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Joe Powell, National Director of our self-advocacy partner All Wales People First, writes on our first birthday about Engage to Change’s potential to shift attitudes about people with learning disabilities and autism in our society.

It fascinates me in the run up to the June General Election, the debates about class.  Social class seems to be used by politicians as a vehicle to try to persuade the voters that they are the people with the right level of integrity and the right level of first-hand experience to represent the ordinary people of the nation.  But who represents people with learning disabilities and those on the autism spectrum in the political arena?  What class do they belong to?

I would argue that quite simply, they’ve never been part of a class system.  They haven’t even been able to call themselves working class, because the prospect of employment (for so many) wasn’t even an option.  This is one of the reasons I feel that so many people with learning disabilities and autism are sceptical about the political process.  Why would you vote if you feel disenfranchised from mainstream society?  Why would you get involved in making decisions about the future of the nation, when society has written you off and subjected you to an existence of care homes and day centres and essentially medically retired you at eighteen years old?

As I have said many times before, people with learning disabilities and autism were not wanted by society.  Society was happy to pay whatever it took, to keep us away from the mainstream.  Until now, that the country is broke.  People with learning disabilities and autism were the biggest advocates for taking part in the workforce, making a positive contribution and playing a part in society, but society didn’t want us.  Now, when society no longer wants to pay to keep us, we are ‘all in this together’ apparently.  Trouble is many people with learning disabilities and autism have fallen way behind their peer groups because of the lack of faith shown in them, and to change this, it is essential that the right support mechanisms are put into place from an early age.  This includes promoting aspiration and equal opportunities for education and/ or training.

Engage to Change offers an opportunity to try to shift this culture.  By giving people adequate opportunities to grow, in a realistic and supportive way, people with learning disabilities and autism can shine.  Their very presence in mainstream society will go a long way in helping to change the negative perceptions that people in mainstream society have about us.  Every participant is an ambassador, not only for the project but for equal rights.  Every participant is also a pioneer for a new world where people with learning disabilities and autism are an integral part of the work force.

What excites me most about this project is not the fact that many of the beneficiaries of the project are being given real opportunities to enter the work place (although that is an excellent outcome). What excites me most are the potential longer term benefits of helping to change and shift the public’s attitudes towards people with learning disabilities and autism in mainstream society.  By making this a success we can potentially give a strong evidence base to the Welsh and UK Governments, to shape policy to ensure that these opportunities are extended to all in the future. I personally believe that this would be the ideal legacy of this project.

It is of course unfortunate, that the project cannot include people of all age groups.  That does not mean however that people of all age groups cannot benefit from this initiative.  The demography of Wales is small enough logistically to pilot this initiative and large enough in terms of population to give real evidence that people with learning disabilities and autism can access and maintain work placements.

However, the success of Engage to Change is dependent on many things.  The success or failure of this project is not just about how well the project partners deliver the project. It is essential that those who are given placements on the project take their opportunities and make this work.  Talent is useless unless people are given opportunities to use that talent, and opportunities mean absolutely nothing unless people take those opportunities in the first place.  I call upon all the beneficiaries to fly the flag for people with learning disabilities and autism in the workplace and to challenge society’s prejudice about us.  You do that quite simply, by being visible, being reliable and above all being yourself.

We also need the goodwill and co-operation of the rest of the third sector.  The original Getting Ahead 2 grant, set out from unclaimed bank accounts to help to get people between the ages of 16-25 into work, was potentially a major catalyst for important social change for people with learning disabilities and autism.  It didn’t matter who secured the successful bid, it mattered only that whoever got the bid delivered it well.

It is the duty of anyone who genuinely believes that people with learning disabilities and autism should have equal rights to enter the workplace to do whatever they can to make this a success.  In my experience as someone who lived in learning disability care services and used day centres for eleven years, it was always workplace politics, jealousy and egos that scuppered and railroaded positive initiatives that could bring about real and lasting change.  And it was always people like me who paid the price.

I beg everyone who reads this, on the project’s first birthday, to join us in trying to make history.  To try to put an end to the pointless and futile existences that so many people with learning disabilities and autism have had to endure for so long.  Be part of this success.  We can’t do it without you.  Please Engage with us, so that we can try to influence a real and positive Change in the lives of so many people who have been written off by society.

Happy 1st Birthday Engage to Change!

Joe Powell, All Wales People First National Director