“We don’t want to be left on a scrap heap”: People with learning disabilities and autistic people call for their voices to be heard and their achievements celebrated

On 24th April 2024, we announced the winners of the 2024 Learning Disability and Autism Leaders’ List. With 14 million disabled people and 700,000 autistic people in the UK, the winners of this year’s awards reflect the diversity of these groups, their achievements, and their hopes for building a more inclusive society in a time of rapid political and societal change.

The winners have been published alongside new research which reveals 72% of people with learning disabilities and autistic people surveyed have felt ignored by society because of their learning disability or autism, and only 37% think they get the same opportunities as everyone else in society.

The Leaders’ List, run in partnership with member organisation VODG and sector collaboration My Vote My Voice, is the UK’s first national awards which recognises people with learning disabilities and autistic people who are challenging stereotypes and making communities better for themselves and others. It shines an important spotlight on their achievements, as 85% of people with learning disabilities and autistic people think there should be more representation of them in the media.

This year’s winners are a set of boundary-pushing individuals creating meaningful change, through addressing the absence of resources available on disability and sex, becoming engaged members of the community after being stuck in institutions for 12 years, and creating safe spaces for people with learning disabilities who have suffered domestic abuse.

Evidence shows people with disabilities and autistic people face disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, loneliness, anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse and have been hit hardest by the cost-of-living crisis. Against this backdrop, this year’s Leaders’ List winners are calling for diverse changes spanning a plethora of issues, but which all work towards the central goal of building a more inclusive society, where everyone enjoys equal opportunities.

The winners were honoured with a special awards ceremony at Cineworld O2 London on 24th April, hosted by Greatest Hits Radio DJ Ken Bruce.

Rachael Dodgson, Chief Executive of Dimensions, said:

“2024 is set to be a year of immense political change across the globe, but ending systemic injustice can only follow from listening to and championing the voices of our diverse communities. It is vital that people in power and society take note of these stories, as we look towards a society where every individual’s worth is recognised and celebrated.

The winners of this year’s Leaders’ List are achieving incredible things – from fighting for people with disabilities to be able to access life-saving cancer screenings, to winning silver medals in the Special Olympics, and creating groups to discuss trauma and abuse. We’re incredibly proud to be giving them a platform to help inspire further change.”

Starting conversations on disability and sex

Poor quality healthcare for people with learning disabilities and autistic people causes health inequalities and avoidable deaths. Celebrated on this year’s List for addressing this issue is Lorraine Stanley who is autistic and became disabled at 32. She founded training organisation Sex With A Difference (SWAD) to address the lack of resources on disability and sex, and educates, advocates, and campaigns tirelessly for accessibility in healthcare and recognition of disability issues.

Through the SWAD network, Lorraine found that her own personal experience of struggling to get a cervical screening due to accessibility issues resonated with many other people with disabilities. She launched the Better Access for Better Access campaign, which has a goal to have at least one hoisting system, and a set of leg supports, on at least one examination couch in every sexual health clinic and GP surgery by the end of 2024.

Lorraine is one of 84% of people with learning disabilities and autistic people who think they need a bigger say in politics, as only 37% think the government is working on the things that matter to them. “In 2024, I would like to see people with disabilities and autistic people having power in politics. If an MP happens to be neurodivergent, it is about stepping up and saying, I’m neurodivergent. We don’t want to be left on the scrap heap.”

A journey from institutions to independence

There are currently around 2,000 people with learning disabilities and/or autistic people detained in inappropriate care settings in long-stay hospitals. Over half have been there for more than 2 years, including 350 people who have been in hospital for more than 10 years.

Kelly Rainey has a learning disability, mental health needs, and is autistic, and lived in institutions for 12 years, where she was isolated from the community and only allowed 20 minutes of unsupervised time each day. However, with the support of the government’s Transforming Care programme, Kelly was able to change her story. After a lot of hard work by Kelly and her support team she moved into her own home in 2019, has rebuilt relationships with her family, has gained independence and control over her life and has become an active member of her local community.

Healing from trauma and building communities

People with learning disabilities are three times more likely to experience domestic abuse.  As domestic abuse survivor Crystal Higgins explains, “Not everyone knows what abuse is, they don’t know they’re going through it, they don’t understand it.” Crystal is celebrated on this year’s Leaders’ List for being one of the founding members of the Girls Group, a safe space for women with learning disabilities and autistic women in her area who have similarly struggled with past trauma, abuse, and low self-esteem.

Another Leader who has been creating communities and safe spaces for people with learning disabilities is Jason Eade, who co-hosts Carousel Radio show and hosts inclusive nightclub events in his local area of Brighton and Hove. He joins 90% of people with learning disabilities and autistic people who think there should be more opportunities for them to take part in art and music.

The unseen triumphs of Special Olympians

The first ever Special Olympics took place in 1968, and yet the competition still receives significantly less recognition compared to both the Paralympics and Olympics. Over the past year, there have been fewer than 600 mentions of the Special Olympics in UK print and online media, compared to over 2,000 mentions of the Paralympics and over 25,000 mentions of the Olympics. And, while the 2023 Special Olympics was available to stream online, this pales in comparison to the packed TV schedule for the upcoming Paris Olympics.

2024 Leaders’ List winner Ben Fai is keen to see the Special Olympics gain more recognition like the Paralympics and is one of 92% of people with learning disabilities and autistic people who think there should be more opportunities for them to take part in sports. Following a very competitive selection process, Ben earned a place representing Great Britain as a cyclist at the 2023 Special Olympics in Berlin. He was over the moon to walk away with a bronze and a team silver medal and dedicated one of his medals to the wife of his support worker Wayne, who sadly passed away shortly before the Games.