Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council

Increasing social interaction by adults with learning disabilities through shared learning

Enabling all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives


The number of adults with a learning disability is set to rise in Dudley as elsewhere, therefore supporting their independence is a priority for Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council. The Council has established monthly reading groups in four of its libraries for adults with learning disabilities. Participation in the reading groups has supported their learning, boosted confidence and increased social and community engagement.


People with physical and learning disabilities are more likely to suffer discrimination, poor access to some health services and worse employment prospects because of their disabilities, all of which adversely affects their health .

In England only 6.4 per cent of people with moderate to severe learning disabilities known to adult social services are in paid employment, compared with 47.4 per cent of all disabled people. The prevalence of severe learning disabilities is greater among some minority ethnic populations of South Asian origin. Adults who have an impairment have less social contact than they would like and less than adults without impairments .

A higher number of adults with learning disabilities (890) received services in Dudley during 2006 than in any other West Midlands metropolitan area besides Birmingham. By 2009 Dudley Special Needs Register included 934 adults with severe learning disability, and this number is expected to rise in line with national trends to 1,031 by 2019. Achieving and maintaining independence and getting more people with a learning disability into employment are priorities for the Council.

Dudley library service recognised that its provision for people with learning disabilities needed to improve. At the same time adult social care services were exploring community-based opportunities for social interaction for their service users. Following an approach from a day care centre, the library service started running its first reading group for adults with learning disabilities in 2009. The aim of the programme is to use library resources to promote reading and improve basic skills, and provide a supportive environment for social interaction and community engagement.

Who was involved?

Adult social care day centre staff:

  • identify demand for reading groups and liaise with the library service to form new groups
  • transport their service users to community libraries where the reading groups take place and support them during the sessions
  • facilitate one of the reading groups
  • run related craft activities to help maintain interest and momentum between reading group sessions.

A trained librarian facilitates the groups initially alongside community library staff, who then take on the facilitation role. The library service also commissioned learning disability awareness staff training.

The Reader Organisation trained two library staff as facilitators.

The problem and how it was tackled

Meeting different needs

The first reading group established caters for men and women with varying levels of disability. Following its success and further demand identified by adult social care staff, the programme expanded to include separate groups for Asian women and men with learning disabilities. Monthly reading groups now take place in four libraries.

Each session follows broadly the same format. It involves the facilitator reading a story and encouraging participants to talk about what they have heard and how it relates to their own experiences. Very basic skills for life and children's picture books are used to focus on a particular theme chosen by the participants.

Each group has different needs that are met within this overall structure. Some participants in the original group have a profound learning disability, while others have complex needs due to sensory, mobility and mental health needs. As well as picture books, this group uses sensory books incorporating different textures and colours and musical instruments to reflect the rhythm of the reading. Sessions have included a talk on fire safety by the fire service and a visit by Dudley Zoo staff and animals.

Participants in the Asian women's group have little knowledge of reading and writing either in their own community language or English. After the first two sessions an Urdu speaking member of staff took over facilitating the group, using picture books to prompt conversation on themes like religious festivals, followed by craft activities such as making Eid cards. The women, initially reticent and nervous, grew in confidence. They applied for a grant to run a jewellery making session in the library. Different groups of people with learning disabilities attended, which encouraged the women to interact with others.

Selecting the right kind of reading material for the group of young Asian men has proved more difficult. They are encouraged to look through newspapers and choose picture books with themes they can relate to, which stimulates conversation and adds to the men's learning experience.

Ensuring staff are welcoming

The need for participants to feel at ease in a different setting and have a positive experience of the library was paramount. This meant staff feeling confident in communicating with adults with learning disabilities so they could provide a welcoming and supportive environment.

The library service commissioned learning disability awareness training for all its staff. ‘Call me by my name' was designed and delivered by Dudley Voices for Choice, a local forum of people with a learning disability whose members were employed to provide the training. This was a new experience for the trainers:

"Before we just helped other people with training. This job is different because we do it all ourselves. We spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to say and put into the training."

Staff found ‘Call me by my name' a powerful training experience. They now feel better equipped to provide support and improve services for any library user with a learning disability.

Dudley Voices for Choice have gone on to deliver paid learning disability awareness training for other council services and organisations.

Outcomes and impact

Participation in the reading groups has improved communication skills, raised concentration levels, boosted confidence and increased social interaction. Participants make a positive contribution to the reading groups and are enthusiastic about taking part. For example, they are:

  • expressing themselves more clearly
  • more willing to share their own experiences
  • interacting with each other, library staff and other library users.

The team leader for Amblecote Centre for Learning Disability recognises the benefits:

"The group really enjoy the whole session and it is a valued activity by service users and staff alike".

Key learnings: critical success factors or hints and tips to take the work further

A close working relationship between adult social care and library staff has been key to success. Day centre staff identify demand, library staff set up new groups to meet demand and both actively encourage people to take part and learn to read.

Involving participants in selecting and testing the books to use is vital. Much of the library's skills for life collection proved too challenging, so staff sourced and purchased new material from specialist suppliers.

Staff have to understand fully what is expected of them if they are to make people with different needs feel comfortable. All the library staff attended learning disability awareness training, while those running the reading groups received additional support in facilitation.

Running the reading groups in libraries rather than day care settings is key to helping participants interact with and feel part of the wider community.

An introductory visit to the library puts both staff and reading group participants at ease more quickly. It helps overcome initial wariness associated with visiting an official building.

What could have been done better?

Getting to know individuals better by talking to them in their day care centre in advance would have provided a less intimidating introduction for participants.

Next steps

The four reading groups for adults with learning disabilities are continuing as part of mainstream library provision.

New ones for different target groups, such as people living with mental illness, are forming in response to identified need.


Lesley Robson, Principal Librarian: Community Development & Access
Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council
Email: Lesley.Robson@dudley.gov.uk


Jobs for people with learning disabilities – Office for Disability Issues, HM Government, 2011
Valuing People: A new strategy for learning disability for the 21st century – Department of Health, 2001
Dudley Joint Strategic Needs Assessment – Care and the Community, 2007


10 July 2012

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