What does the word 'conference' make you think? Long days? Lectures? Feeling you really should ‘network’ with lots of people you don’t know? Me too. But Northampton County Council’s June conference to launch its new Charter of Rights was quite different. Read about why.
As I walked in to the Northampton event, several people came up to say hello with big smiles on their faces. They were open and keen to tell us about themselves and their hopes for the future. There was the most positive atmosphere I have ever felt at an official event; a real buzz in the air.
Here are a couple of the people I met:
Paul is an Elvis impersonator. When we met, he was about to give his third concert.
Ben is in his final year at school. He loves railways and dreams of working on steam engines in the future.
Northampton's Charter of Rights for People with Learning Disabilities sets a new standard in commitment and clarity. Written in plain, so-called ‘easy-read’ English, accompanied by images, it makes you ask yourself why all documents designed for the public cannot be this clear.
Sheffield University’s Daniel Dorling said in his book, Injustice: ‘I am very familiar with, in universities, professors using elitist rhetoric, trying to tell others that the world is complicated and only they are able to understand or make sense of it; they say, if you listen, you cannot expect to understand; it takes years they claim; complex words and notions are essential, and they see understandable accounts as ‘one dimensional’ [..] but often a complex account is simple a muddled account’.
What would happen if we banned all jargon and all officials had to express what they mean clearly?
I suspect no single act would create more equality.
The rights described in the charter cover a wide range of areas. At the launch, a large number of local services and agencies signed up to the charter.
The event was run by and for people with learning disabilities. The person introducing all the speakers, Maisie, had a learning disability. A talented group performed a play with music, showing us what rights meant to them. At the end everyone was invited to dance – the Council CEO, senior officials, care workers. Often by lunchtime, conference participants are filing out, slightly grumpy, seeking food. Instead, on this day, we were all elated from taking part – fully taking part.
I was keynote speaker at this event (see below). I thought it could be challenge to prepare and lead interactive discussions as part of the speech which would work for everyone. But in the end it wasn't, because was a truly inclusive event; everyone worked together. It
meant taking part was a pleasure and privilege.
Talking to local officials in the breaks, it was clear how tough their jobs are. They all feared they could become even harder too with new cuts announced that day by the Chancellor. For me this made their commitment to the Charter even more impressive.
Congratulations Northampton Learning Disability Partnership Board and everyone who took part in this life-enhancing event. It leads the way for others. As I said at the end of my speech, what you are doing is brave, bold … and right.
 Dorling, D., 2009 Injustice. Why social inequality persists. Bristol: The Policy Press