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Support group helps people make the forward steps in their lives

Meet a West Cumbrian special needs group who are breaking down barriers through laughter and learning to find their place in the community

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GIVING SUPPORT: Harry Brannigan, left, and Nigel Geldard at the Stepping Stone 2 group meeting at Helena Thompson Museum, Workington

 “I see myself as no different from them,” says Harry Brannigan, whose white hair and goatee belies his youthful face and enthusiasm.

The earring-sporting 59-year-old former drummer is more like a cool uncle than an authority figure.

He co-ordinates a West Cumbrian special needs group that fills the antiquated quiet of Workington’s Helena Thompson Museum with uproarious laughter.

When asked his formal title, Harry merely shrugs and smiles (he doesn’t like titles).

He laughs often and heartily, shouting out catchphrases from comedy show Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere, much to the group’s amusement.

The lack of formality is key. The members have a say in what they want to do. They also want to be here.

The freedom to be yourself and to express yourself are fundamental to the ethos of the Stepping Stone 2 community project.

The group’s experience of the educational system and of some other facilities is very different.

One group member was so institutionalised that he would habitually ask for permission to go to the toilet. He is in his late 40s.

Harry, who runs the sessions on a shoestring, says: “When it comes to business one of the easiest groups to keep on in education is special needs.

“People with special needs don’t always have the ability to say ‘I don’t want to be involved with that: I would rather be involved with something else’.

“One of the things that comes through quite a lot – and this happens in some of educational facilities – is that the right to be who you are is put on the back burner while you do what the tutor says.”

Group member Jacqueline Bell, 48, of Moorclose, puts it more succinctly: “They try to run my life!”

The existing system, Harry believes, is far too formal and needs to be reformed.

He says: “People with learning difficulties and mental health issues should have a greater say in how courses are run and developed.”

The appeal of these sessions is that the group can speak freely and frankly about the challenges and prejudices they face.

Harry, who has a background in training and development and social work, says: “This is about a group of people who have been in social care for a lot of years and wanted a bit of control.

“They wanted to be accepted as people who are different but still have a lot to offer.

“This gives them a chance to talk and to find solutions.

“We use the sessions as a platform and as means for people not feeling uncomfortable about expressing their views and what is wrong with the system. After all, it’s the people who use the system who are best placed to tell you what’s wrong with it.”

One of the greatest of barriers is political correctness which, ironically, was developed to protect the sensitivities of minority groups.

“I would kick it out completely,” says Harry. “It makes people frightened to say anything at all to someone who has mental health issues or learning difficulties, so they become even more isolated.”

Certainly you will find it in short supply here, and the last thing the group want or need is people telling them what they can and can’t say.

And if the group members don’t like the way you speak to them, they will tell you.

Raymond Gill, 51, of Whitehaven, who has Down’s syndrome, did just that when a stranger shouted “baldy” at him in Wigton.

“At least I’m not fat, ” retorted the Liverpool football supporter, with a few expletives thrown.

The group may chuckle at the incident but Harry is trying to encourage them to find less aggressive and more positive ways to respond.

One of the most popular activities is role play, which sees members re-enacting roles from The Woolpack pub featured on the ITV soap Emmerdale.

These games may be fun but there is a serious element as they help the group to deal with issues they are likely to encounter in everyday life.

In one of the sessions, Raymond played a man who drank too much, refused to wash up and became aggressive when confronted about his inconsiderate behaviour. Meanwhile Mark Pearson, 48, of Frostoms Road, Workington, played the housemate struggling to cope with him.

Harry says: “It is about life issues, about things they can’t deal with or overcome. What came out of that was ways of dealing with people you don’t necessarily get on with.”

Harry says he does not feel distinct from the group he helps; he has experience of some of the problems they face.

He tells of how he was driving home from Bankfield, a day service for people with learning disabilities run by Cumbria Care, when he had a “weird turn”. He was on the brink of a breakdown caused by stress.

He went to the doctor and did something that many people suffering from mental health problems have done because of the stigma associated with it – he apologised.

He now accepts that mental illness can be every bit as debilitating and serious as physical injury. You just can’t see the breaks because they’re on the inside.

But his ordeal has, he feels, better equipped him to help others, including those in his group.

He recalls: “I really thought I knew chapter and verse how to deal with this, but I didn’t really understand until I touched the void myself. It enhanced the way I work.

“This is something that can happen to anybody and everybody, and mental health problems are growing.

“Many people with learning difficulties struggle with anxiety and experience breakdowns but it blows me away every time to see them smile again.”

The group has received support from charities and organisations including the Cumbria Community Foundation, the Helena Thompson Museum, the European Social Fund and Cumbria CVS.

Have your say

It's great to see such a good project making a difference in peoples lives.

Posted by Paul C on 24 May 2013 at 20:24

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