Mencap NI: ‘Everyone with a learning disability deserves to be a valued member of society’

Research by the charity highlights alarming levels of misunderstanding of people with this condition. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

Thursday, 25th November 2021, 2:26 pm
Mencap ambassador George Webster who recently made history when he became the first CBeebies presenter who has Down's Syndome and is 'super proud' about his TV role

New survey results from the learning disability charity Mencap reveal that 55% of people in Northern Ireland cannot correctly identify a learning disability as a reduced intellectual ability - with 41% of people from Northern Ireland thinking it’s dyslexia and 26% believing it to relate to a mental health issue.

There are 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK but the new figures – which have been released to coincide with the launch of Mencap’s ‘Talk To Me’ campaign as part of the charity’s 75th anniversary – highlight the continued lack of understanding around learning disability.

Some of the reasons for the lack of understanding could include low visibility and representation in the media, which leads to the sense that this vulnerable but no less important demographic are increasingly marginalised and not often apparent in TV coverage, dramas or films.

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Edel Harris, chief executive of Mencap

The survey reveals 45% of people from Northern Ireland have not seen someone with a learning disability in the media in the past year.

The results show just how much of an impact the media can make, with 48% of people from Northern Ireland saying they would feel more comfortable talking to someone with a learning disability if they saw them featured more often in the media.

Shows such as Line of Duty - featuring Tommy Jessop who has Down’s syndrome – and Mencap ambassador George Webster who recently made history when he became the first CBeebies presenter who has Down’s Syndrome, are helping with this but Mencap say more is needed.

Mencap ambassador George Webster comments: “When I was younger, there wasn’t anyone with a learning disability or Down’s Syndrome on the TV.

“It is so important though - if people saw more people with a learning disability in the media, they would better understand what a learning disability is and they would be less scared to approach someone and talk to them.

“Then they could get to know them better.

“This would also mean people treat us better - it could improve things massively.

“I’ve been over the moon with all the positive feedback since I joined CBeebies and I’ve been feeling super proud, especially when people say it means a lot to them.

“I think it will help people understand more about Down’s Syndrome and learning disability as they can learn more about me and see that we’re not that different.

“I just want everyone to treat people with a learning disability fairly and to not judge us - talk to us and get to know us before assuming anything.”

Alongside a lack of visibility in the media, Mencap suspects that minimal contact with people with a learning disability in society may contribute to the lack of understanding around the needs of people with a learning disability, as well as some people’s negative attitudes.

Some 17% of people from Northern Ireland say they have never spoken to someone with a learning disability - or not since they were at school – and 28% agree that they would feel apprehensive about talking to someone with a learning disability for the first time.

The survey also revealed there are signs the public have an appetite to learn more about learning disability.

Anxieties about how to adjust the way they speak are causing 48% of adults from Northern Ireland to feel uncomfortable about talking to someone with a learning disability.

As well as a lack of understanding, the figures sadly reveal 57% of people from Northern Ireland have witnessed someone be rude to or about a person with a learning disability at some point in their lifetime.

Shockingly, 19% also admitted they themselves have engaged in offensive or disrespectful behaviour at some point, such as telling a joke, doing an impression of someone with a learning disability, or ignoring someone.

To celebrate the charity’s 75th anniversary – and highlight the need for greater progression, understanding and inclusion of people with a learning disability - Mencap is launching its ‘Talk To Me’ campaign.

The campaign provides a set of tools available to access online which will help with people’s lack of understanding of learning disability.

Included in these online resources is a pledge that the charity is encouraging people to sign to stand up for the rights of people with a learning disability; a video from people with a learning disability about what their learning disability means to them; a guide about communicating with people with a learning disability; and a quiz to test people’s knowledge of learning disability.

Saskia, who has a learning disability, said: “I think everyone should understand more about learning disability.

“For me, things have been so much better since I’ve become a football coach.

“It has helped people in my community get to know me, learn about what people with a learning disability are capable of and made me feel so much more confident in the rest of my life also.

“Everyone with a learning disability should be included and people should not worry about language – just be kind and use normal language.”

She added: “I just want to talk to people like anyone else and if you just talk to us and get to know us, you’ll see just how much we can do.”

Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “For 75 years, Mencap has campaigned with people with a learning disability, their families and carers to create positive change.

“We have seen huge progress but we know there is still a long way to go, and it’s clear from these new statistics just how many misconceptions still exist.”

She continued: “People with a learning disability can and should be active participants in society, yet many people don’t know what a learning disability is or have little contact with people with a learning disability.

“We are encouraging people to educate themselves about learning disability through our ‘Talk To Me’ resources online.”

Edele concluded: “We want the UK to be the best place in the world for people with a learning disability to live happy and healthy lives.

“Mencap began in a time when the world was completely different for people with a learning disability and we have seen a lot of progress in society’s attitudes and behaviours since then – but we still need to see even bigger change.”

What does Mencap do in Northern Ireland?

Mencap Northern Ireland campaigns to ensure that people with a learning disability are valued equally, listened to and included.

The organisation helps encourage fundraising in order to support the vital work that the charity does.

It supports people who want to volunteer with the organisation to help those with learning disabilities who are resident in Northern Ireland in helping them become empowered to live the lives they want to lead.

Mencap run all kinds of events from cycling to running marathons to skydiving, mountain challenges or baking sales and musical showcases to raise funds for the work it does in campaigning to make society more inclusive for those living with cognitive challenges.

Mencap also runs a Learning Disability Helpline for all those who wish to avail of it, which is open Monday to Friday on 0808 808 1111.

Mencap, which runs across the UK with numerous support groups operational across Northern Ireland, has a simple, clear and uplifting vision, which is for the UK to be the best place in the world for people with a learning disability to live happy and healthy lives.

For more information on the Talk To Me campaign and resources to help visit here: https://mencap.org.uk/mencap75th.