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Talking Mats and political voice

Thanks to Alison Matthews for a great guest blog on Talking Mats supporting people with learning disability to have a political voice  In the photo from left to right Alison Matthews, John Hendrickson ( chair of NW LDA) , Shahnaz Ashraf, Rosemary Trustam, Darren Heywood (vice chair)

The North West Learning Disability Alliance (LDA) is a campaign group focussing on the rights of people with learning disabilities. The NW regional self -advocates forum met twice to identify their priority concerns which were due to be discussed at the regional conference in Blackpool. Members of the NW LDA attended a conference planning event and  we discussed ways in which people could be supported to voice their views on services. It was agreed that given the need for local and national politicians representing their citizens to hear the views of people with learning disabilities, the conference would be a way to develop this with the help of social media. The NW LDA was then invited to have a stand at the conference in Blackpool.

Talking Mats seemed the obvious approach to support discussions around the concerns as it provided a structured means of people expressing their views and provided potential objectivity in that people could also praise services, as well as voice concerns, which in fact some did! We wanted to take photographs of people with their mats as we felt it would bring the concerns or issues to life, it certainly seemed a more powerful way of enabling people to speak out. Our idea then was to e mail relevant local councillor or MP and to support people to get their voices heard wherever possible.

Some of the challenge was in planning the vocabulary needed and in finding the appropriate visual scale. The list of concerns created by the self- advocates provided an ideal starting point.  The scale we opted for consisted of symbols which enabled people to say whether they were worried about the topic or happy/not concerned. The topic itself was ‘services’. Finding symbols was a real challenge so we opted for a mixture in the end, photos, symbols, photosymbols and our own line drawings.

We spent time with the self -advocates who produced a mat, first exploring their knowledge of social media, in particular Twitter and Facebook. Many already had accounts and e mail addresses, some people came ready with topics they wanted to get off their chests or people they wanted to praise.  Everyone said whether or not they wanted to e mail their MP or local councillor with a photo of them and their mat and whether they wanted us to post the photograph of them with a mat on social media.  For Twitter we used the hashtag our voices matter (#ourvoicesmatter).

political voice
political voice

People raised concerns about a variety of issues to do with service cuts, from cuts to the NHS and the need for local pharmacies to stay open, to cuts to transport and the need for additional support with relationships. One person mentioned specifically that she wanted to feel safe at home and talked about crime directed towards people with learning disabilities. Most people were worried about benefit cuts

We had some positive responses, one person wanted to highlight how happy she feels in her new flat and one person specifically wanted to compliment his local councillor who he felt really listened to people with learning disabilities. Ivan Lewis MP tweeted his support for the campaign. In terms of learning for next year’s conference, we will develop the vocabulary and the process of collecting e mail addresses and twitter accounts for MP’s. One very valuable lesson we learned about the numbers engaged in the activity was to hold next year’s sessions before the party on the last night.  It seems the participants at the self advocates conference work hard and play hard too!

Alison Matthews is a Speech & Language Therapist, Director of Total communication Services CIC and member of the North West Learning Disability Alliance

April 2016