I may be slightly misquoting the lyric (and if so I apologise, Suzie), but the message of the song is clear – it is about acceptance and a desire to be loved. As we approach Christmas, the time of peace and goodwill to all, it seems right to reflect on why acceptance and love can be hard to find in what I call ‘service land’.
For those of you reading this who don’t know who Suzie Fothergill is, have a look at the Skills for People website. Suzie is many things – a mother, a Quality Checker and the first Chair of the Association of Quality Checkers. I had seen Suzie at many conferences talking about Quality Checking and the power of personal experience and was intrigued to learn more about how we could use this at Choice Support. A small group of staff from Choice Support and ‘service users’ (I use that term deliberately at this point) set off to Newcastle to spend a couple of days with Suzie and her colleagues to explore the idea of ‘allowing’ (which is how at this stage in my story I conceived the process) people we support to take a lead in measuring the quality of what we do. I had no idea that those two days would have such a profound effect on me and shape the future of Choice Support for the next decade.
Over the course of the two days Suzie and her team forced me, in the nicest possible way, to hold a mirror up to myself and take a long hard look at my words, my actions and my fundamental beliefs about people with learning disabilities. I was challenged to think about why ‘service’s’ don’t ask what people think, and simply make assumptions instead. We assume because deep down we believe that we know best – of course we do as we are paid for our expertise! I left Newcastle with a group of people, all quirky and complex in our own unique ways, and tried never to use the term ‘service user’ again.
The Newcastle trip triggered a chain of events at Choice Support that now means the people we support shape their own lives, influence how we work and speak out nationally about things that matter. We have invested in an involvement team to advise us and train our staff. This team includes more than 70 people with learning disabilities employed to take part in our work and support self advocacy throughout the organisation. People with learning disabilities are Trustees on the Choice Support Board and oversee and govern what we do. We know we don’t always get it right, but now we recognise this. We pay people with more experience, skill and knowledge than us to help us get it right.
Over the past 10 years Choice Support has been doing its best to never assume what people want, but to simply ask. Sounds so easy, like so many things, but to do this and mean it is a very different matter. I have come to understand that those of us who have worked in services for many years have a very deep-rooted belief that we are right, and know best. Understanding this, saying it out loud and admitting it to myself has helped me move forward and check my own behaviour. I know that taking the time to listen, to talk, to understand and be more forgiving is what we need more of, and yet it is something we can shy away from. My experience tells me it is because we are scared – scared to hear things that we don’t understand and have no answers to or immediate solutions for. What the past 10 years have taught me is that we don’t need to have all the answers or solutions. It is OK to be scared about not knowing as there are other people who have more experience and that do know – those with a lived experience. Employing Quality Checkers has moved Choice Support from a position of ‘allowing’ people we support to tell us what they think to wanting and needing to know. It has transformed our governance and re-balanced what we do – only last week at the Choice Support Board meeting a Trustee spoke at length about the value of the Quality Checkers reports and their impact on the work we do as an organisation.
At the Learning Disability England Conference last month, I came across a new word used by Rachel Mason in her presentation. What she was avoiding at all costs was to ‘serviceatise’ the lives of her sons. So, I end where I began, by thanking Suzie for helping me:
And to simply want to listen to everyone’s contribution and let people who know best take the lead.
Sarah Maguire, Managing Director