Meet five students with learning disabilities who are being supported to live the student life to the full, as part of an innovative project in Cheshire.

Leaving home can be a challenge, and young people with disabilities may require some extra support during this key time. This support can make all the difference when it comes to accessing further education and meaningful employment opportunities that will allow them to progress to an independent life in the community.

“Transition is an exciting yet challenging time for young people and their families,” says Amie Dobinson, North West development manager. “It is a time for finding new opportunities, setting goals, making decisions and moving on into adult life. However, it can also be viewed with trepidation, as many parents worry about what’s out there once their child leaves school.

The same opportunities as other students

Part of our vision at United Response is that young people should have the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers. That means having the chance to be included in ‘mainstream’ activities and reaching their own potential.

Back in 2013, we introduced a new service in Cheshire that modelled this belief. Along with the young people themselves and their families, two student houses were set up in Ellesmere Port that are home to five young people: Sarah, 24, Alisha, 20, Tom, 21, Luke, 20, and Will, 19. The aim of these houses was to provide an opportunity for the students to attend local college, gain skills for independence, find employment opportunities and make friends. Now, nearly four years into the project we can see just how well this local, outcome-focused model of support has increased the independence and development of each of the students. “Sarah used to say to me ‘I wish I could go to university,’ and I felt sad for her,” says her mum Karen. “But now she is getting to have the same kind of experience as her contemporaries.”

Finding the perfect houses

When these houses were first set up, they were picked with various specifications in mind, for example, being nearby to West Cheshire College, the ASDA supermarket and local leisure centre, in order to maximise local connections. Before settling in, the young people, like any other student, spent time purchasing (and borrowing) pots, pans, utensils and furniture.

The transitions were done in a very gradual and person-centred way, with the young people having full control over what pace they moved in. We use Active Support at United Response as a method to encourage the development of independent living skills such as cooking, cleaning and budgeting, as well as creating connections in the community, finding employment and making friends.

A cutting-edge  approach

The accommodation is not a ‘forever home’, but rather a student house where they learn skills, make friends and develop independence whilst attending the local college and then ultimately moving on. Perhaps it doesn’t sound ground-breaking, but it is actually a big step away from the traditional model where young people would either stay at home with parents or attend an expensive residential, out-of-county college.

The project without a doubt has given the young people the opportunity to be fully immersed in student life. They summarise themselves that this past year has been all about “throwing house parties, going to Rihanna gigs, getting the bus on our own, getting a job, setting up a DJ business, dressing up for comic-cons, going on dates, shopping and having boyfriends round to stay.” Everything that a student would do.

Supporting from the side line

Our support team are there in the background to offer guidance around issues commonly faced by young people, including alcohol, internet safety and relationships. Two of the students have become a couple since living independently, and staff have worked honestly and openly with other professionals to support their relationship. Carol Shepherd, senior support worker explains; “We had some very candid discussions about safe sex and appropriate behaviour; they feel comfortable talking to me and know that I don’t get embarrassed.”

“It feels like 2016 was a ‘coming of age’ year for these students who have grown massively in confidence, independence and self-belief since the first time I met them over two years ago,” says Carol proudly.

For more info and some top tips for young people, you can access the Transitions leaflet:

Download 'Lost in Transition?: 5 Top Tips'