A life of change and growth

A lot has changed during my lifetime for people with learning disabilities – let’s keep this up, says Sara Pickard, as she reflects on how her experiences and opportunities in her life so far have changed her.

When I started in school when I was three years old, I attended a small class. I was observed closely before I was able to transition to my local mainstream primary school when I was six years old.

That meant bigger classes and more was expected of me but I think I was able to adapt to these changes and was able to fit in. I enjoyed my time in primary school.

Moving on into comprehensive school was a bigger challenge. I attended from age 12 and I really enjoyed my time there because I was able to be with my friends, and had great opportunities to be involved in school choirs and performing, which gave me more confidence. I loved showing what I could achieve, and liked showing how determined I was to do my best.

I was really excited about going to college and meeting even more friends. I did a childcare course in my first year then moved on to an IT and business course.

Both of these courses were definitely hard work but I did have great support in college which helped me to gain more confidence. I managed to pass my college courses, including gaining my Duke of Edinburgh bronze award.

All these new qualifications made me feel that I could have pride in the work I was doing, and this made me feel that I was definitely doing something right.

Then it was time for me to see what sort of work opportunities were out there for me. After a few work placements, my first paid job was as a part-time receptionist in a special needs school. This was really eye-opening for me. I was in an environment supporting profoundly disabled young people, who I had not encountered before as I had attended mainstream schools and college. I was also undertaking many different jobs in a busy office every day.

After that, I was appointed as a project officer with Mencap Cymru, where I am still working after an incredible 11 years.

I have felt personally that I have changed a lot over that time – and one project in particular made me see change in a very different light.

I worked for three years on Hidden Now Heard, which was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This involved me conducting oral history interviews with the older generation who have learning disabilities who had lived for the majority or, in some cases, the whole of their lives in institutions across Wales (pictured).

I was hearing personal and in a lot of cases very emotional accounts of what life was like in institutions, including from those who worked there and family members who had relations living in these places. It is a very hidden part of our history.

We also put together museum exhibitions across Wales to educate the public about what this history was like, and how the changes to these individuals’ lives, from the times of institutions to living in the community today, changed life radically for them.

I felt proud to work on this project and to enable more of the public to hear about the hidden lives of this part of history, from which we can all learn so much.

My life has been so different compared with the lives the people I interviewed for the project. I have been very fortunate to have had three opportunities to visit Southern Africa with my work, and saw how different life is like there for people with learning disabilities. It really opened my eyes to see that we are so lucky to have what we have, and it is so rewarding to give life-changing chances and changes to people in countries like Lesotho, which has close links with Wales.

In the past few years, I have also represented Europe with an organisation called Inclusion International as a self-advocate, spoken about health matters at the United Nations in New York, and been an elected community councillor.

I can see that we have come a long way from those times when so many people with learning disabilities spent their whole lives in institutions. Things have changed during my lifetime – let’s keep this up and make more change happen.