Learning disabilities: Policy aims to boost life chances

Hayden Rustage volunteers for the National Trust in Carmarthenshire.

As a welcome assistant, he gives people guided tours around the Grade II listed Newton House and helps out around Dinefwr Park.

Hayden, 26, has autism but since he started volunteering three years ago, he said he had become a very different person.

A new programme aims to improve lives for thousands like Hayden in key areas such as employment and housing.

Hayden said being given the opportunity to volunteer and meet people has improved his confidence.

“I‘ve become much more of a fun character,” he said.

“I make guests laugh, I try to make it a positive experience for everybody and I have a fun time doing it. I love it here, it‘s so fascinating.

“I don‘t know where I‘d be if I wasn‘t here. I don‘t know what I‘d be doing. I definitely wouldn‘t be speaking to people like I am now.

“Now I‘m more open and welcoming which is a far cry from when I first started here.”

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Autism is on a spectrum that can go left or right, up and down – it's a bit like the lift in Willy Wonka, it can go anyway you can imagine

Hayden Rustage

Hayden says that more employment opportunities are needed for people with learning disabilities as well as more awareness generally in society too.

“There‘s something called ‘fearful discrimination‘. People don‘t know what to say to people with learning disabilities because they think they might offend or they worry ‘can I say this?‘

“If people don‘t know what a learning disability or autism is, people can assume things but the fact is that each person with a learning disability or autism is individual.

“You find they have an individual character – there is no exact personality. I‘ve met some who could turn even the most boring job into something we couldn‘t stop laughing over. It‘s not what the myths say.

“Autism is on a spectrum that can go left or right, up and down – it‘s a bit like the lift in Willy Wonka, it can go anyway you can imagine.”

Hayden, who lives a bus ride away from the estate near Llandeilo, says that trains and public transport should be more “autism-friendly” and that people working in the health service need more training around dealing with people who have learning disabilities.

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Learning disability

Key figures in Wales

Welsh Government, 2018

There are around 75,000 adults with learning disabilities in Wales but only 15,000 are known to social services, according to a new report from the Welsh Government.

It has launched a new programme to tackle some of the issues that Hayden – and others with learning disabilities in Wales – face.

The Improving Lives Programme focuses on five key areas – early years, housing, social care, health and education, skills and employment.

Huw Irranca-Davies AM, the minister for children, older people and social care, said work needs to be done to ensure all services are person-centred and flexible to meet individual needs.

“We will ensure services are seamless and work together, which will hopefully benefit everyone, whilst ensuring those who need additional support experience a level of equality when accessing services,” he said.

A ministerial advisory group has also been created.

Sara Pickard, from Mencap Cymru, says that people with disabilities can feel isolated in society so it was important to give them the same opportunities as anyone else.

“I think people with a learning disability need to be able to make choices for themselves,” she said. “

“I think that‘s really important because when you give someone else who doesn‘t have a disability a choice in things, why not also give that choice to someone who has a learning disability?

“I think it‘s unfair if you give choices to one group of people but not another.”

Hayden will also continue to raise awareness.

“There was a time when I was ashamed of having autism because I didn‘t want people knowing about it, I was trying to keep quiet about it. But the last 12 months, I‘ve become much more open about it,” he added.

“Some people will try to hide it because they think that if they reveal it then people will look down on them and might have assumptions made about them. The fact is, we‘re all just individuals.”