A guest blog by Erin Fahey & Shaun Webster
People with learning disabilities can’t achieve anything.
You could employ them, but it will take too much time to make all of the adjustments, and it won’t be cheap, think of all the extra support you need to get. It’s just not worth the hassle.
Shaun Webster has heard it all before. Good for nothing, too slow, not capable. Stick to sweeping floors, at least it’s paid. The problem with Shaun is, he didn’t listen. He wanted more than that, he was worth more than that, and he was going to prove it.
Today, he did.
Today, Shaun has become a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty the Queen and her Government, in recognition of his tireless campaigning over the past 12 years for the equal rights of all people with learning disabilities across the World.
During his time at CHANGE Shaun has gone from a quiet young man low in confidence to an outspoken, confident role model, inspiring other people with learning disabilities to stand up and be counted, and live the lives they choose.
On the eve of the public announcement of his award, I sat down with Shaun to take a moment to look back at that journey and what he wants to see change in the future.
If you sat down and looked back at your life, what would be your top five best bits?
Having a job where people respect me
Being part of something bigger than myself
Being a role model to children with learning disabilities, to get them to believe in themselves
Becoming a Dad and a Grandad
The first time I moved in on my own and started to make decisions for myself.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to be a movie critic!
How did your teachers feel about that?
Then didn’t take it seriously, they didn’t really give me any careers advice, they didn’t think jobs were for people with learning disabilities. They never really talked about having a job.
How was your first experience of working life?
I worked in a hotel as a Porter, I enjoyed it because I was meeting new people and earning my first wage, I felt like a proper adult then. I thought now I’m making money for myself, I could go on holidays and go out. Before I had that I felt quite isolated, so it was great! Having my own wage made me feel independent and happier, like a proper worker. I didn’t want to volunteer I didn’t want to rely on others, I wanted to do my own thing and be my own man. I’ve worked since my early 20’s.
In 2003 you started working at CHANGE. Can you remember how you felt when you first started working here?
I felt a bit overwhelmed. I had never seen so many people with learning disabilities before, especially in a job! I hadn’t really met any other people with learning disabilities before. I was a bit worried about being able to do the job but I had some experience through Keyring of doing presentations but I was nervous. I was a lot quieter then, I’m not quiet now!
I was worried about my memory and scared CHANGE wouldn’t understand me, but they give me time – now they tell me to take time off because I work too hard!
How do you think you have developed over the 12 years of working here?
I feel I am more outspoken and confident, I listen to people a lot because they trust me. I think I am a good role model and I support people. I’m not shy anymore! (Erin agrees) my reading and writing is better too.
Do you think you would be the person you are today if you didn’t have a job?
I think I would be very timid, isolated and lonely and I wouldn’t have a voice. The best thing about CHANGE is that I can challenge people in a way that is professional.
What are the most memorable bits of your job?
One of my best memories is when I went to Croatia with Catherine. Philipa wanted to come with us but we said, no, we can do this for ourselves! Everyone there asked us where our support worker was. We saw their faces just drop when we said we didn’t have one, it was amusing! We were trailblazers!
The first time I ever worked abroad, I had never travelled further than Skegness! I went to Romania with Philipa, it was really really good! I felt like people listened to me and it really showed people co-working. To me it was like going to another World! I’d never even been on a plane. It set me off, I ended up going to America after that!
A month ago, you got a letter in the post from the government, how did you feel when you realised what it said?
(Shaun laughs) at first I thought it was a joke, I thought you were winding me up Erin! I took it to show my Mum and she said this is really serious. I felt light headed, I thought I might collapse! I was happy and proud, and then I thought why me?! Then it sunk it and I felt really proud. Not telling anyone has been really hard.
Why do you think the government might think that what you do is important?
I am very passionate about what I believe in. I am outspoken and believe what I say. I think what I say to people is real and the work I am doing is making a difference to people, I think I am a good role model. I am equal to other professionals who haven’t got a learning disability.
My Mum says I’m there to kick butt!
How do you think having an MBE will change life for you?
(Shaun laughs again) Do I get a pay rise?!
I think I will be my same old self, but I think people outside of CHANGE will respect me and put me and CHANGE on the map. Usually MBE’s get given to people who climb mountains, not normal people like me.
What message do you think it gives to other people with learning disabilities?
I want it to give other people belief in themselves. What I have been saying for a long time is I am a role model but I want to work to make other people confident and break down their own barriers. I want people to realise what skills they have got.
How do you want to see things change for people with learning disabilities?
I want organisations and the media to take people with learning disabilities more seriously for the skills they have, not just tokenistic things. CHANGE helped show me skills I didn’t know I had. Lots of people with learning disabilities have hidden skills. I want other people to have that chance too.
What would your message be to other people will learning disabilities who have ambitions to do big things?
I believe I can do this. Never stop believing in yourself, don’t let other people tell you that you can’t do it.
If you’ve got something you want to do, then do it.
My Dad said to me I would never had a job, never have kids and never do anything. I proved him wrong. I’ve got everything I wanted in life and I got it myself. It wasn’t easy but I got there. I got the job I always wanted to have.
To finish on a personal note, both on behalf of myself and CHANGE we are incredibly proud of Shaun for achieving this recognition. This isn’t a tokenistic award, it isn’t just given to fill a quota. It is given to people who have made a difference, who have worked tirelessly for others for something they are passionate about and believe in. Shaun Webster MBE is all of these things. He genuinely cares about the lives of people with learning disabilities, he wants everyone to live the lives they want, just like everyone else.
Of course at CHANGE, we’ve known how great Shaun is for a long time, and we are so glad that the country has now recognised that too.
Shaun’s MBE shouldn’t just be an inspiration for people with a learning disability, it should be an inspiration to all of us, that it doesn’t matter how many times people beat you down, we can all achieve great things if we really put our minds to it.