Building an inclusive society #LDWeek19

This week is Learning Disability Week. The theme is sport and inclusion.

According to a Mencap survey of 18-35-year-olds, one-third spend less than an hour outside of their homes on a Saturday. Many feel isolated, excluded and lonely. Can you imagine only getting out for an hour and being at home the rest of the day? 49% of the survey respondents want to get out more but can’t.

We have 1.4 million people with learning disability in the UK. They are often marginalised and misunderstood. A lot of work still needs to be done to break down the stigma around learning disability.

Enabling those with learning disability to join in leisure activities such as sport has many benefits. It improves mental and physical health, helps build self-worth and confidence and improves communication and social skills. Additionally, including people with learning disability in leisure provision breaks down barriers and improves social attitudes towards learning disability. Misconceptions around learning disability exist because many people have not met or interacted with someone with a learning disability.

Positive direct contact with people with a learning disability is an effective way of improving attitudes towards them. We found that an inclusive sports programme helped to challenge negative views of people with a learning disability, and created bonds between the participants with and without a learning disability.

As some regular readers will know, I chair the board of the Fragile X Society. Fragile X is the leading genetic cause of learning disability. The Society works to raise awareness of Fragile X and its range of effects on intellectual ability. I have learned a lot, and continue to grow as a person, through my interaction with those with Fragile X.

Building an inclusive society is about having relationships with people who are not like us. It is about being willing to explore and wonder at the gifts every one of us brings to our communities. One lady with Fragile X has the most fantastic sense of humour. She doesn’t get maths, but she can be hilarious, loves the theatre and shopping. Another man loves to talk, go out for meals and kick a football around. Getting to know the person and seeing beyond the disability is key. It enriches all of our lives.

Mencap is running a new survey for adults with learning disability. Here is a link if you or someone you know would like to take part.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jun '19 - 4:49pm

    As I heard Ed Davey talk if his own child, who has special needs, it touched on a nerve.

    One of my greatest role models of how to combine the pursuit of the arts, with social or political interest, is the now, late great Brian, Rix, cross bench peerage, for his work with Mencap, indeed, he put them on the map.

    His years of effort, as their General Secretary, then President, was preluded by years, with his beloved wife Elspeth Grey, of volunteer work.

    These years were due to their own daughter having Downs Syndrome, and they advised to put her in a home, which they would not even consider.

    They devoted their interest and input into their child.

    Why is it acceptable to have an abortion due to Downs Syndrome?

    Why am I, as a Liberal, not encouraged to speak for the human right to life of a disabled potential, child?

    Why has that kind of Liberalism been replaced with a new, inconsistent radicalism often?

    Why has our Liberal Democrat party few such voices?

  • Food for thought Kirsten.

    We appear to have made substantial strides in recent years regarding the visibility of people with physical disabilities and more people seem to accept that of course our infrastructure should be adapted accordingly – albeit there’s still a long way to go until practice meets those aspirations. However, the same cannot be said for those with learning difficulties and I wonder if any of us without particular knowledge has any idea of how widespread they might be.

    Recently I took up going swimming once a week at a time when the training pool is booked out for a group of people who appear to have special needs. They all seem to enjoy themselves and it can be quite the eye-opener (if that’s the right phrase) as I overhear certain conversations in the changing rooms between individuals and each other as well as with their carers/helpers. Some funny, and some a bit sad. It’s a regular event that’s enjoyed by everyone taking part, but what has struck me was that I hadn’t really given much thought to what every day life must be like for those individuals and their families.

  • Kirsten Johnson 19th Jun '19 - 8:34pm

    Thank you Lorenzo and Fiona for reading my blog and for your insights. The world of learning disability is hidden from many – I am convinced all of us would be enriched and society would develop more compassion as a result of nurturing relationships between those of different intellectual abilities. We live in intellectual silos rather than seeing the value of all people, whatever our ability.

  • Kirsten, many thanks for your article. One of my children is autistic so I understand your article completely. He goes to a fantastic special school in Yeovil where they have no problem dealing with him at all. However, outside of the family and school so much ignorance of learning disabilities exists. Barriers could easily be broken down by education and occasional interaction.

  • Sean Hyland 19th Jun '19 - 9:58pm

    Interesting post Kirsten many thanks. As an ex Specialist Learning Disabilities Nurse I can relate to what you are saying. Seems no party has any clear policies re LD and often uses a catch-all generic disabilities tag for all disability. We often ran exercises and activities with other service providers, professionals, families, and the general public to increase awareness of ability rather than disability and how simple steps and understanding could have a measurable positive impact on individual lives. The biggest impact came from self-advocacy groups of the individuals themselves. With a little initial training and support they often became a powerful group pressing for change that matters.

    I think over the past few years there has been a move away from the specialist multi-disciplinary teams that I was part of. I fear a return to the “away from community” residential option of the past as an easier and cheaper option. They have a role for some individuals but as we have seen exposed over the past few years are not the safest if not managed correctly.

    I always cringe when i hear the phrase ” we acknowledge we have made mistakes but have learnt from the errors and will be including in our future practice”. You hear a variant after every inquiry or serious case review and you know that there is a good chance of similar happening again.There will be training and tinkering with policies but the culture shift will lacking.

  • I have read with interest the piece by Kirsten. I am not clear what it is that is being suggested. What concrete steps need to be taken?
    My feeling is that we look at society in such a way that we accept that it is reasonable that there should be large numbers of people who cannot lead the lives that those with the power would not see as acceptable for themselves. There are many means of getting support in our society if you happen to have the money to pay for it.

  • Peter Hirst 21st Jun '19 - 3:24pm

    We need a cultural change where society helps those who need it to participate in everyday activities. It should start at primary school and continue throughout life. There should be more incentives for individuals to act in this way such as public recognition.

  • Innocent Bystander 21st Jun '19 - 4:17pm

    I am not clear about this statistic. Is it just those with learning difficulties or all 18-35 year olds?
    According to Google there are 7.7 million single person households and the proportion is relentlessly growing.

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