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How people we support shape the way we work

My name is Ann. I am supported by Dimensions, and I help make sure they are doing their job right.

Last week, I interviewed potential staff for a senior post at Dimensions, the learning disability and autism support provider that also supports me.

Next week, I am due to attend an “Everybody Counts” group in my region, to hear what the people Dimensions support have to say about the support they receive. I’ll also be delivering a ‘Listen Up!’ induction for new staff.

Next month, I will be chairing the Dimensions Council, the national representative forum for people supported by Dimensions.

And, a couple of years ago, I was deeply proud to represent Dimensions in Parliament, presenting our Social Care Charter for people with learning disabilities and autism to the MPs – a social care charter developed and championed by the people Dimensions supports.

Dimensions Council Co-Chair, Ann, helped launched the Charter at Parliament.
Dimensions Council Co-Chair, Ann, helped launched the Charter at Parliament.

I have cerebral palsy. It affects me in many ways: I was expelled from school for anger management reasons. I can’t feel hot and cold. I have hearing loss. I have significant mobility restrictions. And, if not kept active, my brain would quickly decline.

But please don’t define me by my disability – I certainly don’t. I’m an Ipswich Town fan. I have a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. A letter lost in the post once deprived me of a place in the Special Olympics. I held down a range of full time jobs in clothing factories until 1995, when my health and mobility declined.

I fight my condition every day; fight to not become a recluse, fight to live a normal life, fight also to get the support I need around the house, just to live like anyone else.

I first encountered Dimensions through my sister, who is a learning disability support worker. I helped out and made friends with the people she supports. I learned quite a bit about the organisation; about how it pioneered person-centred thinking for people with autism and learning disabilities, and about how it is now leading the way in ensuring meaningful involvement of the people it supports.

In time, with my personal budget, I chose Dimensions as my support provider. Then they supported me to choose my staff.

Many organisations claim to listen to the people they support. Some even try. But in my experience, few actually walk the walk.

I could write about personalised support plans for people with learning disabilities and autism. Or about family surveys, about feedback mechanisms and about formal and informal review processes. But many organisations do all that.

I really want to write about how, for the past 15 years, Dimensions has worked to find the most effective ways to involve the people it supports in its local and national governance. No lip service. That is what sets it apart.

Local representation

Just as a vibrant, local political scene implies strong national politics, so a healthy local base of activists is crucial to the national representation of people Dimensions supports.

“Everybody Counts” groups are the local voice of people supported by Dimensions. Meeting regularly, groups are open to all and discuss topics of local concern such as community activities, transport, managing money and so on. Key themes are raised to the national Dimensions Council or to local police, councillors etc. as appropriate.

National Representation

Elections from Everybody Counts groups to the national Dimensions Council are hotly contested; appropriate communications and other support is offered to both candidate and their electorate. The winners have a seat on the Dimensions Council, and one of them (last year, me) is then elected to the role of co-chair.

Council meets regularly, gathering feedback from the local groups and discussing key topics of national concern. My co-chair is co-opted on to the Dimensions Board where our grassroots report is delivered straight to the top. Council also meets formally and regularly with the executive team.

I have a privileged position. When I’m speaking for somebody I’m giving voice to their dreams and hopes for a better life. But chairing these meetings is hard. It’s hard for me and it is hard for the rest of the council reps. We each have our own needs and a wide range of adaptations are put in place by Dimensions to facilitate the meetings and make sure everyone can participate.

I’ve learned to never underestimate someone who has no voice. With the right support, everyone can communicate.

My co-chair, for example, helps move the agenda on and sum things up. All papers are in Easy Read. We stick tightly to schedules. Graphic facilitation is available. A “red card” system lets us know if delegates feel the pace is too fast or too slow. And, of course, all delegates bring their own support staff who help out with tickets, travel arrangements and so on.

The biggest challenge every month is limiting the agenda. There is so much to talk about from the Everybody Counts groups and so much demand for our time from internal Dimensions teams. I take that as a sign that things are working well – but it really presents a challenge.

Recently, we teamed up Council with the independent Dimensions Family and Friends Forum, a group of family representatives with a similar mandate to our own. This was a great idea and I expect to see new initiatives emerging soon.

I’m a sceptical CEO. Convince me.

The Council is listened to – we made recommendations to the organisation on money and on safeguarding for example. Dimensions listened and changed policy because of what we said.

One of the biggest things the council did recently was to champion voting across the organisation. Following feedback that few people supported by Dimensions voted in the last election, we helped guide Love Your Vote – a campaign to raise political activity. We drove up voter registrations, held “question time” style panels and workshops around the country to get people involved. It worked.

But, most importantly, I don’t want Dimensions to offer bad support, Winterbourne-style. The Council and Everybody Counts groups are major components of Dimensions approach to quality. We listen, we see, we participate – and we have a direct line to Board.

If you run a social care organisation, ask yourself whether the people you support are in the lead or bringing up the rear. If the latter, maybe some of these ideas could help you.