Mencap: Working Together for Change Conference – Friday 23rd March
I’ve been to many conferences, both youth work based and IT, and I’ve yet to sense the buzz on entering a room as I did today coming into the registration hall of the Mencap conference.
Mencap put a lot of work into welcoming people into the conference, from the front door right up to the conference hall itself. The room was well laid out with exhibitors around the outside edges of the main room and round tables for delegates to sit and discuss the points raised over the course of the day.
Technology was in evidence yet not overpowering so- I was delighted to see that Twitter was actively encouraged with the tag #wt4c set aside (lots of relevant comments added throughout the day) and people on hand to explain technology to new converts or people just wanting to have a go.
The conference opened with several big names introducing people to the conference including Paul Clark (UTV presenter) who was to be our conference chair for the day as well as Edwin Poots (Minister for Health and Social Services), with Mencap NI well represented by Maureen Piggot (Mencap NI Director), Brian Ambrose and Annette Crawford (Mencap NI Committee Co-chairs).
The conference then turned to three keynote speakers who discussed their chosen subject before the floor turned to a roundtable discussion to allow the delegates to speak their mind before the next speaker took their turn. I thought that this was a brilliant way to allow everyone to feed their thoughts on the subject matter to the organisers without going into a drawn out Q&A session that would only allow a few to speak.
The first speaker was Dr Cliona Cummings who spoke about educating people on environmental factors as early in a child’s life as possible- we need to educate people before the child has even started to grow in the womb and to carry the messages on throughout the child’s life. Early intervention really is key. The picture she showed of a brain scan of a child aged three who had suffered extreme neglect compared to a ‘normal’ child will stay with me for a long time
The second speaker was Gerry Conway speaking on supporting and strengthen families. He introduced the new family support framework that is being put in place to talk and support families at a local level to build up to trust level thinking. One of the members in my discussion group rightly raised the point of rural planning and provision and the danger that if everyone is talking the signal to noise ratio might be too low to actually benefit anyone. Another point was that of money following targets rather than the child being at the centre of any provision.
The final speaker was Dr Noel Purdy who spoke on teaching the teachers of tomorrow at Stranmillis and that every trainee teacher passing through the college is now taught about Special Education Needs and how to support children. He also highlighted an exercise carried out in Australia were parents of children with SENs came into the teaching colleges and spoke to students to explain exactly what the needs and difficulties actually are. He is wanting to speak to any parents here who would like to do the same. It’s all about teachers and parents working together and keeping communication lines open – something that can only get harder as teacher workloads continue to increase.
After lunch (food was excellent) the interactive theme of the conference continued with a panel session that was opened to the floor for questions. The theme of the discussion quickly became the provision for speech and language theory which I discovered wasn’t seen as a basic educational right of the child. There is also some dispute over where provision lies (either with health or education boards) and that there is no legal requirement for a replacement therapist to be assigned if a therapist leaves their post. The quote of the day for the floor came from John, a Mencap trustee, when he said that one year loss of speech therapy was actually like losing four years given the amount of progress and learning lost.
The conference then broke into workshops and I ended up in the session entitled Planning for my Future. This covered two topics: personal relationships and education transition.
The section on personal relationships was covered by two parents from Mencap Wales whose children had fallen in love and discussed the problems that they faced- mainly from other people, and the discussions that needed to happen with both young people to ensure that they were aware of everything that a serious relationship entails. I wish the couple the best of luck for the future and can see wedding bells on the horizon.
The second part of the workshop was taken by the North West Regional College and explained the partnership that they had put in place with Mencap to support young people with learning disabilities into further education and into work placements. Since I have quite a few parents going through this at the moment I was delighted to hear that there are transition officers available to guide families through this and that both the schools and Mencap can signpost parents to get the help they need.
After the workshop it was back to the main room for a performance by the very talented Something Special, a musical group from the North West who performed Over the Rainbow to a standing ovation.
The day’s conference was then reviewed by Maureen who covered a few highlights of the day. One of the most impressive figures was that the twitter feed had reached approximately 43,000 people worldwide- pretty good going for a conference in Northern Ireland.
Jim Glover (National Mencap Chairman) then drew the conference to close thanking presenters, attendees and organisers for such a great day. He is visiting both days of the conference to find out what Mencap NI is like on the ground from the people that make up the various organisations.
There were over 200 people attending today’s conference and the day absolutely flew by in a mixture of brilliant speakers and discussions. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s session (190 registered) as it has a community focus and I feel that it will be another excellent day.