Mencap 75: CEO Edel Harris on keeping a legacy alive and challenging attitudes

As learning disability charity Mencap marks its 75-year anniversary, chief executive Edel Harris writes exclusively for Enable about the charity’s legacy and the launch of a new campaign.

75 years ago, the world was changed for people with a learning disability and their families. In November 1946, Judy Fryd – frustrated by the lack of support available for her daughter to get a suitable education – wrote to Nursery World magazine asking that other parents of children with a learning disability reach out to her. More than 1,000 parents responded, expressing their anger and sorrow at the lack of services available. From here, the charity Mencap was born.

Legacy

In 1946, seven decades ago, when Judy Fryd started her movement, the world for people with a learning disability was completely different. As a mother to a young man who has Fragile X Syndrome (the most common inherited form of learning disability), I am honoured to keep Judy’s legacy going. 

Over the years Mencap has been involved in some ground-breaking work. In 1975 Mencap’s Pathway employment service began, which is still going strong. More recently our health campaign Treat Me Well launched in 2018 to transform how the NHS treats people with a learning disability in hospital and last year we successfully campaigned for people with a learning disability to be placed on the Covid-19 vaccine priority list.

Earlier this year, Mencap set a bold new course – we launched our new Big Plan and our new vision which is for the UK to be the best place in the world to live a happy and healthy life if you have a learning disability.  We want to continue to challenge negative attitudes and to support people with a learning disability to lead the lives they want. 

Understanding

While there have been many great achievements and significant progress made in the last 75 years, with people with a learning disability becoming more visible and active in society, we still need to see a bigger change. There is a continued lack of understanding around learning disability and often people with a learning disability still face multiple barriers to living a fulfilled and valued life.

While there have been many great achievements and significant progress made in the last 75 years, with people with a learning disability becoming more visible and active in society, we still need to see a bigger change. There is a continued lack of understanding around learning disability and often people with a learning disability still face multiple barriers to living a fulfilled and valued life.

Recent Mencap research from a survey of 2,001 nationally representative UK adults shows that despite 1.5 million people in UK having a learning disability, two thirds of British people don’t know what a learning disability is. This survey also revealed that shockingly, over six in 10 adults have witnessed someone be rude to or about a person with a learning disability at some point in their lifetime and personal anxiety is causing 40% of adults to feel uncomfortable about talking to someone who has a learning disability

It’s disheartening to read these survey results, especially in this day and age.  Representation and education are key to changing people’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviour towards people with a learning disability and through our campaigning work, led by people who have a learning disability, Mencap will continue to do all we can to ensure that happens. 

Learn

Reassuringly, the survey also revealed that there is an appetite to learn more with 35% of respondents saying they would feel more comfortable talking to someone with a learning disability if they had more information so that they wouldn’t offend someone. That is why, as part of Mencap’s 75th anniversary celebrations we have launched the ‘Talk To Me’ campaign. The campaign provides a set of tools available to access online which will help with the lack of understanding of learning disability. 

Despite the progress made over the last seven decades, learning disability is still widely misunderstood. People with a learning disability have so much to offer the world and any outdated views have no place in society today. 

So, as part of Mencap’s 75th anniversary celebrations, I’m encouraging everyone to educate themselves about learning disability through our ‘Talk To Me’ campaign and help to make the UK the best place in the world for people with a learning disability to live happy and healthy lives.

Find out more about Mencap and the new campaign.

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