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60 Stories - Enable Link Group

​​​Enable Link Group
 
The Enable Link project was launched in the East Dunbartonshire area in 2007 after the organisation identified a gap in services for young people aged between 12-18 years old with learning disabilities. 
 
Young people with learning disabilities often experience isolation and low self-esteem. Many want to make new friends but often don’t feel as though they can join a mainstream youth group. The aim of the Enable Link project is to facilitate the development of ‘natural friendships’ between young people with and without learning disabilities, so that those with a learning disability can gain confidence through a combination of peer support and participation in social activities.  
 
Enable Link co-ordinator Karen Malley says that the group is based on the belief that genuine friendship has the power to transform lives. The support workers identify common interests between the young people in the early stages, encouraging the friendships and allowing them to develop organically, rather than pairing people up together. Karen believes that this creates less forced, more sustainable friendships for the future.
 
“Some of our young people have now been friends for 3-4​ years and these are real, self-sufficient friendships which have become independent of the group which is amazing. 
 
“They’re hanging out in their free time just like any other teenagers and that’s what this group really wants to achieve. For young people who have a learning disability, the opportunity to get out there and gain confidence and independence by taking part in social activities with their friends, rather than their parents, is hugely important for their personal development and self-esteem.”
 
Eighteen-year-old Liam was encouraged to join the group by his mum when she felt that he was spending too much time in the house. He feels that his confidence has been boosted through his new-found friendships and is able to do things he was reluctant to do before.
 
Said Liam: “I used to stay in the house all the time because I felt awkward when I was out and about, so when I first came here I was really nervous. People were already doing things together and I didn’t know how I would fit in but the peer supporters encouraged me to start off by just saying hi and it happened very quickly after that. 
 
“I never thought I could make friends so easily but I get on well with everyone now. I really enjoy going out and doing the activities with Enable Link. I definitely couldn’t have done that before so the group has definitely changed things for me.”
 
Enable Link further supports the independence of their young people by encouraging them to take on the responsibility of organising their own activities. They not only decide where and when they want to go, they also plan their own fundraising to cover the costs of the activities and even carry out their own risk assessments, a process which Karen believes provides them with a valuable set of life skills.
 
“They really benefit from getting involved in the team work, raising their own money and then budgeting with it. They’re also learning about how to stay safe, identify harmful situations and take responsibility for themselves which is great.”
 
Karen also states that the mainstream young people within the group gain just as much from their involvement as those with learning disabilities do. 
 
“The peer supporters have the opportunity to undertake a one-day training programme where they can develop the skills they need for their role. It gives them the confidence to help others and they get a lot out of knowing they are changing someone’s life for the better. 
 
“But more often than not, they don’t see themselves as helping because they are also gaining friendships. That’s an important aspect of the group’s dynamics because it’s really helping to remove stigma and encourage mainstream youngsters to have a better understanding of people with learning disabilities.” 
 
Fourteen-year-old David joined the group three years ago to support his friend. He quickly found himself peer supporting others, but admits that the process feels so natural that he spends little time focusing on his ‘role’. 
 
“I came along to offer support to my friend Stuart at first because he finds it difficult to fit in with people. Then I met the other members and decided that I wanted to help them too. But now I forget that there are peer supporters and people who need support here because we all just mix in together. I love gaming, which is very popular within the group, so I’ve developed my own good friendships through that. 
 
“I help to encourage friendships by starting or continuing conversations between people and then eventually encouraging them to take the next step by arranging separate activities outside of the group, but I find that’s an easy thing to do because the conversations and activities are often ones I want to take part in as well.”
 
The group participants who have learning disabilities also have an opportunity to progress into a peer supporting role, something which Karen sees happening as a result of them being inspired by their friends.
 
“They are watching what their own peer supporters do and picking up all these great communication skills. Not only do they want to improve on them, they also want to help others in the way they have been helped themselves. They’re really enthusiastic about that and for me, there is nothing better than seeing kids who have started off as shy and nervous, then come so far that they go on to support and inspire the younger kids and filter their experience back down.”

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