Reigate and Banstead Borough Council funded a scheme for people with learning disabilities to develop social interactions and have fun through a community choir. The choir combines singing with Makaton, which uses signals, signing and speech, and also involves members getting involved song writing. This case study forms part of the health inequalities hub.
People with learning disabilities often have difficulties with communication, which can be related speech, language, understanding the spoken word, social skills and behaviour.
But a scheme funded by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council and run by social enterprise, ‘Include’, is helping support people with learning disabilities to improve their communication skills while providing vital opportunities for social interaction.
A choir with a difference
'Include’ works with people with learning disabilities, health and care services and the community sector, providing activities and running training programmes. As part of their work in the Surrey borough of Reigate and Banstead, ‘Include’ set up a choir in 2016.
The choir is open to people with learning disabilities, their carers and anyone else in the community. It combines singing with Makaton, which uses signals, signing and speech, to help people with learning disabilities communicate. Other inclusive communication techniques, such as facial expressions, gestures, pictures and pen and paper are also used.
The members get involved in writing the songs as well as signing them – one of the songs even explains the key elements of the Mental Health Capacity Act to help people with learning disabilities remember and understand their rights.
‘Include’ Chief Executive Officer Alix Lewer said:
The idea was to create something that is fun and gets people socialising while improving their communication and confidence - and raising awareness of how to support people with communication needs.
“The thing about Makaton and other communication techniques is that if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
‘My clients have blossomed’
Prior to the pandemic, the choir met every week for rehearsals, singing at community events and weddings. There were over 80 members.
Feedback from those who took part illustrate just what impact it had. Some 92 per cent said it made them feel more confident, while 83 per cent said it helped them speak up for themselves.
But Ms Lewer said it does not just benefit people with learning disabilities, it helps their carers too.
It teaches vital skills for care, helps build relationships and helps everyone communicate better with each other.
Julie, a supervisor at a local service who has brought her clients to the choir, agrees. “I notice such a difference in all my service-users – their confidence blossomed and skills enhanced. It’s such a proud experience to see and a pleasure to have been part of – and I have also gained some skills.”
‘It was a lifeline during the pandemic’
When COVID-19 hit, the group could no longer meet in-person, but an online version was quickly established, providing a vital opportunity to keep people connected and communicating.
Ms Lewer said: “It has been a very difficult period. But the online rehearsals were very popular – word spread and we even had people from Manchester and Edinburgh joining in. We also put on other sessions, including a chat and chill meeting where we talked about our anxieties and did some body percussion to relieve stress.”
Now restrictions have eased, the group have started meeting up in person again and singing at events. “Not everybody is comfortable with face-to-face contact so we have a bit of a hybrid approach at the moment with others joining digitally,” said Ms Lewer.
“But there is a lot we want to do. We have supported volunteers within the choir to take pictures, present certificates or help with social media. We want to develop and formalise this, capturing the skills members develop, which will help with employability and volunteering opportunities.”
Reigate and Banstead Borough Council Head of Community Partnerships Justine Chatfield said she is delighted with the impact the choir is having. “It’s a really fantastic service. It has made such a big difference to people with learning disabilities throughout the pandemic – keeping them connected, reducing isolation and anxiety. And going forward it will no doubt continue to have a big impact on their lives.”