Raising a glass to the Friendship Group

Every week you can find Special Olympic Gold Medallist Sonia Reed catching up with her friends, who all have a learning disability, in her local pub. They’re all members of the Friendship Group, set up and run by Sonia for adults with a learning disability in Hastings.

Sonia, who has a learning disability, wanted to get out more in her local community and meet up with her friends so she set up the group, which meets on Tuesday and Saturday, and has now been running for 17 years. Originally starting with four members, word quickly spread and there are now between 20-30 people attending each time.

Positive influence

The Friendship Group is about friends getting together and socialising but it also sends an important message out about people with a learning disability being part of their communities and enjoying the local pub, just like everyone else.

As part of the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities’ report, ‘A life without fear: a call for collective action against learning disability hate crime’, Sonia was featured in a short film, The Friendship Group, by The Involvement Matter Team, Hastings.

The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (FPLD) wanted to feature the group in the film as they were really impressed with Sonia’s initiative and commitment to the group and the impact she has made on many peoples’ lives.

The short film captures some of the nice things that people attending the group have said about Sonia and how her group makes them feel as well as exploring the positive influence the Friendship Group has on people with learning disabilities being part of their local community.

Challenging negative attitudes

There have been a couple of challenges from people that felt they needed to voice their opinion about the group being ‘unsupervised’ and ‘drinking alcohol’, however on the whole the community and other pub goers have been very welcoming and accepting.

Sonia says: “My group helps to challenge negative attitudes and behaviours by making sure that people with a learning disability are SEEN in our community! We are there every Tuesday night and Saturday… without support workers… without parents… without carers… in the pub like anyone else having a drink and a laugh with our friends.”

Outside of the group

Sonia has been the Co-chair of the East Sussex Learning Disability Partnership Board and Local Network meetings for 20 years.

Sonia is also one of the lead members of the ‘Involvement Matters Team’ which is East Sussex County Council’s reference group for adults with a learning disability.

Sonia is part of the FPLD Hate Crime Advisory Group and has also recently trained as a Peer Trainer supporting other adults with learning disabilities to understand more about and look after their mental health.

She has also previously been a Bronze, Silver and Gold Medallist in the Special Olympics. Sonia was also featured in a short video, highlighting her achievements as a Special Olympian as part of a campaign by the Involvement Matters Team.

Future plans

Pre-Covid, Sonia was planning to expand the friendship group by supporting a fellow self-advocate to start up their own group in a neighbouring town. This has temporarily been put on hold but it’s definitely still a future plan that Sonia has in her sights, with a plan to carry on, as soon as it is safe to do so.

Jeanette Gallivan-Young from East Sussex Council who nominated Sonia says,

“Sonia is a brilliant self-advocate, a strong advocate for others and a selfless, giving person who contributes oodles to her local community and within East Sussex. Sonia deserves recognition for the amazing work she does for, and with, people with learning disabilities in our community.”

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