Created on 2 June 2017

Scotland’s first national Learning Disability Awards – run by the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD) – took place on in Learning Disability week.   Prizes were handed out in seven categories at the ceremony at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow.   It was a glittering night that celebrated the rarely heard stories and achievements of those with learning disabilities and the people who support them.

The Sport Achievement award went to double world record-breaker Fiona Dawson for her success with the South Ayrshire Swim Team Para Squad.During her swimming career, Fiona has won multiple gold and silver medals in the Special Olympics and the European Down’s Syndrome Championships.  Fiona, 36, is also playing a big part in inspiring the stars of the future by training to become a swimming coach.   She said: “I started swimming at a young age and I grew up to  love the water. I have a goal to help others and I’m getting the opportunity to do that now.”

Kirsty Allan, from Airdrie, Lanarkshire, was the winner in the Youth Achievement category. She was nominated after establishing a youth group where members support others in the community.   One of their projects supported Syrian refugees and included a welcome event, with donations, live music and guest speakers from local support organisations.   Kirsty, 26, commits a lot of her time to helping others. She also volunteers for a Parkinson’s disease charity and runs a social media site that keeps people with disabilities up to date with local events.   She said: “I felt excited when my name was called out as the winner of the award. I really enjoy helping other people.”

Ross Johnstone is a medical laboratory assistant at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie and his work there earned him the Employee Recognition prize.  He started out as a Project SEARCH intern and impressed his team so much he was offered a permanent position.  Four years later, Ross is now a supportive mentor to the current group of interns at the hospital.   Only about seven per cent of people with learning disabilities  Iin Scotland are in employment, so Ross is a real role model for those looking to join the workforce.   The 22 year old said: “I feel very proud of myself and my family and the staff at Monklands are proud of me, too. Everyone was shouting, ‘Go Ross!’ when I won the award. It was very overwhelming.”

Helena Horne’s willingness to go the extra mile saw the Paisley-based support practitioner pick up the Exceptional Frontline Worker award.  She helps with everything from transport and money management to healthy eating and socialising for the people she supports – and she does it all with a sense of humour and a smile on her face.   Helena, 45, said: “You just do your job and try to do it well. We support people with their everyday living, such as banking, shopping, personal care and medication.”

Gillian Corbett, from Dumfries, was named Inspirational Family Carer. She cares for her two adult sons, Chris and Stephen, who both have Fragile X Syndrome and live at home.     Gillian, 57, who is also a passionate campaigner for disability rights, said: “There are thousands of carers across Scotland doing a fantastic job and I feel very humble to be considered as somebody worthy of this award.”

Ian Johnston and Abigail Brydon were joint winners of the Creative Achievement prize.    Abigail, from Fife, is an actor and scriptwriter who starred in her first Edinburgh Fringe Festival production last summer.   She’s now working on several performances for her college and local church and has been described as a credit to her craft.  Abigail, 23, said: “It was a real honour to be nominated. Acting is something I enjoy a lot and I like working with other actors and being inspired.”    Ian is a professional dancer from Glasgow who has performances lined up in Chile, Toronto, Rotterdam and Norway.   He also acts as an advocate for people with learning disabilities on the Our Voice group at Sense Scotland.   Ian said: “It felt brilliant to win the award.”

Dundee volunteer Jason Lyon was a winner in the Social Impact category.   Jason has volunteered with the Tayberry Enterprises Sensory Storytelling Project for three years. His work includes developing learning resources, mentoring apprentices and delivering multisensory stories to people of varying abilities. Jason, 37, said: “Winning the award made me feel grateful and happy.  “I’ve now done my own storybook – hopefully everybody loves it.”

Awards host Sally Magnusson said: “I wish the whole of Scotland could have been at the awards to see what people can do when other folk believe in them.”

SCLD chief Chris Creegan said: “We have witnessed an extraordinary array of talent. A better life for people with learning disabilities is possible but we must raise our expectations and create real opportunities for them.   What these awards demonstrated is that people with learning disabilities have ambition by the bucket-load. We need to match it.”

Does a lack of Vitamin D lead to more births of people with learning disabilities

Created on 24 August 2016

The study by researchers at Glasgow University reported in Wednesday’s Herald that found children conceived during winter months were more likely to have a learning disability makes interesting reading.  Professor Jill Pell, director of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University led the research which looked at information collected by the School Census covering 800,000 Scottish children.

It is too early yet to fully understand what might cause this.  Concerns about the lack of Vitamin D caused by inadequate sunlight have featured regularly in the Scottish health conversation over recent years and it may be that this is indeed the case.  And Professor Pell, thinks that this is the cause.   She says, “”Vitamin D is very important for brain development in the child and the first three months (after conception) are the critical period when the brain develops.”  A lack of Vitamin D in the first 3 months of conception is “the most plausible explanation for the trend”

However the researchers admit they carried out no work on Vitamin D levels in pregnant mothers or any school children.  They are not even able to cite any “human related” research into the effects of reduced Vitamin D levels in pregnancy.

As a result without any serious evidence, we are given a new scare about more people being born with learning disabilities.    At the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, we believe that people with learning disabilities live valued and valuable lives.  There is nothing to be scared about!

We need to be careful in drawing such conclusions  from this type of research.  The research is primarily secondary analysis of existing data.   The quality of the research will depend on the quality of statistics that are being used.   The school census used does not rely on health diagnoses but uses instead diagnoses by a variety of education professionals who are using this information for their own purposes – addressing specific educational challenges.   This is a legitimate aim.  It can help teachers and teaching assistants do better work if they know more about the educational needs of their pupils.  It may also lead to more resources being made available to help in the classroom.

This can in some cases produce a bias in arriving at a “diagnosis” or, more accurately, a “characterisation”.  Many children on the border line will be given a “diagnosis” as this is the route they can get help.

As a result, in 2013 The Scottish school census reports 75,000 children between the ages of 5 and 18 in the categories of “autism, dyslexia and intellectual difficulties”.  This is nearly three times the number of adults who are similarly categorised.   The 2016 Keys to Life statistics reports only 27,000 for all adults over 16 in similar categories throughout Scotland.

The reason for the discrepancy in numbers after people leave school is not because of a cure but because the vast majority of this group need little or no help after leaving school.

With this in mind there might be something about the Scottish school system that this research is touching on..  One possible explanation is that children conceived in December through to March will be born in October through to December and thus enter the school system as the youngest in their peer group.   Those born in January through to March will be at an advantage compared to these other children having 9 -12 months developmental growth of a head start.

Author Malcolm Gladwell explores this issue in his book, Outliers.  In it he finds in many areas of life those born in the early months of the year have advantages in many areas from ice hockey to academia.  His findings came from all across the USA, Canada and many other countries with plenty of sunlight all year round.

Principally Gladwell’s argument was that early success in class led to praise, encouragement and more attention from coaches and teachers.   Children who were stronger, older or just more rounded by a few extra months life were likely to get an early start and hang on to it.  It wasn’t universal some children in the later months were able to catch up and even overtake their older peers.  But some would be left behind.

If this is right, then Professor Pell’s study has found something much different and more disturbing.  Children who have need of extra help because they are just a little bit younger are not getting it in the class.  They are being overlooked and eventually being labelled in order to have these needs addressed.  Perhaps GIRFEC is not delivering for every child and we need to look harder at what is happening to our youngest in every school.

We don’t need a panic about learning disability.  As we said above, people with learning disabilities live valued and valuable lives.  We think the findings of this study could be less about more prescriptions for Vitamin D tablets but a more concerted attempt by Scottish educational facilities to address the needs of all children, with perhaps added focus on ALL children born in the later months of the year.  That way every child can make the most of the opportunities that they will have throughout their lives.


Created on 11 February 2016

It with great sadness that we heard that James Rankin has died peacefully in his sleep.  James was a long term member of the Learning Disability James RankinAlliance Scotland and helped to make the Alliance what it is today.  He was well known for his great sense of humour and passionate sense of justice for those who were less able to speak up than him.  He took part in many of our initiatives such as training other people with learning disabilities to campaign or talking about day centre closures.  This picture shows James at a 2011 protest in Glasgow about cuts to support services.

James often told the story about how after his parents died it was the help of Key Community Supports that saved his life.  He was slowly fading away in the family home, when he was offered support from Key.  He told us this gave his life new purpose and he would always find ways of paying them back by supporting their work and challenging those were undermining social care.

The world is a poorer place for the passing of James.  Rest In Peace, Friend.