04 SES 01 A, Inclusion And Adult Learning: Vulnerabilities, Participation And 'Self-Building'
This paper discusses the educational component of an interdisciplinary study into how adults with learning disabilities are responding to changes in the UK social care sector. We examine how the concept of ‘self-building’ potentially constitutes a range of lifelong and life-wide learning opportunities, with particular interest in how it is fostering informal and community-based learning.
Taking a broadly sociocultural approach, we recognise learning as multi-dimensional, looking beyond dominant socio-economic models characterised in formal education and training environments that emphasise skills and knowledge acquisition to also encompass the personal development of learners, their sense of self and their social and emotional well-being (Bartlett & Rees, 1999; Biesta, 2006). This is usefully summarised by Dee et al. (2006) as ‘being’, ‘having’ and ‘doing’. They present learning as the means through which people with learning disabilities can challenge views about who they are, what they can achieve, and how they can enact these beliefs. This has the potential to be transformative, which for Kegan (2008, 46) represents a shift in the values, assumptions and expectations of others towards “developing one's own self-authored belief system."
The European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 aims to improve the social inclusion and well-being of disabled people, yet in England and Scotland, where our study is taking place, a new landscape of social care has emerged. This landscape reflects both austerity and the personalisation agenda resulting in significant long-term cuts to local authority budgets and declining day services alongside reforms in the commissioning of services, a focus on partnership and co-production, and a drive towards social enterprises and transitioning of existing services. Examples of community-led, grass roots initiatives involving people with disabilities and their families and allies are emerging in the form of support groups, friendship circles, and social networks with direct payments and personal budgets some adults with learning disabilities with opportunities to have more choice and independence in how they arrange support and choose services, including mainstream and inclusive environments.
The activities evident in how adults with learning disabilities are engaging with and potentially co-producing new ‘self-build’ practices and initiatives – both individually and collectively - can be seen as providing opportunities for learning experiences across a number of contexts. With limited opportunities for adults with learning disabilities in formal education, particularly beyond the age of 25, the role of informal learning within other environments becomes a particularly important focus. These may include life skills support, volunteering and work opportunities. In addition, advocacy groups support community-based and peer learning as a joint enterprise, where there is mutual engagement and a shared repertoire and ideas (Wenger, 2008). For Goodley (2001), advocacy groups provide a platform where competence, ability, intelligence and capacity are distributed. As such, agency can be seen as ‘relational’ (Edwards & Mackenzie, 2005) and interdependent on personal and collective support structures, which may include family members, peers and social care services. The relationships between learning, agency and identity are well established (for example, Bruner, 1996), where agency is seen as capacity to envisage and realise an improved form of subjectivity (Holland et al., 1998).
The notion of ‘risk’ provides an interesting conceptual tool with which to frame agency within the choice and personalisation agenda and the lived experiences of adults with learning disabilities engaging with a changing social care landscape. Edwards and Usher (2001) describe lifelong learning contexts as ‘a contestable and ambiguous terrain’ and ‘a field of tension’ which can be exploited by different groups and discourses. We might think of self-building as the capacity to negotiate and navigate across this terrain.
The research design incorporates a range of ethnographic case studies simultaneously conducted in four geographical areas; one urban and one rural in both England and Scotland. Methods are founded on inclusive and participatory approaches to research design, working ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people with disabilities (Nind, 2014), achieved through: • using existing links with disability groups and informants to establish advisory groups in each of the four case study areas to monitor and advise on research design and progress. • using inclusive and participatory research methods that enable the representation of views and experiences of people with learning disabilities (e.g. focus groups) and that are beneficial to the participants. • developing a range of accessible outputs such as formative feedback workshops in the case study areas, resource packs and web- and film-based materials. In the initial scoping stage, we have employed site visits and field observations, together with interviews with local authority commissioners, service providers and advocacy organisations to develop case studies of each geographical area. In the second stage, we are conducting a series of activity-based focus groups and follow-up individual interviews with people with learning disabilities, employing participatory methods devised with our advisory groups to encourage collaborative reflection and peer-led discussion. Using visual cues, participants’ photos, friendship/support circles and weekly schedules we are identifying the interrelated activities, people and environments important in the participants’ lives and collating these to develop historical timelines (past, present and future) with which to determine change and transition. Enquiry into key educational aspects is integrated throughout, with specific focus on examples of learning outcomes evidenced through: the acquisition of new skills, knowledge and understanding; increased self-awareness, self-motivation, and self-confidence; and greater autonomy and engagement in social groups and communities. The dataset of transcriptions, field notes, observational notes, photographs and other artefacts are being analysed inductively and iteratively by the research team in discussion with the advisory group and participants regarding emergent themes and lines of focus. Important analytic work includes seeing the hard to know social learning going on within networks and communities and understanding the precariousness nature of new models of support.
Emerging findings indicate limited and uneven distribution of ‘self-build’ practices and initiatives across and within the case study areas. There remains a significant proportion of uninformed, marginalised and insufficiently supported citizens who are continuing to rely on established but diminishing services. And whilst some of these are transitioning, it appears in many cases they are not being adequately replaced by new initiatives, which tend to be inconsistent, subject to short-term funding, and limited in scope. Hence, those who choose, or are coerced into, self-build practices may risk instability and uncertainty. However, in doing so, it could be argued they are equipping themselves with the skills and capacities required to navigate and negotiate the emerging social care environment and demonstrating the independence and resilience necessary for engaging with the future sector. It is clear we are seeing examples of specific learning outcomes from self-building – such as searching and networking online to source new opportunities. There is also evidence that, under the appropriate circumstances, opportunities and support, the learning can be transformative in how participants perceive themselves, their peers and their roles in the wider community. In particular, active membership in the core activities common in advocacy and peer-led groups provide additional roles and responsibilities, formal and informal mentorship, and the development of problem-solving, team-working and communication skills. Whilst these learning outcomes can, as Usher and Edwards (2007) remind us, become ‘colonised’ around specific discourses and methods, collective endeavours such as these can minimise risks in self-building and provide structural and ethical impetus for further lifelong learning experiences. There is clear evidence that participants’ skills and capacities gained within advocacy groups are being transferred to external and inclusive settings – including establishing informal social networks and online groups – and transforming existing supported and co-produced activities into genuine ‘user-led’ initiatives.
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