Peer Support panel discussion

In October, we were invited to participate in a panel discussion for Occupational Therapy students at Canterbury Christchurch University. The theme of the discussion was “Peer Support / Do it Together”. 

As a profession, Occupational Therapy centres around breaking down barriers and enabling everyone to lead a fulfilling life. Senior Lecturer, Juman Simaan, explained:

 “One of the overall aims of this 3rd year module is to learn to listen to, and collaborate with, the communities we work with. It has a critical edge, linking with ideas of social justice and how we as occupational therapists can contribute to that e.g. in reducing stigma or improving access to everyday activities… Another aim is to be critical of Western ways of looking at daily doing and health and wellbeing, and show that communities actually do things together and for each others' well-being rather than in an individual way.

Juman invited bemix to share our views on our work and how we “work with users to help each-other and possibly try to change society on a local, national or even global levels.

The value of lived experience

Self-advocate and expert by experience, Sammy Lamb, and bemix’s Chief Executive, Matt Clifton, joined the panel to speak about our impact and the importance of changing the focal point from “charity” to “equality” when we work alongside one another as people with and without learning difficulties.

Also on the panel was Victoria Stirrup, Peer Support Project Development Officer at Canterbury Christchurch University, who talked about the value that Lived Experience Practitioners (LXPs) bring when dealing with mental health. 

Victoria explained that LXPs are able to bring a level of intimate empathy and understanding that people without similar life experiences may not be able to offer.  Despite funding and safeguarding challenges, LXP involvement is proving to enhance the effectiveness of the mental health system. Victoria shared a story of a man’s experience on a crisis ward. Professionals were hesitant to intervene in his agitated state, but the man calmed down when an LXP approached him, explaining “Don’t worry. I’ve been there before, mate”.   

Originally, Matt was due to co-present on the panel with colleague Steve Chapman. Steve was unable to attend on the day and, rather than take the easier-to-organise option of presenting on his own, Matt invited Sammy to co-present with him last minute.

"The presentation would have been inauthentic if I was alone as I don’t have a learning difficulty… we support one another by using our individuals skills and experiences”. - Matt Clifton

It is this attitude that is the core of how we work in bemix. We want to see a rich, diverse society which will enable us all to thrive.  This becomes possible when we appreciate and enable everyone in society to share their skills and contribution.

"Although there aren’t asylums anymore, I feel like people are hidden away unseen and unheard” - Sammy

Sammy shared her own painful experiences with Social Services, including asking for help with her daughter and having the phone hung up on her. Now, after putting in a lot of work herself, and with bemix’s continued work to achieve equality, Sammy feels more hopeful. 

I was told at an ESA (Employment Support Allowance) assessment that I would never be able to hold down a job, but bemix has given me the opportunity to work on a part time basis and prove them wrong!” - Sammy

Sammy now works with bemix’s Self-Advocacy Leadership team, and as an Expert by Experience for Care and Treatment Reviews.  Sammy uses her experiences to fight for better support for others. She has proved to society that she can thrive herself, and be a responsible parent to her daughter. Sammy is also part of Being Seen, Being Heard, one of bemix’s projects which goes into schools to talk about how people with learning difficulties and/or autism  want to be treated.

Why we avoid charity as an organisation

As part of our presentation, Matt talked about why we use a business model and not a charitable model.  Where most companies pay people with learning difficulties in vouchers and words of affirmation, or expect people to volunteer, our workforce members with learning difficulties are paid a minimum of the Living Wage, the same as anyone on the workforce without a learning difficulty.  The roles and contribution that people with learning difficulties and/or autism have in our work is vital not only for bemix, but in wider society. It is essential that we recognise people’s worth and value in developing and leading our organisation and not just passive benefactors.

Matt explained that these values are reflected in our Supported Internship programme which aims to encourage, support and enable other employers to take on job seekers with learning difficulties and/or autism.  

We are not offering a charity service… we are offering a talent pool of people that have real world skills and talents which can contribute to society.  If every employer offered 2% of their work to people with learning difficulties, we would have equality. But most employers do not have anyone. Although 25% of the bemix workforce have a learning difficulty, we would still like to see this improve in our own organisation” - Matt

“Thanks to Sammy for going to schools and educating young people on how you want to be treated. I wish I’d been taught life skills rather than setting things on fire with a Bunsen burner. It’s brilliant that you are educating young people.” - Occupational Therapy student