Learning Disability Week 2020: virtual friendship during lockdown

As part of Mencap's Learning Disability Week 2020, Ben McKeown, Team Manager for VAL's VALUES project, talks to some VALUES clients about their experience of the lockdown and communicating virtually.

This week is Learning Disability week 2020, a week in which we celebrate individuals with learning disabilities but also talk about the issues they face in everyday life. Each year Mencap has a theme they like to focus on, with last year being sport and inclusion and the year before that “Treat me well”, a look at how people with learning disabilities could be treated better in a medical setting. This year’s theme, like everything else going on in the world at the moment, is focused around the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic and the importance of friendship during lockdown.

At VALUES we’ve continued to provide support during this difficult time through virtual services. Similar to the rest of the world we’ve discovered how useful Zoom and Facebook are in keeping people connected. We’ve been able to run groups such as Drama, English and Maths, Sports and a whole lot more, all from the safety of our homes. So I thought in keeping with Mencap’s theme this year, I’d speak to some of our service users and see how they have found having these sessions through their computer screen rather than in person.

The first person I called was a young man who I’ve known for ages as he’s been at the service for over 10 years now. We decided to have our chat via Facebook video. He answers the call with a grin asking me how I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. He asks after my son and how he’s been getting on while we’ve all been at home. After a brief chat about what’s happening with me he then gives me a tour of his room through the lens of his camera phone, showing me all the medals he has hanging up. He won these in basketball at the Special Olympics and is obviously very proud of them.


He’s been taking part in our virtual sports sessions but he says it just not the same. He wants to physically see people and do team sports. I get this, I’d love to go and play football with my friends.


But as he’s showing me he sighs and tells me he’s bored and wants to get back to his sports groups. He’s been taking part in our virtual sports sessions but he says it just not the same. He wants to physically see people and do team sports. I get this, I’d love to go and play football with my friends. So I ask “Has it at least been nice to keep in touch with other from VALUES while we’ve all been at home?”. He says it’s certainly helped him cope. It’s just nice to talk to people. But immediately after saying that he asks when he can come back into VALUES. I don’t have an answer for him and can see that he is disappointed by this answer. We chat for a bit longer about the other virtual sessions he’s doing but he keeps bringing the conversation back to when VALUES will reopen. It’s as if he thinks there might be a different answer from 5 minutes ago. So I ask him, “Do you know why we can’t go out?” He tells me it’s because people are coughing.

He can’t explain anything else about it. We leave the conversation there as he needs to go and get ready for one of our online sessions. We say bye and his final parting words are, “I hope VALUES is open soon.”

The second person I spoke to is a lady who been with us for 5 years now. I know she’s really been getting involved in the sessions we’ve been providing and has been enjoying them. She tells me about all the friends she been speaking with, which staff she’s seen, how well she did on a virtual quiz the day before. It feels like she has really taken to these online groups.


I ask her how important it’s been to have these sessions and she tells me she still feels connected by doing this and it’s helping her get through the lockdown.


I ask her how important it’s been to have these sessions and she tells me she still feels connected by doing this and it’s helping her get through the lockdown. But as with the previous conversation I’d had there’s a “but”. She wants to see people in person and actually get out the house (she’s been shielding so hasn’t left the house for 12 weeks). She asks when we will reopen. Once again I see the disappointment on her face when I tell her I don’t know. Our chat is then cut short as she says she wants to go and get some lunch. I feel that maybe she suddenly decided this because I couldn’t give her good news about opening up again.

With the previous exchange being cut unexpectedly short I decide to contact one of our service user’s parents. This is so I can ask her to get her son logged into Facebook so we can try and have a chat. He, unlike the two I’ve spoken to already, doesn’t know how to use a computer and relies on his mum to set him up in front of the camera. We manage to do this. He waves and smiles when he sees me but doesn’t really say anything.


He struggles with his verbal communication. He says a few words here and there but in general seems distracted. It’s difficult to engage with him through a screen.


He struggles with his verbal communication. He says a few words here and there but in general seems distracted. It’s difficult to engage with him through a screen. I try asking if he’s enjoyed seeing his friends. He nods but then goes straight back to looking round the room. I try and see if he knows why he’s at home. No real response. After a bit of time trying to chat his mum comes and speaks to me. She asks when we think we might be open again. She’s pleased we have continued to provide support but knows he needs to get out the house. He doesn’t understand why he’s being made to stay in and is getting very frustrated, sometimes difficult to support. I have to disappoint her like I’ve disappointed the others and say we don’t know. We will follow the government’s advice and keep everyone posted. We talk for a little, I check how she’s been coping with it all but her son has gone away from the screen so she says bye and goes off to find him.

I make quite a few more video calls and they all go along the same lines. People like the fact that we’re providing virtual sessions, they have helped during this lockdown but they really want to get back into VALUES. This obviously isn’t a surprise. I expected to get this when I asked. I’m feeling that way too. I want to get back to normal, or the new normal at least. But I understand why it’s happening. That’s the difference.


It must be so frustrating to be told you can’t go and see your friends and not know why. Not one of the people I talked to really knew why they were being made to stay at home.


It must be so frustrating to be told you can’t go and see your friends and not know why. Not one of the people I talked to really knew why they were being made to stay at home. And what’s worse is that some parents and carers asked about what’s going to happen when we do go back. They know we’re most likely heading towards a recession and fear there will be cuts in social care. I couldn’t answer their questions because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

But what all these conversations have made very clear is that yes, friendship in lockdown has been important but the physical friendship individuals with learning disabilities have are vital. A large number of our service users don’t just use verbal communication so they need to be around people to get that full connection. Our virtual sessions have been a stop gap that have helped people get through this but they certainly aren’t a replacement. If there is a recession and cuts to social care do come then this needs to be remembered.

Get support from VALUES

To find out more about the kind of support VALUES is currently offering, please contact Ben on:

ben.@valonline.org.uk
0116 257 5044