“Feeling important is awesome. I want everyone to feel important.” Nick, one of our Ambassadors opened our annual conference alongside the incoming President of ADASS, Margaret Willcox as co-chairs and instantly had the whole room of Shared Lives and Homeshare colleagues and participants engaged. He was talking about the experience of working with Shared Lives Plus as an Ambassador, doing work which makes a difference, as well as about the feeling of belonging and mattering that is at the heart of all good Shared Lives.
At the annual social services conference the week before, I’d enjoyed, as I do each year, catching up with a huge number of colleagues, making new links and learning about some of the most interesting initiatives around the country (not to mention being rubbish in the annual quiz). But a question from a parent of a disabled daughter stuck with me: “I’ve been looking at all these sessions and discussions and wondering where I will find my daughter in them?” The conference did include a small number of sessions led by people with lived experience including the launch of a new model of ‘coproduction’ from the group of people with lived experience at the heart of the Think Local, Act Personal partnership and an inspiring fringe event with DanceSyndrome and Community Catalysts. But in too many of the main sessions there was a yawning gap between the discussion’s topic and participants and the people whose lives were being discussed. When you put a lot of ‘important’ people together, it can be easy to lose sight of what and who is really important. As Nick told us at our event, it’s great feeling important but that feeling should be for everyone.
Our conference now attracts Shared Lives carers and people using Shared Lives, as well as one or two family members and there are sessions which are designed particularly with them in mind, but I suspect that they will at times have felt that gap in some of the discussions at our event too. Involving people who use Shared Lives and Shared Lives carers as speakers, co-chairs and part of the support team has made a huge difference and hopefully prevents us from straying too far from what we are all supposed to be about, but we know we have further to go. Now that our conference has a Homeshare strand for the first time, we are also starting to think about how people who live in Homeshare households can be a part of future events.
Coproduction, as experts like Clenton Farquharson will tell you, is a journey. If you think you’ve arrived, you’ve probably just stopped. At our event, I was immensely proud of the work that we do, of our team and the membership network of which we are a part. It’s rare I think to be at an event for 200+ which feels both nationally important and ‘like family’ as one participant put it, not to mention smoothly run by our amazing office team. But it’s important I think to keep asking ourselves: where are the people who we are talking about in these discussions? If they are in the room, leading those discussions, having helped to design them, the answer to that question is much more likely to be clear to everyone.