Friday, 12 June 2020
Speaking up for people whose voices are not heard
As the team at Reside marks Learning Disabilities Week, Head of Business Development Tammy Murray reflects on a career supporting people with respect.
“I’ve been working since the age of 18 supporting people to be treated fairly and equally, to have homes where they feel safe, in the community where their friends and family live. I am not a person with learning disability, and I do not consider myself a ‘learning disabilities expert’. However, I do know how to treat people with respect and as equal. I am proud to have spent my career supporting people whose voice is rarely heard. I am grateful for everyone that has let me into their life and hope I have used that opportunity to make a difference.
I left school in 1981. The following day, I was greeted by my mother saying, “Get out of bed, go get a job and don’t come back until you have one!” She didn’t have to ask me what I wanted to do, I already knew that I craved a role helping other people.
I used to spend time at school helping a friend who everybody else used to joke about. He couldn’t read or write very well. Today he would have been supported but in those days pupils didn’t receive extra support. So I took it upon myself to help him with what I could, although as I am dyslexic I dread to think how that really panned out!
I decided to apply for a job in a psychiatric hospital. When I joined the hospital I didn’t know the institutional world I was to enter into, a world that was full of strong words to describe people and hidden stories that shocked me at such a young age.
When I look back the same words we use today were used then, “severe”, “complex”, “challenging” – all these words are casually used in the world of learning disabilities. They were used then to justify disproportionate and unnecessary actions from the hospital that would restrict lives, cause unhappiness and looking back maybe even lead to abuse.
There were no DBS checks in my early career. I remember starting work in a supported living house and wasn’t even interviewed. I got the job because the manager knew my mother. Luckily I was a good person but it shows how much has improved – this lack of safeguarding of vulnerable people is unthinkable today.
It makes me sad when I used to read files and think “I can see why a person who never speaks, doesn’t do so.” These were people who were incarcerated at a young age, kept in a hospital because they had a baby and classed as a “retard”. I so despise that word and it makes me wince if ever I hear anyone use it today.
I recall working alongside a staff member who I heard so many times say to the gentleman we were supporting “Do you want a cold shower?” I remember wondering why anyone would want a cold shower. As time went on I learnt that the man we were supporting used to be in a long stay hospital and they used to threaten him to have cold showers if he mis- behaved. These examples made me angry at the time and they still do.
I’ve heard a million times in training sessions we refer to Maslow’s model of needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. As a young person I always wanted to help that little bit more but actually I was only giving what should have been there in the first place, meeting those basic needs.
I have worked within the social care system for many years now and I have been able to support lots of changes for the people I have worked with. Sometimes this is as simple as being able to have their haircut and coloured as they liked it purely because they wanted to. Or moving to share a home with their boyfriend which was classed as definite no go then, or being able to go on holiday abroad. In offering that support I have come up against barriers, and been told I am a busy body and a do-gooder. I am passionate that people should be able to live their life the way they choose.
I still wonder how different it would be if everyone considered a person with a learning disability as an individual. If they asked the questions: “if this was my brother, my sister, my daughter or my son, is this what I would want for them?”
I can see that across my 38 year career there has been a lot of change for the good. I am glad that people are able to lead the life they want. I think that in 2020 younger people who need support are more confident to say what they want, to make known what they want and have parents that can help them. For the people that don’t have family they have people like me and the team at Reside, and our partners who do everything possible to make it happen.
I look at Learning Disability England and often think to myself how powerful their strap line is “Stronger, Louder, Together”. They exist to make lives better for people with Learning Disabilities and their families. Having so many organisations to turn to for support and advice is so valuable to many people.
Working from the bottom all the way to my role at Reside today leaves me feeling privileged to have shared a journey with people that have let me in. My experiences have taught me to not take everyday things for granted. Many of the people I have supported in my career have had very different – usually worse – life chances and opportunities. They have allowed me to help them support changes to the way they want to live their life. But we still have a long way to go to further improve these life chances. To succeed, we must continue to hear and support and champion those voices that for many years not been heard.
Head of Business Development
Reside Housing Association