Yarrow: celebrating 30 years of changing lives

Yarrow is 30

2018 marks an important milestone in the history of Yarrow: our 30thanniversary. Yarrow was founded in 1988 in a tiny office on the Fulham Road with just one employee. The care sector and the lives of the people that we support have changed enormously over this time.

No choice, no control

In the early 1980s, people with learning disabilities and complex needs had little to no choice in their lives and were, for the most part, excluded from society. They became invisible. Many lived in institutions like Leavesden long-stay hospital, where every part of their day was controlled, from the time they had to get up in the morning to what they could eat for dinner. Separated from their community, they were not able to develop any normal life skills. The expectations for their lives were narrow and unambitious.

Back to community-based living

However, change was already in the air. In the mid 1980s government policy began to focus on moving people with learning disabilities and complex needs out of long-stay hospitals and into community-based housing.

Yarrow began by working with people as they were leaving long-stay hospitals, helping them to transition from institutional care to community housing, building a road back to ordinary life. This was a challenge, as many had little to no “real life” experience. They had never lived in an ordinary household as an adult; had never prepared their own food, or shopped for clothing, or caught a bus, or gone for a picnic… in fact many had never even owned their own toothbrush. Yarrow’s role was to help to create a blueprint for their new home, in the true sense of the word: a place where they could be themselves and take control of their lives.

Developing a full life

Once people were settled into their new homes in the community, we could focus on the elements that make for a fulfilled and rounded life. What were their likes and dislikes? Their passions and skills? Their hopes and fears for the future? These were questions that many had never been asked before.

Opening up opportunities for people to try new things and discover more about themselves was key, giving them a sense of achievement, allowing them to flourish and enjoy life.

In 1996 we opened our first learning and resource centre, The Gate, because people told us they did not want to go to traditional day centres. The Gate has developed into a much-loved community arts centre, providing access to a huge variety of creative activities such as music, drama and art. Service users can try their hands at many different instruments, and learn other skills in art, design and performance.

In 2015 we expanded our services with the launch of Greenford MySpace in Ealing. This service has been designed for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. It provides a creative space in which people can explore a wider range of activities including: digital media, sport, art, music and exploring London.  It also has its own mini-social enterprise with a series of pop-up shops throughout the year.

Looking to take things one step further still, our Opening Doors project, funded by City Bridge Trust, launched in 2016. This innovative project pairs volunteers from the local community with people with autism and learning disabilities who have similar interests in sports or the arts. They visit events, take part in activities and share knowledge and skills together. The relationship is based on equality and focuses on the ways in which we are similar, rather than our differences.

From playing the guitar to cooking a curry to a game of tennis, we all have unique interests that give us a sense of achievement and a sense of who we are. Taking the time to really get to know people is a vital step in helping people to flourish.

Focus on the future

Things have moved on a long way since Yarrow was set up.

Long-stay hospitals are now largely a thing of the past. Last year plans were announced to close England’s last stand-alone NHS learning disability hospital. However, according to 2015 figures, there are still around 2,500 people with a learning disability living in inpatient settings in England. There is still work to be done.

2010 saw the introduction of the Equality Act, making it unlawful to discriminate against employees because of a mental or physical disability. However just 6% of adults with a learning disability known to their local authority in England are in paid work, a shockingly low number.

The introduction of the Care Act 2014 marked another big change for those with learning disabilities and complex needs. This Act makes it a local authority’s duty to make sure that wellbeing is at the centre of the decisions and provisions it makes. The Care Act 2014 also saw the introduction of Personal Budgets and Individual Service Funds (ISFs). This means that service users can now choose to have their personal budget managed by a provider such as Yarrow. We created a new way of working with people with learning disabilities called Direct Your Support which enables people to manage their ISF with confidence and understanding. This makes sure that people have real choice and control over their support – and their life.

The foundations are in place for better integration and for people to have more control, but although the people Yarrow supports now live in ordinary communities, they do not have completely ordinary lives. Very few ever get a job or own their own home, and people with learning disabilities die, on average, 15-20 years sooner than people in the general population. These are statistics that can and must improve

Adapting and growing

From our early beginnings with just a handful of employees in Hammersmith and Fulham, to the present day with 200 permanent employees across four London boroughs, involving service users in the decisions that affect their lives has always been at the very heart of what we do.

We work in partnership with people to increase their independence and take control over their lives. Working towards full choice and control remains our aim.To this end, in 2018 we are focused on rolling out our co-production strategy. Co-production is an inclusive process where we work with people with learning disabilities and their circle of support (family and friends, our staff, council officers, healthcare professionals and so on) to make sure that their voices are heard, even for people that do not use speech. You can read more about Yarrow’s commitment to co-production at the blog post here: Co-production and Yarrow.

We have much to be proud about, and much to look forward to in our next 30 years!

As Yarrow CEO, John Crawford, says:

“Yarrow’s history is the history of people with learning disabilities over the last 30 years enjoying the ordinary things of life. This history has been one of liberation, discovering new voices, building relationships, finding a place in society and changing people’s views. We are deeply proud of this history and the impact that we as an organisation have made on the communities within which we work.  We know that a great deal more change is required before people with learning disabilities achieve full equality – but we believe this time will come and that our work will enable people with learning disabilities to flourish, grow in confidence and continue to find their place within their local communities.”

This video, made by the talented team at Yarrow’s The Gate arts centre, sums the story up perfectly in just 2 minutes and 47 seconds:

Happy Birthday Yarrow!

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