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Working with adults that have learning difficulties


For the past four months, I have been participating in a York Students in Communities placement, providing one-on-one support for adults with learning difficulties by attending a weekly literacy lesson, run by York Learning at the City of York Council’s West Offices. Having never had any involvement with these issues before, I was initially apprehensive about what would be required of me and if I would be capable of providing the necessary support. However, I have actually gained more from this placement than I could ever have anticipated.

Being someone who was lucky enough to have a positive experience of the school system- which allowed me to leave with good qualifications and ready for further study at university- I was initially almost completely ignorant about the breadth of reasons why so many are failed by this same system. Around half of the small group I assist with has a diagnosable developmental disability (most commonly Down’s Syndrome), which has and will affect them throughout their lives. Yet, the other half of the class had less clearly cut reasons behind their difficulties: one had never gotten on with his teachers, another had moved frequently whilst growing up and so had suffered from a lack of educational consistency. Also participating in the class were several learners from a secure mental health unit at York Hospital, accompanied by a social worker, with the weekly class being designed to gradually build their confidence and reintegrate them into society.

Nonetheless, although the reasons behind their presence was different for each member of the class, the difficulties that they experienced were strikingly and disturbingly similar. I quickly realised that I had underestimated how deeply illiteracy would isolate someone from participating in many aspects of society that we take for granted. From not being able to claim benefits to not being able to follow directions to facing years of unemployment, the difficulties faced by many members of the class seemed insurmountable without addressing their root cause.

The lessons take a similar format each week, being designed to ease people who had been turned off the mainstream educational system for decades back into learning gently. Each lesson begins with a PowerPoint presentation by the group’s tutor, giving general background information about the topic we’ll be focusing on this session. All members of the class are given the chance to read aloud if they feel comfortable. This will be followed by individual work, which often involves simple grammar or reading comprehension exercises. Following a quick break halfway through, which offers the opportunity for socialising between the tutor, volunteers and learners, the session will conclude with a fun group game, such as bingo. Simple rituals that are repeated each lesson, such as writing the date on the board or each student writing down what they have taken in from the session in the Individual Learning Planner, offer a sense of structure, purpose and comfort. Lessons are structured around universal topics which will assist the learners in their everyday lives, and more generally will help to build notions of citizenship and community, such as local heritage, respecting others’ traditions and beliefs and healthy eating and exercise.

At first, I was nervous about engaging with the learners and unsure about whether I would be able to help them. The few training sessions I had undergone, I felt, had underprepared me for this volunteering role. Despite the volunteer teaching I had done in the past, for example in a local primary school as a York Students in Schools (YSIS) placement, I had little to no experience of Special Educational Needs or adult education. However, increasingly I learnt to trust my instincts and to not be too self-conscious, for example, about appearing patronising towards the students, when they had often faced incredibly difficult life experiences that I had little conception of. As is often the case in careers, inter-personal relationships really are essential to developing productive working relationships, whether this involved exchanging Christmas cards, or remembering to ask about somebody’s family and how their week had been. Turning up on time every week, being cheerful, reliable and helpful, was in itself enough to improve the learners’ lives immensely.

Overall, the experience has led me to seriously consider a career, or at least a long-term part-time or voluntary position, in the field of special educational needs. Alternatively, if I do decide to go into the legal field, which is another career possibility I am considering at the moment, this experience has made me much more determined to advocate for the rights of those with special needs to access appropriate education as part of my work. More generally though, I feel like everyone should be aware of the shortcomings in the UK’s educational system, in order to fight for its future improvement.

You can find out more about the wide range of volunteering opportunities offered as part of the University of York’s York Students in Communities programme at https://www.york.ac.uk/students/work-volunteering-careers/skills/volunteer/ysic.