To mark Disability History Month - and of course our 30th Anniversary! - we have been enjoying looking back at the history of SWALLOW, and how life has changed for people with learning disabilities through the last three decades.
In the beginning
As you may know, SWALLOW became a charity back in 1993. A group of local people with learning disabilities wanted to have more choice and control in their lives, so together with some supporters, they formed SWALLOW. Our name reflects their ambitions – South West Action for Learning and Living Our Way (previously ‘South Wansdyke Learning and Living Our Way’).
Much work had been done before becoming a charity, back in 1992, members of an ‘interest group’ raised funds to employ people with learning disabilities as Office Support Workers. SWALLOW has been striving to create employment opportunities for their members for over three decades.
At around this time, people with learning disabilities were finally moving out of larger institutions into homes in the community here in the UK. Our SWALLOW founders also wanted to live in the community just like everyone else. They also wanted a change from the old day centres that they knew before – something more tailored to their own needs and abilities.
Base House opened in 1993, supported by the Sperring Trust, and was our very first independent living training home. SWALLOW has supported hundreds of people at Base House since then, to gain the skills that set them up for their adult lives. For many, coming to Base House is their first experience of staying away from the family home, and doing things for themselves.
Other positive developments were happening around this time. The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in British law. Its aim was to end the discrimination faced by many disabled people and to guarantee their civil rights.
In 1997, our Redfield Road supported living service was built and SWALLOW members were very excited to move into their brand new homes, each with a flat to call their own. Over the years SWALLOW has been proud to hear a lot of people say ‘SWALLOW helped me to get my own front door key.’
As the charity grew, we needed a bigger base and in 2001 SWALLOW moved to the Old Engine House in Westfield. This now provides a centre for both activities and administration.
In 2005 the Mental Capacity Act was passed in law. This stipulated that every adult, whatever their disability, has the right to make their own decisions wherever possible. Things were getting more and more positive in UK law for people with learning disabilities around this time.
Developments at SWALLOW grew apace during the 2000’s. We launched our Work Skills Enterprise Scheme in 2007, enabling people get experience on their journey towards employment. Due to demand, we opened our second supported living space, Hawthorns, in 2009. 2010 saw our very first, and ever-popular, Boogie Nights dance session, as well as Drama and Cookery at Chilcompton.
All of SWALLOW’s developments over the years have come from working closely with our members, asking them what they want to achieve and developing services that help them to get there.
2014 was another big year for SWALLOW – we opened our very first café in the heart of the community in Radstock, as a training opportunity for our members. We also opened a third supported living scheme, right here in Westfield. Despite the Covid pandemic, SWALLOW also secured a second café at the Hive Community Centre in Peasedown St John!
This is just a brief snapshot of our progress and does not account for the hundreds of individuals that we have had the pleasure of working with over the years – there have been many, many success stories!
Nationally over the last couple of decades, there have been lots of fantastic developments happening as well. The very first UK mayor with a learning disability, Gavin Harding, was appointed in Selby, West Yorkshire. James Martin became the first actor with Down’s Syndrome to win an Oscar. Ralph & Katie was the first BBC prime time TV show to feature two lead actors with learning disabilities. People with learning disabilities have much greater freedoms, visibility and increased rights now than they did before the 1990’s.
Looking to the future
However, as we look to the future, we know there is still so much more to achieve. The following statistics show that there is still huge inequality for people with learning disabilities in the UK today.
Still only 5.1% of people with learning disabilities are in paid employment in England, despite 60% wanting to work.
Even before Covid-19, people with a learning disability faced serious health inequalities and had a significantly lower life expectancy.
Shockingly, a 2019 study by Mencap suggests that 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday.
According to Mencap, as many as 9 out of 10 people with learning disabilities have been a victim on a hate crime and/or harassment.
We know that these are upsetting statistics, but it makes everyone at SWALLOW even more eager to continue our work I the community, increasing understanding of the skills and talents of people with learning disabilities.
If you support SWALLOW you will help us to build a fairer society for people with learning disabilities for the next 30 years and beyond.
Please visit our Support Us page to see all the ways that you can get involved!
The first residents at our Base House, Redfield Road being built, opening our Radstock Cafe.