My name is Shaun Webster. I am a parent with a learning disability and a grandad. I am an International Project Worker at CHANGE. I want to share my experience about my life with you, from the past working at a large retail company, when I never left Rotherham, to now being a role model for other people with learning disabilities.
When I got a job working at this large shop it was fine at the beginning. When I wanted to do different jobs they said ‘Yes’ at first, but they never followed it up. My job was sweeping up, packing and taking boxes out to customers. They didn’t trust me to do nothing else. I started to get very bored. Most of the time I was sweeping up and getting jobs nobody wanted to do. They used to abuse me physically and mentally because of my learning disability. They used to call me…I hate this word, ‘retard’ and ‘spacca’. They used to lob things at me and sometimes it hit me on my head. I used to get very down and I felt very small like I was less of a human being. I thought,’ I’m going to be here in Rotherham all my life and I’ll never go anywhere’. I told my supported employment agency how I felt working here but I only saw my support worker twice a year and nothing got done about it. I told the manager at the shop too, but when I told him, it was a bit better for a week or two and then it got worse. I just felt they didn’t want me there because I’ve got learning disabilities and I was just someone to abuse.
I moved from my brother’s house into Keyring, a housing organisations for people with learning disabilities to live independently in the community. I talked to my support worker there about my job and I told them I was looking for another job. My support worker got me promoting Keyring and I thought I was quite good at that. One of my friends was going for a job at CHANGE and he told me about another job at CHANGE. I had the interview. I’d never been further than South Yorkshire and had never been to Leeds before. I travelled on the train on my own, that was new for me!
I got the job! I felt I’d won the lottery!! I felt that I was escaping from the hole I was in. I told the retail shop ‘Goodbye’. I was really happy, although things got even worse in my last month. On my last day they tied me up and put a sock in my mouth. I felt very demeaned and abused. They kept saying to me, ‘You’ll be back here’. I thought, ‘No I won’t’. The first thing my boss at the shop asked me was how much money I was getting, he told me how much he was getting and I was getting more than him! He were annoyed!
At CHANGE there were a lot of people with learning disabilities on proper paid jobs. I felt overwhelmed, I’d never seen so many people with learning disabilities working before, I thought I was the only one. I’d never worked as a co-worker before. At first I thought my co worker who didn’t have learning disabilities was my boss! I was used to people who didn’t have learning disabilities mentally abusing me, I wasn’t used to being respected.
When I started working at CHANGE, I started to learn more about myself. I didn’t realize the skills I had! I started travelling to Leeds on my own and getting more confident with that. CHANGE looks at the skills we have. They look at what we can do. They want us to learn new skills but they don’t judge us on what we can’t do. CHANGE have patience with me, they don’t judge us, they respect us. CHANGE wants us to have power and independence and confidence in ourselves.They want us to run training but they teach us the rights skills so we can do that. CHANGE supports us to have a real voice when we are talking to professionals. Sometimes we feel angry with professionals and MPs but CHANGE shows us how to put our message across in a respectful way, how to talk to them like an equal. CHANGE helps us understand what having power, rights and equality means. Together we make sure that people who don’t have learning disabilities work equally with us. We make sure that people with learning disabilities know about having power. We make sure we speak up for ourselves. We do training around what is power and what it means to us.
I didn’t know how to network or give presentations before I worked at CHANGE, but CHANGE gave me training and skills to do that. Working at CHANGE gives us self belief, as many of us don’t believe in ourselves. CHANGE supports us to learn how to use our life experience in our work. Before coming to CHANGE people used to talk for me all the time. They can’t shut me up now! CHANGE supports us to take risks, we do make mistakes but we learn from it, CHANGE doesn’t judge us, we learn from it and we do it better next time. Often people with learning disabilities are judged on their mistakes and aren’t allowed to learn from them.
I’d never been to London before I worked at CHANGE, then I went with my co worker to meet other people with learning disabilities there. I was overwhelmed how big London was. I met so many people with learning disabilities I couldn’t believe it. It felt absolutely great. Making new friends and working and training together, I felt really respected. I started to feel like a role model.
Then Philipa asked me if I wanted to go to a conference run by the World Health Organisation in Romania with Lumos. I worked with Lumos and we ran a group together for young people with learning disabilities who had been in institutions. Then I supported the young people to speak at the conference. The young people were happy I was there supporting them. I was a role model. I didn’t take over. I supported them to speak for themselves. I also spoke at the conference and said, ‘Listen to us!’
Next I went to the Czech Republic, then Bulgaria, Moldova, Croatia, Northern Ireland, Brussels, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and Serbia! In all these countries I was training professionals to work better with children and young people with learning disabilities and supporting the young people to speak up for themselves. Oh and I went to America on my holidays… twice! I couldn’t do that before as I didn’t have the confidence or the money!
When I went to these countries it got me thinking that if I talk to people with learning disabilities in the UK who had lived in institutions, they could tell me about their experience of leaving institutions, what worked and what could be better. I could use this research to share with people with learning disabilities in Eastern Europe and to train professionals in these countries.
I want to tell you about Croatia now. Catherine, another person with learning disabilities who works at CHANGE and me went on our own to a self advocacy conference in Croatia. I felt so proud that we were breaking down barriers. Other people with learning disabilities aren’t used to seeing people with learning disabilities on our own. They’re used to seeing us with support workers. Everyone said, ‘Where’s your support worker?’ I said, ‘We haven’t got one, we are proper paid workers’. At first people didn’t believe us, then they did. I think they started to question themselves, why aren’t we doing the same? Why don’t we have a proper paid job? Catherine and me were role models and we got the people with learning disabilities at the conference to question and believe in themselves. They started to ask us a lot of questions.
This Saturday coming, Catherine, myself and Philipa are going to Bangkok. This is the furthest place we’ve ever been. Catherine and me are training 40 people from across the world including from across Africa and South America who are working for an organisation called CBM. We’re training on Inclusion, employment, how we work at CHANGE and making information accessible. I’m feeling a bit nervous and I’m looking forward to it too. I’ve ordered my money and I’m starting to pack as it’ll be hot. Now we’re planning the training. When we’re there we’re also visiting a national organisation in Thailand for people with learning disabilities. We’re breaking down barriers, getting people to believe more in people with learning disabilities and what we can do.
I feel I’ve got a lot of power and self confidence now. I don’t feel scared and I believe I am making a difference across the world. People are seeing people with learning disabilities working and running training. This proves that we can have a piad job. We can run training and we are role models. People aren’t used to seeing people with learning disabilities in power. We’re breaking down barriers.
My message to you is this; I am a person with learning disabilities coming from nowhere with no power and no self respect. I didn’t know about my human rights. Now look what what I can do! I feel fired up! I feel I have power. I am a powerful leader. I am really making a difference! Other people with learning disabilities can achieve great things too. Just look at what we can do!