27 October 2020
Care, Listen and Understand

Harvey McEnroe

I was delighted to host a fascinating and at times confronting Big Conversation earlier this month, about autism and learning disabilities through the Medway Innovation Institute.

The reason we do the Big Conversations is because we want to stimulate informed discussions and debates in our organisation that make us a more diverse, progressive and inclusive employer. All the time we fail to create a sense of belonging and psychological safety for every member of staff, we will limit our potenatial for challenge – and ultimately for innovation.

The topic was an important one – a key stigma to battle across society and within MFT is the stigma attached to LD and autism:

  • how this affects our patients and how they can access our services;
  • how this impacts staff working alongside us; and
  • how potential employees face barriers to entering the workforce as a result of their LD or autism.

We were joined by three invited speakers:

  • Miss Ginny Bowbrick, Consultant Vascular Surgeon, Medway NHS Foundation Trust and Founder of ‘Not Less Campaign’
  • Matt Clifton, Chief Executive at Bemix, Kent & Medway Social Enterprise
  • Dr Mary Doherty, Consultant Anaesthetist & Founder of Autistic Doctors International

Spearheading our work on this at MFT is Ginny’s campaign, Different Not Less. Ginny has already received high-profile backing from Professor Sheila the Baroness Hollins, the founder of Beyond Words, a charity that provides books and training to support people who find pictures easier to understand than words.

‘Different Not Less’ is a campaign that aims to improve care for patients with learning disabilities or autism. The campaign was created by Ginny Bowbrick, a Consultant Vascular Surgeon, who is the mother of autistic twins with severe learning disabilities, after she watched the horrific scenes from Whorlton Hall in the Panorama programme that was broadcast last year.

The three key words the campaign hinges are: Care, Listen and Understand

Bemix is a brilliant example of this – an organisation driven to address the limitations facing people with a learning disability seeking experience and employment in public sector organisations. They work alongside people with LD and they are valued as genuine equals – a pure and simple thing, but all their work has sprung from this co-production.

As senior leaders in big organisations and big anchor institutions within our local community, we have a responsibility to build a bridge between the employer and potential employees with a learning disability. We must genuinely allow individuals to contribute as assets to our organisations. 

Then and only then will we fully understand their different life experiences and perspectives, and consequently design and deliver services to meet these differing needs. Medway Council’s supported internships programme is a wonderful case study for this way of working and we are delighted to be building on this work at MFT.

2 things I took away from the discussion:

Small things make a big difference

We have a role to play to adapt to differing needs – especially when these patients can’t vocalise or verbalise their differing needs and requirements. For instance, how we hire. We could move away from the standard interview format – a potentially alienating experience and a quite anxiety-inducing one for someone with autism. We all know that many interviews are barely related to actually doing the ‘hands on’ job, and yet there is systemic advantage and disadvantage built into them. We could open up the talent pool by thinking much more about our hiring formats, moving us to a strengths-based approach.

Another example is how we design our clinical models, we are moving to a virtual world, which can make healthcare more accessible and convenient for the many, and yet talking on the telephone can be stressful for some of our patients. Adapting some of our care models to deliver person-centred care is something we talk a lot about – let us challenge ourselves for the good of this cohort.

Respecting difference and diversity

We employ over 4,000 people. Let’s make a big difference for our own. Let’s run our departments and teams with the bravery and confidence to make it easy and ok for people with LD and Autism to live their authentic lives – embrace this diversity, talk about it, listen to any specific needs, create an ethos in every team where awareness and understanding is widespread. Challenge poor and clumsy language and behaviour. Sometimes the simple things make the most enormous difference within a working day. Normalising the presence of LD and autism in our day-to-day interactions is powerful.

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