People with learning disabilities may be overlooked in politics – but not in Leeds. Katie Baldwin reports.
THE council Chamber at Leeds Civic Hall is packed.
Virtually every seat is taken and the galleries are almost full with observers.
Everyone is keenly waiting for their chance to discuss the issues that matter in their lives – and hopefully encourage those with power to take action.
But this isn’t a meeting of all the city’s councillors – though there is a quip that just as many councillors are in attendance as at some meetings.
That they’ve come along to hear the speeches, along with managers from the NHS, council officers, MP Hilary Benn, representatives from the fire service and police, transport heads and people from many other organisations shows how important this event is.
It’s the third time that Over To You has taken place, and this year’s was the biggest yet.
The event sees people with learning disabilities ‘take over’ the council chamber to debate the issues which are important to them.
A series of attendees prepare speeches on a variety of subjects and on each topic, the audience are invited to comment too.
Organised by Tenfold, the Leeds Learning Disability Forum, and Leeds City Council, this is a chance for learning disabled people not only to have a voice, but to have their views heard by politicians and others in the city who can take action.
At end, attendees can vote on which issue is of greatest importance to them, allowing them to make a difference as well as experiencing the voting process.
It began with an introduction from the new Lord Mayor of Leeds, Coun David Congreve.
“It’s a privilege to be invited to talk to you all,” he told the 160-strong crowd.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people and wonderful to see such an interest in democracy and how we work at a council level.”
Last Friday’s event was co-chaired by Coun Adam Ogilvie and Susan Hanley, who are co-chairs of the Leeds Learning Disability Partnership.
Ms Hanley told attendees: “Today we are going to hear about so many important learning disability issues and you will all have a chance to have your say and vote.”
The speeches saw a wide range of issues being raised, and a variety of viewpoints expressed.
One of the recurring themes was independence, and how people with learning disabilities want the chance to do things that other people may take for granted.
Many talked about the services which help them and how useful they are, though funding being withdrawn from one organisation was raised by one audience member.
There was praise for events like the Beautiful Octopus club night, run by West Yorkshire Playhouse, for people with learning disabilities.
But problems were raised too – several people gave moving accounts of how they had been verbally or physically targeted because of their disability.
They described how this badly affected their confidence and made them reluctant to go out. Others talked about how difficult it was to find companies willing to provide work experience placements.
Transport was voted the hottest topic of the day, with calls for better training for bus drivers and extending free travel for people with learning disabilities to before 9.30am.
Representatives from the police, Metro and First responded to the speakers and pledged to take up the issues highlighted.
Afterwards Kath Lindley, manager of Tenfold, said: “It was absolutely amazing.
“Everyone was so respectful and polite, even though there were some hard issues.
“The only way we will make a change is by talking and understanding each other.
“This is a fantastic chance for people with learning disabilities to get their voices heard in a place where big decisions are made.
“The atmosphere was brilliant.”
Susan Hanley added: “I love being an ambassador – it’s a role I really enjoy.”
* Over To You, which marked the start of Leeds Learning Disability Week, was sponsored by Trinity Leeds, the White Rose Shopping Centre and Morrish Solicitors.