Guideposts, the charity which connects people with learning disabilities to opportunities and community projects, recently launched their Better Connected programme, to help support vulnerable people throughout the lockodwn. The programme provides a safe, remote platform where people can enjoy activities together, with packs sent through the post, catch-up phone calls, socially-distanced 1:1 walks, and interactive classes (such as dance and yoga) online - so there are options for people to get involved even if they don't have internet access. To find out more, we caught up with Amie Pells, the Better Connected Coordinator:
What does Guideposts usually offer (in 'normal'/pre-covid times)?
Guideposts runs a range of services that are focused on helping people to achieve their potential regardless of their circumstances. We connect people together so that they can experience the joy that comes from friendship, activity, learning, purpose and occupation.
Many of the people we support come from the most disadvantaged groups in our society, including children and adults with additional needs and disabilities, people with mental health problems, older people with dementia and other neuro-degenerative conditions, and the families or carers of all these groups.
In Oxfordshire, Guideposts’ services include GLADS - our adult day service in Witney; Dig’n’Grow- an adult day service at our outdoor centre; Dreamcatchers Forest School - for children with a disability or on the SEND register; Lights Up – a social club for people with dementia and their carers.
Pre-Covid, we also ran a friendship scheme called Mates n Dates, which ran regular social events for people with learning disabilities or autism.
How has the pandemic affected the way you deliver services, and how has it affected life for learning disabled people in Oxfordshire?
Just a few of Guideposts’ regular services have been able to take place in-person over the last year, as the restrictions have allowed. Mostly we have been operating new remote services.
We have had great feedback for all the activity packs we have sent, containing items to fit each person’s specific needs, to help them continue their development as well as giving them fun things to do at home. We might include for example, word searches, pictures for colouring, recipes, handwriting practice sheets, craft materials, money skills exercises and information about other remote services that people can access.
We have also supported our members’ families or carers, as for many they have had to become 24-7 carers without the respite that Guideposts and other services provided. We have supported them as much as we can with regular phone calls, to offer a listening ear and understanding.
While hugely valued, the variety and amount our dedicated staff could offer is naturally limited and the organisation had an ambition to do more. So it was a huge bonus when we were awarded a Coronavirus Community Support Fund from the National Lottery, to enable us to develop Guideposts Better Connected.
What are the best things so far about the Better Connected programme?
Better Connected is providing a great way for people who have had really limited contact for many months to get together, chat and make friends again, even if it is online!
Our services users should be the best judges of what’s best about it. Here’s some of their feedback:
“The dance session is awesome and brilliant. It’s a chance to keep fit, and also to see my friends in the group and how they cope with it!”
“The activity packs are fabulous - a good mixture, a bit of everything, I don’t know how you could improve on that!”
“I absolutely look forward to this happy hour [the Guideposts Radio Show] every Saturday.”
From Guideposts’ perspective, it’s been a great opportunity for the Guideposts team who work across Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire to work more closely and share our different skills and interests with service users – whether it’s crafts, photography, yoga or dance. We don’t normally have time for this in our hectic ‘normal’ world!
Is Oxfordshire a welcoming and accessible place for learning disabled people?
There is no one answer for everyone who has a learning disability: for some people life can be close to ‘normal’, while others need constant support in everything they do.
There are certainly everyday activities that are not accessible or welcoming to many people. For example, going to the cinema can be unbearable for those who experience sensory overload, and don’t like sitting in the dark with lots of strangers. For others, their language or communication skills may mean that they find it hard to be understood when ordering at a pub or café. It is up to each venue whether they offer ways around the difficulties: for example, some cinemas offer viewings with less overwhelming levels of sound and light, and some pubs might have staff trained in helping people with specific needs, but these are not commonplace across the county yet.
So it’s often the skills of the person with the learning disability and the support they have that determines whether they can access a particular activity, meet people and be social. That’s where organisations like Guideposts (and many more around Oxfordshire) come in: we help people to gain the skills and the confidence to engage in their community, whether it’s being able to go and buy a loaf of bread, make good friends, or to have fulfilling employment.
How can people get involved if they'd like to access the Better Connected programme?
People can apply to join Better Connected or refer someone to the service at www.guideposts.org.uk/better-connected. We will then call the applicant back for a personal induction, make sure we have all the information we need and see if you need any help to get onto the service.
How can other readers help?
Our mission this year is the Guideposts Global Challenge, to collectively travel 21,976 miles - enough to get around the world. Many of our members and staff are taking part and everyone is welcome to join in. The Global Challenge is set up for members to improve their physical and mental wellbeing through the act of exercising daily. We would love as many people to join them to achieve their goal - by challenging themselves to a physical activity and uploading their distances on to our virtual map, whilst raising funds for Guideposts at the same time.
There’s more info and you can sign up at https://guideposts.org.uk/global-challenge/.
For those who are interested in helping with our service, there’s a vast range of volunteering opportunities to get involved with, not bound by location or work skills and allowing freedom for you to give back to your community the best way you can. If you could help with sharing your hobbies with an online session or video, 1:1 befriending calls, going on small group socially distanced outdoor walks, or just coming along to one of our virtual sessions for a general chat, we’d be glad to hear from you. The project is a social enrichment service aiming to supplement a person's basic support with social activities and connections, which can be for volunteers as much it is for service users. Contact me, Amie, on [email protected].
What's one thing you wish more people knew about living with learning disabilities?
Most people have very little experience or understanding of challenging conditions such as learning disabilities. We would like to encourage everyone to learn about people living with challenging conditions and behaviours, and when you meet them in your life to communicate and treat them as you would want to be treated – with dignity.