Young people with learning difficulties are at risk of “significant social isolation”, with the risk increasing as they approach adulthood, according to a new report delivered through a ground-breaking research programme.
The young people interviewed for the report “unanimously” said they needed practical help, emotional support and communication skills to maintain friendships.
Eight young people with learning difficulties were employed and trained to take part as peer researchers for the Young People and Friendships report, which was due to be launched at the Welsh assembly today (Thursday).
The peer researchers worked with 85 other young people with learning difficulties who were aged between 14 and 28 and lived in the Gwent region of south-east Wales.
All the young people were at significant risk of social isolation and almost all did not see friends outside either structured activities or education settings, with friendships “dependent upon local segregated services”.
They faced a “complex web of barriers” to having a full social life, including discrimination within the education system; inaccessible public transport; and difficulties in using communication tools such as mobile phones, with some prevented from using social media by their parents.
In some cases, social media and online gaming increased isolation and disconnection with the local neighbourhood, particularly among boys and young men, but it also enabled some friendships to be maintained,
About two-thirds of the 85 participants in the research had experienced bullying during the transition years from childhood to adulthood (14 to 25), with most believing they were picked on because they were disabled.
One participant in the study said: “Sometimes bad friends upset me, they pull faces at me and I feel like they hate me. They sometimes used to pick on me in school, use bad language.”
Another said: “They abuse you, harass you and use you. They put pressure on you and put you in the middle. Boys will fight you and bully you and pretend that it is all a joke.”
Participants felt unable to do anything about bullying or hate crime in the local community, other than avoiding certain areas, not going out or only going out with their parents.
The report says: “None of the participants wanted to criminalise other young people, but they did want non disabled young people to be better informed about hate crime, respect and [to be] more knowledgeable about disability.”
They also wanted it to be easier to report disability hate crime.
The report also found that young people with learning difficulties did not have the same opportunities to undertake work experience at the same age as their non-disabled peers.
The peer researchers were clear that segregating young disabled people was “morally wrong and creates second class citizens”.
One of the peer researchers said: “I feel that being referred to [as] ‘special’… is a derogatory term. But people have got used to it.”
Among its conclusions, the report says that health and social care services should do more to fund support for building and maintaining friendships.
And it calls for research into the effectiveness of the teaching of independent living skills “as a matter of urgency” because of difficulties highlighted by the research.
The research was part of the five-year, £5 million Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) research programme and was led by the Swansea-based social enterprise CARP Collaborations, in partnership with The Building Bridges project.
It is believed to be the world’s first major research programme led by disabled people and should eventually fund about 40 pieces of research and pilot projects.
Picture: One of the events held as part of the research