13 July 2009

Service users help each other to produce personalised support

My contribution to the Social Care Experts' blog 15 July 2009

The success of personalisation depends on service users helping each other to escape dependency and move to independence

I have often been enthused by exciting articles on personalisation, butthere is seldom mention of the models of long-term support that serviceusers need in order to take advantage. Yet disabled people, keen tosupport their peers, have shown the effectiveness of centres forindependent living in supporting less empowered service users to takecontrol of their lives. I have built, over 12 years, a staff team of disabled people working to help service users to have choice and control over their lives and to participate collectively. This team, Leonard Cheshire Disability service user support, was honoured at the Community Care Excellence Network awards in May. Here are some lessons.

As disabled people, we start with an advantage: service users are willing to trust us. They see us as empowered disabled people living and working in the community.

We started as a three-year Lottery-funded training project for service users, to enable them to become more assertive and able to participate. The first courses were based on the social model of disability and the principles of independent living. Soon, those who had attended the training asked to meet again to boost their new feelings of empowerment.

We employed disabled development workers to enable this; they were able to help service users develop their own association and to support them in effective participation – for example by inviting a senior manager to their meetings to raise issues of concern.

Service users identified that some others (mainly in residential services) were still excluded. Three years later a further Lottery application enabled us to employ 10 more disabled people as mentors; working one-to-one with service users, identifying their goals and working towards them. Service users were finally able to gain holistic support for their individual and group empowerment.

Developing this process was neither easy nor cheap – but for many service users, every small step towards independent living is a giant leap. To be truly ready for the opportunities that personalisation offers, hard-to-reach service users need the continued support of their more-experienced peers. Only in this way can they value living day-to-day with personal choice and control.

As one service user wrote after completing her training course: “Every time I see a cabbage it reminds me that I could still have been in the cabbage patch myself, if I hadn’t been persuaded that there was a life for me outside.”

Clare Evans is a disabled social worker who heads the service user support team at Leonard Cheshire Disability