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​Speak4Yourself Project 

In 2007, ENABLE Scotland launched the Speak4Yourself project across Scotland with the aim of bringing together groups of young people, aged between 12 and18, both with and without learning disabilities. 

The project largely promotes the self-advocacy of young people who have learning disabilities and encourages them to speak up for their rights and participate in conventional youth activities through the support of their mainstream peers.

The groups also advise ENABLE Scotland on issues of importance to young people, shaping the organisation’s campaign agenda, as well as actively challenging local and national policy makers by appealing for change on pressing matters. 

Bryony Mellars co-ordinates the West Dunbartonshire branch of the group and explains that although she is relatively new to the post, she was instantly struck by the drive and enthusiasm of its young people. 

“They were already working on the Help Us Be Spontaneous (HUBS) campaign when I started working here. It focuses on reducing the length of notice people with a disability have to give to a train company before they want to travel. They feel it’s important to have the same opportunities to be spontaneous as other teenagers do. There is a terrific buzz around the campaign and the group are very passionate and committed to making a positive change.”

Despite supervising the group single-handed, Bryony is quick to admit that the dedication of its participants contributes to its smooth running and that they are self-sufficient in deciding both what they want to do and how they achieve their goals. 

“What I admire most about the group is how much it is run by the young people. It’s not about them turning up and being told what to do because they are perfectly capable of their own decision-making, speaking up for what they want and how they want to do it. The process of organising their aims and activities is undertaken by them with the help of their peer supporters. All I have to do is facilitate that.”

But for Bryony, the fundamental basis for the success of the group is the friendships which the young people develop. 

“Friendship is very important to them. They support one and other and the HUBS campaign is a great example of that. There are a few wheelchair users in the group but everyone has got behind it, in spite of whether they have a disability or not. But it doesn’t matter what they are doing, whether it’s a trip to Laser Quest, bowling or going out for dinner - everyone is included and through that, everyone has the confidence to contribute. I have watched many of them leave their insecurities behind and become more independent through the respect and encouragement of their peers.” 

The benefits of volunteering and peer supporting have also been recognised by eighteen-year-old Scott Connie who has been attending the group for almost two years. Although Scott does not have a learning disability, he agrees that the friendship and fun elements of the group are the most important to its participants.

“I had been thinking about volunteering for ages because I wanted to help people who needed it. I was still very nervous when I first came though, just because I didn’t know anyone. On my second week we went on a trip to Laser Quest and I had a brilliant time. Activities like that really help to break the ice. I got to know people quite quickly and started to enjoy myself. They are a great group of people.”

Although being able-bodied, Scott also explains that he has become very passionate about the HUBS campaign because he has seen first-hand how it affects his friends within the group who use wheelchairs. 

“I was with my friend Kenneth after the group one night when he couldn’t get on a train. There was no one to assist him or lower the ramp and he ended up having to call a taxi. I felt really rubbish for him and I was quite annoyed by what had happened. I remember feeling that is was very unfair that I could just get on a train but he couldn’t. These kinds of things have really opened my eyes to what people have to go through and that’s what makes me want to continue volunteering. But to be honest, it doesn’t feel like work at all, it just feels like I’m spending time with my mates.”

Thirteen-year-old Zoe joined West Dunbartonshire Speak4Yourself last year and feels that spending time with her friends within the group has enhanced her life and increased her confidence in speaking her mind. 

“My life is much better since joining the group. I was encouraged to go along by my mum because she wanted me to become more active and sociable. I felt I was already quite sociable but I love the group because it has helped me speak up for myself. I didn’t feel that I could do that before and I would just go along with what other people said, but now I definitely speak out more.”  

Zoe admits that she was initially quiet when she joined the group but that it did not take long for her to feel welcome enough to come out of her shell. She feels proud of her personal achievements since she started and the positive experience has made her reflect on her plans for the future.

“I have really enjoyed meeting new people so hopefully the group will get bigger and I can meet some more. When I am too old to come here as a self-advocate, I’d really like to volunteer or peer support others. It would be good to help them the way that I have been helped. Being in the group has really made me think about getting into that kind of work. Bryony suggested to me that I could be the ‘new her’ and I said I’d love that!”

Now in its seventh year, the project has effectively altered the lives of both the young people with learning disabilities and those who peer support them. Bryony hopes to expand the group in the near future, creating opportunities for young people like Zoe to support new members. 

“So many of the young people who have learning disabilities are inspired by the support they have had from their peers and would like to go on to do that for others. My aim is to promote the group in schools around the area to try and draw in new members, both as peer supporters and self-advocates. I’d like to create two age groups, 10-14 and 15-18, then there will be a natural progression from one group to the next with the older members peer supporting the younger ones. That way, they will really develop a sense of giving something back and that is great for their self-esteem.” 

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