Development of a Community Base for People with Learning Disabilities


In 1987 the Conservative Government of the day introduced the “Care in the Community” programme, and within it was developed the ‘community base’ concept. The idea was to get people with disabilities out of ‘their’ centres (where they were isolated from society) and to integrate them into their community.


As a result of the government’s initiative,  a  group of  disabled people from Leemore Day Centre  which was based in central Lewisham,  visited Wesley Halls and approached the Management Committee. The group was looking for a suitable community venue near their homes, where they would have the opportunity and choice to share resources. They wanted to use local facilities and integrate with other local people, community members and groups, with the purpose of promoting mutual respect and recognition of  an individual’s skills, abilities and his or her potential.


The Management Committee carried out an assessment  of needs which confirmed that the Centre was viable for the group. Everyone involved worked hard to make the project successful. However, when the Centre Manager together with the Chair of the Management Committee attempted to negotiate a formal agreement (which included rental charges) with Lewisham Social Services they came up against a system beset with obstacles. These included resistance to the community base philosophy by individual Social Services’ Managers, Social Service’s staffing shortages, lack of funding, unreliable and irregular transport arrangements and lack of meals’ service provision. In fact in the pioneering days the workers and clients shopped for, and cooked their own meals by themselves at the Centre.


The obstacles took nearly four years to resolve. The campaign to establish Wesley Halls as a community base for people with learning disabilities entailed a vigorous strategy of lobbying Councillors, organising open meetings for members, their parents and carers, so that they could have their say; endless (and often unanswered) correspondence and meetings with Social Services’ Managers as well as the Assistant Director of Social Services. Surprisingly, even the MENCAP organisation themselves had also tried to stop the development of the community base and lobbied the clients to return to their official Day Centres.


The most important attribute that the Wesley Halls Organisation had was a team of people who believed that  Wesley Halls were right for such a project and welcomed people with learning disabilities when many other centres and organisations shied from such a responsibility and commitment.  However it was not  all plain sailing and  from time-to-time there were some objections from individuals who did not consider Wesley Halls to be an appropriate place for people with disabilities and who did not wish to share the same space and resources with them.


The determination, persistence and commitment of the Wesley Halls organisation, the group members, their parents and carers and individual day service officers, finally paid off and the Centre received an official recognition as a community base for local people with learning disabilities. A formal contract (the first of its kind), was written by the Manager, Libby Dunn and the Chair of  the Management Committee, Kristina Green. The contract was ‘mislaid’  twice   by Social Services staff and was eventually passed by Lewisham Legal Section. With a sigh of relief,  the Contract was signed by both parties in late 1994 by which time the group had already attended the Centre on a full-time basis.


From time-to-time different Social Services’ managers visited the Centre and came with their own ideas. Some of their ideas were:

- for the Wesley Halls’ Management Committee to have the Centre carpeted;

- to set up employment, business and training opportunities;

- that the concept of a Centre based provision should not exist and that clients should be collected from their homes and taken directly to various classes and leisure activities. There were many other ideas that came and went but as Social Services had never invested any monies or helped to provide resources (apart from the cost of  three workers) their ideas did not materialise.


Since the fragile early days the Lifestyles Southern Team have developed a lively and varied timetable of classes and activities, which are organised and supported by Day Service workers, Sean Maloney, Lisa Carrol and Anni Markham. To-date they include assertion skills, basic education, music, yoga, cookery, discovering Downham classes, sports, cookery, photography, shopping, local walks, outings, social events, arts and crafts, bowling, drama and vocal users forum. They also organised successful sales-of-work coffee mornings selling items they made during art and craft sessions.


The group’s other achievements include:

Member representation on the Centre’s Management Committee; a greater understanding both within the Centre and the local community of the individual capabilities, strengths and qualities of people with learning disabilities; members of the group offer practical assistance to other members and groups within the Centre. One member, Stephen Gadsdon, won the “Lewisham Volunteer of the Year Award” for the support he had given to the Centre with ‘do-it-yourself’ maintenance, reception and key-holder duties. The Management Committee subsequently hired him as a paid worker. From time-to-time there were other individuals from the group who carried out tasks for remuneration.


The group have formed their own drama group and so far have produced and performed many successful shows to a delighted and packed audience of parents, carers, the centre users, the local community and members and workers from Social Services’ Day Centres. All the shows were organised, produced and supported  by dedicated team of people – Sean Maloney, Anni Markham, Lisa Carrol, Libby Dunn, Cliff Shirley and Kristina Green.


 • ‘The Musical Age of Television’ – Easter 1998

 • ‘Magical Musical Moments’ – Christmas 1998

 • Castle of a Thousand Stars – summer 1999

 • ‘Millennium Meltdown’ – Christmas 1999

 • Rumble in the Jungle – summer 2001

 • Hats – summer 2003

 • Byl Jednou Jeden Král (Once upon a time there was a King – an adaptation of a Czechoslovak fairy story)  – summer 2004

 • Christmas celebration – December 2004

 • Stars in their Eyes – December 2005


After a disruptive and often frustrating beginning the community base group has gone from strength to strength and has become a well-established part of life of the Downham Community Centre.  This is especially commendable considering that most other community-based trials have to-date failed.