How we made a meal of ‘user involvement’

Our ‘user involvement’ project with University of Brighton

At Stay Up Late we always challenge ourselves to make the running of the charity and our Gig Buddies project as user-led as possible. Between us we’ve also got a lot of experience in the team of involving people with learning disabilities in really meaningful ways through the different levels of ‘participation’. See Think Local Act Personal’s article on ‘The Ladder of Participation’ for more info on what we mean by the different levels of participation.

It started over a beer

I was having a beer with Dr Jem Price, Principal Lecturer, School of Applied Social Science, at University of Brighton and we were pondering how we could better involve people with learning disabilities in the teaching of social work students. We felt that university classrooms aren’t exactly the best environment to share personal experiences about your life.

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Whilst pondering this we thought that maybe the answer would be to take the lessons out of the university and instead do something in an evening in a much more sociable environment such as a pub or restaurant.

Thanks to some funding from the Community and University Partnership Programme we were able to take our little idea and run a short project to see what happened. The project was evaluated by Dee McDonald, a Research Fellow based at the university.

A short summary of the project

You can download the Easier to Read evaluation report here. It was fantastic to be working with the university in this way and there was resounding agreement from both students and participants with learning disabilities that it was a useful project. We intentionally wanted to make the project as co-produced as possible and took the potentially risky decision not to set the agenda for discussion in any way. Of course that could have meant us all sitting in awkward silence for a couple of hours in a restaurant but that just didn’t happen.

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The students were lovely and the conversation just flowed. You can see in the report the topics that were covered; politics, relationships, football, films, student life, mental health, support, work, families and on and on. It was fantastic to see how everyone bonded and found loads of common ground to talk about, and new things to learn too.

Is it worth making a meal of?

There was of course a cost to running a project like this, not just the staff hours but also quite a few pizzas. However, it was well worth it to explore a different, and very easy, way to enable students to connect with people who use services. Of course this approach could work across a whole variety of client groups and doesn’t need to be over food. You just need to find something that everyone wants to do in common, and the conversation will flow.

We’re hoping more will come from this project and thank you to everyone involved, and University of Brighton and Community and University Partnership Programme for supporting it.


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