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What we learned from our Korean visitors

In July, my colleague Christine Balachandre and I were asked if we would host a group of social workers and academics from Korea. They were researching support in the UK and wanted to see what they could learn from us. They were particularly interested in how we support people with learning disabilities who also sometimes show behaviour that challenges.

We briefly flushed with pride and then jumped at the chance to talk about the good work we do! We wanted to be honest about the challenges and to learn about the ways that Korea supports people with disabilities, too.

Visitors from Korea pictured with Dimensions colleagues
Visitors from Korea pictured with Dimensions colleagues

And so, on 12th August, we welcomed eight social workers, teachers and social work academics (and, very importantly, an interpreter) to visit Smug Oak House. This service is made up of six, self-contained, one-bedroom flats, especially adapted to support people who require very specific environments and support. With a Positive Behaviour Support approach, we can help the people living here to enjoy full, independent lives as much as possible.

It would be fair to say that each person here has, in the past, used some extreme methods to communicate and express themselves, and at times they continue to do so. But mostly, working together to get the environments and support right, we can increase involvement and engagement and reduce the need for people to communicate in ways that might be harmful to themselves and others. It was this simple but powerful idea that we hoped to explain to our visitors.

Our Korean visitors said,

Although the main purpose of the visit was to ask us questions, I loads of questions for our visitors and I learned some interesting things. For example, Korea tends to support people across all ages, without the separation of children’s and adults’ services that we are familiar with in the UK. There is a big emphasis on support in the family, and people tend to remain living in the family home. There are some facilities for people to attend during the day, while people with the most complex of needs might be locked in a healthcare provision.

One of the visitors showed me some footage of a typical ‘facility’: it was a clean, modern, well-appointed room, for four to five young men in their teens. I was told that none of the people in the video communicated verbally and, although I didn’t know the full situation, it seemed clear that they did not have a positive effect on each other. There were instances of aggression, or damage to objects, throwing things, or simply sitting in a corner disengaged from their surroundings.

If you have been around for a while, you might be familiar with this scenario. There have been times when, even with the best intentions, we did not understand or implement the basic principles of good support.

But it also reminded me that if we become complacent, how easily our progress could be reversed, especially given the cases of abuse and poor practice that are still coming to light in these post-Winterbourne days.

One of the most profound learning experiences of my early career was seeing how good support can transform a person. There was someone who, as a hospital patient, had been demonised as aggressive, dangerous and needing near-constant sedation. But when he moved to live in his own house, free from the restrictions of the hospital regime, no longer at the mercy of staff and other patients, and supported by staff that got to know him, he became the gentle, funny, warm and interesting man that he really was. There were occasional incidents, of course, but nowhere near as many or as serious.

I hope that we managed to express this to our Korean visitors and that our conversations will be helpful to their plans for the future. They came with some understanding of how support is structured in the UK, and I believe we were able to demonstrate the knowledge, values, commitment and passion that Dimensions brings to the sector. It would be wonderful to see whether we can inspire a similar approach elsewhere.

By Barrie Ellis, Operations Director in the London & East region