People With Learning Disabilities and Autism Call for Greater Representation

Becky Banham
By Becky Banham,
updated on Dec 6, 2019

People With Learning Disabilities and Autism Call for Greater Representation

New research uncovers the extent of exclusion faced by autistic people and those with learning disabilities in the UK, as they unite to call for greater representation across society

The research, by not-for-profit support provider Dimensions, uncovers a widespread sense of isolation, with 96% of autistic individuals or anyone with a learning disability having felt misunderstood by others. Despite nearly all (98%) believing they should have the same opportunities as everyone else, over half (54%) believe they do not.

The research coincides with the publication of the Dimensions 2019 Learning Disability and Autism Leaders’ List - the UK’s first national listing recognising autistic people or those with learning disabilities who are challenging stereotypes and entrenched social prejudices, to make communities better for themselves and others. The list is run in partnership with Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) and Learning Disability England (LDE).

Sarah Clarke, Campaigns Manager at Dimensions, said: “It should be a wakeup call to all of us that people with autism and learning disabilities feel misunderstood and underestimated. We all need to do better to make society more welcoming and inclusive.

“We’re incredibly proud to be celebrating this year’s leaders, who are not only challenging perceptions but also inspiring others and showing the world that everyone can make a difference. We can all learn so much from them.”

One of the judges of this year’s Leaders’ List, Steve Mansell, who himself has a learning disability, said: “I think people with learning disabilities can do amazing things and it is really important to celebrate them. People with learning disabilities don’t always get the same opportunities as everyone else but we can lead by example and show them that they can do amazing things too.”

To reflect on this year’s data and in support of 2019’s new Learning Disability and Autism Leaders, here we list some of the key research points and meet some of the inspirational people who are helping to make society better for everyone.

Challenging misconceptions

With 99% of people surveyed thinking society doesn’t understand what people with learning disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum are capable of, the achievements of this year’s leaders comes a long way to challenge outdated perceptions.

Celebrated on this year’s list are, among others, Matthew Hellett, a filmmaker, performer and Head Programmer for Oska Bright, the leading learning disability film festival in the world. Also, Shauna Elise-Hogan, who has Down’s Syndrome and was deemed a health and safety risk at school. Shauna has gone on to win hundreds of medals at Down’s Syndrome and Special Olympics events, pursuing her passion for swimming.

Increasing representation

With only 3% of autistic people and those with with learning disabilities thinking they are represented enough in sports, arts and the media, it is clear more needs to be done. The research highlights the profound difference that greater representation would have; 87% would feel part of society and 82% would feel respected.

Actor Liam Bairstow, who plays Alex Warner on Coronation Street, is passionate about increasing representation. Through his work with Mind The Gap, the leading charity supporting artists with learning disabilities, Liam wants to inspire other young people and break down stigma.

Commenting on his inclusion on this year’s list, Liam said: “It feels phenomenal to be named a Learning Disability and Autism Leader. All these disabilities we’ve got… I don’t see it in a negative way, I see it as a beautiful thing. We’re so proud of who we are. It’s an honour to be a leader for other people to look up to.”

Tackling loneliness

This entrenched lack of representation, which limits opportunities for socialisation, is shown to be fuelling loneliness. 98% of people on the autistic spectrum and individuals with learning disabilities think more needs to be done to tackle it.

2019 leader Sarah Paterson is doing just that. Sarah was diagnosed as autistic at an early age and found it difficult to express her emotions and communicate. As a result, she felt excluded at school and began to suffer from mental health conditions.

Drawing on her personal experience, and driven by the desire to help others, in 2015 she became director of Dates-n-mates Aberdeen, Scotland’s first dating and friendship agency. The agency, run by and for people with learning disabilities, helps people form friendships and find love.

Influencing decision-makers

Not content with systemic exclusion, 92% of autistic people or those with learning disabilities want to be more involved in government and business decision-making.

Meaningful participation in politics is a cause close to James Walker’s heart. James doesn’t communicate using words and, when he was seven, his parents were told he would never do more than push a big button to play a recorded message. Almost 10 years later, thanks to eye gaze technology, not only is he able to communicate but he has completely transformed his life.

James now exercises his democratic right to vote – this year, he will be reviewing all parties’ easy-read manifestos and will vote in the upcoming general election. An eager participant in his local Youth Parliament, James is passionate about affecting city-wide decisions.

Commenting on this year’s Leaders’ List, award-winning writer and actor Sally Phillips said: “Each person honoured on the Dimensions Leaders List is an example of the amazing contribution that people with learning disabilities and autism make to their communities. Through their work, the leaders are changing public perceptions and breaking down stereotypes on a national level. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to hear their stories.

“We urgently need greater representation of people with learning disabilities and autism in our society, in the arts, culture and sports. By sharing empowering stories like those celebrated on the Leaders’ List, we can help make society more inclusive and welcoming for everyone.”

Sarah Clarke continued: “Everyone can learn something from people with learning disabilities and autism – 99% of those we asked agree. We hope our leaders inspire change and demonstrate that we all play an important part – from individuals to decision-makers – to make society more inclusive.

“We hope these stories inspire others and help them realise that their ambition – however big or small, can make a real difference.”

For more information about autism including diagnosis processes, support and more, visit Counselling Directory.

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