felt comfortable.
When I try to relate my own experiences to those of a disabled young person I find myself wondering if the challenges around accessibility and expert knowledge, which are of course important factors, might also be easier barriers to overcome if a disabled young person feels they will be welcomed, valued and listened to?
Through my various roles, from supporting disabled young people in the community to managing a short break service for a local authority, I have seen many examples of disabled young people being accepted into their communities and feeling able to access local sport centres, bowling alleys and cinemas, both with support and independently, and I’ve been able to see the impact that this has on all other areas of their lives through boosting their confidence and self esteem. I have also had occasions where I have had to challenge staff at local services for excluding or discriminating against those I was supporting. It can take months or years of small steps to build up the confidence of a disabled young person to feel that they are welcomed and accepted and the words and deeds of a small few can undo it in minutes.
The SEND reforms have created a great opportunity to raise the aspirations of disabled young people and to develop the awareness in local communities of what is positive and possible and of what a valuable contribution disabled young people are able to make. Preparing for adulthood is a key theme of the reforms with community participation identified as one of the outcomes, along with employment, independent living and good health. These outcomes need to be included in the Local Offer and the focus of EHC plans from Year 9 onwards.
What can you do?
It is really important that local authorities, providers and all other community services understand that, although it is important for the environment to be physically accessible, the further challenge to community inclusion is the limited awareness of staff and the inflexibility of services to be able to listen and adapt, with the minimum of fuss, in order to make disabled young people feel welcomed and valued.
We all have a role in making our communities a welcoming and inclusive place for disabled young people. Although the organisational and structural changes to processes can take time an individual can start making a difference right now.