We moved to this area not knowing anyone and whilst daunting, and at times a little lonely, we were/are not too worried as we know that over time connections will be made, and slowly but surely those connections are being made. We have wonderful neighbours who are always happy to stop for a chat or help out when needed (not least the other day when one of them spent over an hour changing our back door lock after David had locked himself out) We have made friends with a couple down the road (who now hold our spare set of keys) and have been introduced to, and made friends with, other young people who live locally.
However two things happened recently which gave me an overwhelming sense of belonging when I was least expecting it. Firstly, we voted in the local elections and secondly I booked my car in for an MOT; one a fundamental right, the other one of those day-to-day ‘life admin’ tasks. Yet, both resulted in a similar feeling of belonging to the local community, and I got the same wave of happiness and contentment when the man at the garage remembered my name as I did when we walked down the road to vote in the church hall, when we received Christmas cards through the letterbox from our neighbours or when we bumped into our ‘new’ friends at the train station.
It made me think about how people with learning disabilities are, or are not, supported to belong and do they have the same opportunities to make those connections? Inclusion and ‘being fully included in the local community’ was one of the key principles of the Valuing People white paper, but what community if people are stuck at home without enough money in their budget to be supported out? How can they have a say in their local community if voting is not made accessible? People with learning disabilities may live in supported living, but are they supported to get to know their neighbours through those small seemingly insignificant events; popping round to ask to borrow something, putting Christmas cards through their doors or taking in parcels? When I was a support worker, working with young adults in a residential college, we always encouraged those we were supporting to phone up and book any appointments they required themselves, but this was in the name of ‘independence’ rather than anything else, in the same way that they were supported to ‘budget’ rather than to borrow money from friends or peers. Yet whilst such a focus is on independence, I wonder what opportunities to build connections are lost? If independence were reframed as interdependence, as I believe it should be, would we support people differently? Would more connections be made resulting in a greater sense of belonging? By recognising and valuing the fact that we are all members of networks of support and that we all rely on help from others, if we celebrated mutuality rather than strived for some mythical notion of independence, would society be more accepting and would we all find our place in our local communities with greater ease?