Written By: Saba Salman 24/06/15
Shaun Webster, who has learning disabilities, campaigns for learning disabled people to be much more visible in our communities at home and abroad.
Shaun Webster endured frequent ridicule from colleagues when he worked in a warehouse, sweeping the floor. In the 12 years since quitting the job, Webster, 43, who has a learning disability, has devoted himself to campaigning for equal opportunities for people with learning disabilities. As an international project worker for the Leeds-based human rights charity Change, he is a sought-after speaker and trainer in the UK and overseas, advising government departments on inclusive employment, promoting access to sex and health education for learning disabled people and on training health, social care and charity professionals in independent living and disability rights.
Webster’s efforts were recognised in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours list with an MBE. He describes the award as an official “two fingers” to his ex-colleagues at the warehouse. While the abuse he suffered there was mostly verbal, he recalls the occasional box being lobbed at him and a “joke” when he was bound with sticky tape and a rag stuffed in his mouth.
“I was being bullied,” he recalls. “I thought: ‘I will be nothing.’ I felt tiny, small.” When he reported the abuse, regarded by the perpetrators as workplace tomfoolery, it would stop temporarily, then resume. Webster says: “What was the point? I’d get called a ‘grass’.”
The experience clearly shaped his outlook. Equal employment has become one of his areas of expertise at Change. While England’s general unemployment rate is falling, the number of adults with severe learning disabilities who do not have jobs is increasing. (In 2013-14, only 6.8% of learning disabled people were in work, compared with 7% in 2012-13). And support to help people with learning disabilities into work is at risk from cuts to local authority budgets.
Webster criticises the government for failing to take a holistic approach to the issue. “Paid employment and independent living aren’t seen together – but they are one. I’ve been working most of my life, I need that to be independent. The money gives me opportunities to do things I always wanted to do – live on my own, go to the pub, go shopping, do everything that people do,” he says.
Change’s model of inclusive employment means people with learning disabilities are hired in senior, salaried roles and supported by non-learning disabled “co-workers”. This method, says Webster, means staff develop skills and interests, instead of being paid lip service and shoehorned into menial jobs. “People with learning disabilities want a proper job,” he says, “not just pushing trolleys, but the attitude is ‘you have a job – be grateful’.”
His passion for raising people’s aspirations is also rooted in his childhood. The special school to which he was sent at eight was “a waste of time”, he says, with no careers advice. At age 14, he recalls being “knocked for six” when his father, from whom he is estranged, called him “a dummy”. “He said I’d never get a job, never live on my own or have relationships.” Webster has accomplished all this, and more. He and his childhood sweetheart had three children before they separated. He is now a grandfather of two toddlers and lives in community-based supported housing.
His current focus is a partnership between Change and the children’s charity Lumos, founded by JK Rowling. The Europe-wide project supports the closure of long-stay institutions for young people with learning disabilities and aims to improve services in the community.
In the UK, since the Winterbourne View scandal four years ago, the government has been criticised for delays in moving people out of long-stay units and into the community. Up to 3,000 people should have moved by last June under a deadline set by ministers, but there has been little progress.
“They’re doing it faster in Europe, building small group homes and getting people into the community, here they’re dragging their feet, still putting money into care homes. Other countries are less scared, ready to work with people with learning disabilities,” says Webster.
So what’s the problem? “Attitude,” he says. “There are lots of examples of community living, like KeyRing [a supported living accommodation provider], but it’s not rolled out.” As for commissioners still placing people in institutional-style environments instead of community-based care, “they’re just stuck in their little world, they can’t see what’s out there”.
Recently, he visited the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Moldova to train health and social care professionals on de-institutionalisation and to mentor young people in care to become better self-advocates. “A young lady from Bulgaria said ‘I want to be like you’. She used to live in an institution and wanted to be a role model. Now she mentors children moving out of institutional care,” he says.
Does Webster sense a tipping point in disability rights, with the emergence of grassroots campaigns, such as the Learning Disability Alliance England and the Justice for LB campaign, to strengthen the rights of individuals and their families, or the self-advocacy group People First England? “It’s starting,” he says, “but we need to make it louder … people want to have proper jobs, to live in the community and not be vulnerable or patronised.”
To challenge the status quo, says Webster, people with learning disabilities – there are 1.4 million in the UK – should be more visible in communities. Politicians must be engaged, he adds. “Before they become MPs, they need to be trained by people with learning disabilities about issues like hate crime, being isolated, living on benefits.” Webster has no interest in being an MP but says a political party of people with learning disabilities might be an idea: “We need our own party to get our voice across to government because we’re the experts in real life.”
Championing the fact that people with learning disabilities can, should, and do have the same “real life” as everyone else, with a job, home and family life, is what drives Webster. He says becoming a father and grandfather are among his proudest moments, along with the MBE. His 12-year-old daughter, who lives with Webster’s former partner in Sheffield, admires her father’s achievements. “My daughter says, ‘My dad works to make things better for people with learning disabilities’”.
The stereotyping of people with disabilities as either scroungers or superheroes is, he says, frustrating: “You have the extremes, but there’s a whole bunch in the middle ground. I have a learning disability, but it doesn’t define me.”