How flexible support is key to independent living

Oldham Council have commissioned KeyRing to provide life advice through networks made up of people with learning disabilities who are then supported by a community living volunteer and community enablers to help people gain independence and life skills. This case study forms part of the health inequalities hub.


At least half of all adults with learning disabilities still live with their parents, without the opportunities to learn independent living skills and make choices about how they live their lives.

For some families, this will be right. But for others better, more flexible support could improve their independence. In Oldham this is being achieved thanks to the provision of a vulnerable adults service.

‘We don’t have a rigid set of hours’

Oldham Council commissions an organisation called KeyRing to provide flexible help to vulnerable adults. The service works with people with mental health conditions and cognitive impairments, but the majority are people with learning disabilities. Rather than having a rigid set of hours of support, the service has been designed to step-up or step-down the help that can be provided. 

The service is based around the concept of networks of support. The networks are comprised of around 10 people with learning disabilities – or members as they are known – who are then supported by a community living volunteer and the service’s team of community enablers.

Between them the volunteers and community enablers can help with everything from housing applications, benefits form-filling, budgeting and financial support, attending medical appointments, dealing with mail and getting involved with social activities. They also provide support with engaging in meaningful activity such as employment, volunteering or study.

The volunteers are asked to live in the local community and are given accommodation to enable this. They tend to focus on some of the “softer” elements, such as helping members engage with local community activities. Meanwhile, the community enablers concentrate on the more formal elements, such as benefits and helping people to sustain their tenancies.

As the members gain more independence the amount of support is reduced, and then if an individual’s needs increase the support can be ramped up. But the aim is always to promote as much independence as possible. The network of other members also plays a vital role in this. For example, the community living volunteer will encourage individuals to connect with other members and attend groups with them to further build independence.

Service Co-manager Donna Calverley said: “We encourage people to do things for themselves. We prefer to step down support when people do not need as much and actively celebrate this. It ensures we can move people from more intensive support environments into their local community. 

We work with housing providers to secure properties for people we support and we connect people with others in their network and encourage them to share their skills and friendship.

“This helps people to reduce reliance on paid-for support and make use of natural support networks in the community.”

The lives that have been transformed

The service has been providing support in Oldham for over 20 years. There are now 11 separate networks, which have had a tremendous impact on the people involved. 

Alan’s (not his real name) story is typical of how people have been helped. He had been living in supported housing for 13 years when the service started working with him. He was supported to find a home and then helped with everything from finding utility suppliers and budgeting to setting up an alarm system. At first he received 40 hours of support a week, but that was soon reduced to 15 before going down to zero.

He no longer has a named social worker and maintains his own flat by himself. He now regularly goes out on days out, has joined in local activities and even been on holiday by himself.

Another person who has been helped is Sam Henthorn. Before joining KeyRing she experienced difficult and abusive relationships. Her emotions would escalate quickly and she found it difficult to communicate when a situation made her feel uncomfortable. 

But through the support she has received, she has become a key member in her network. She supports someone in supported housing and has a role advocating and promoting the value of COVID-19 testing and vaccination, helping to bust myths on the social media groups the members use. 

An evaluation of the KeyRing approach – as well as providing services in Oldham it is commissioned in 30 other areas – shows it provides significant return on investment. Taking into account the cost of the service, for every 30 members the intervention generates £131,000 of savings per year based on the benefits of fewer individuals being in supported living and less need for crisis support. 

KeyRing Chief Executive Officer Karyn Kirkpatrick said the key is basing support on what people with learning disabilities want from life – and providing the right help to achieve that.

“Time and again people say they want their own home, to be free to live life how they want, to have friends, romance and families. 

But social care limitations mean that people have to show need, disability and lack of resources in order to get support. These two positions are incompatible – everyone has something to offer.

Contact details

charlie.crabtree@keyring.org