For a long time it seemed that Tony and his mother had simply been forgotten, left without support to struggle on alone. Tony had always been keen to try new things and build up his skills but there were few opportunities to do this.
Then a resourceful social worker found out about Sense’s TouchBase South East Centre and a new journey began for them both.
“For as long as I live, I will never forget that day” says Janet. “Tony walked in the door and said to me:
“You’ll never guess what I’ve done today Mum – I’ve been rock climbing.”
When Tony was young, and could see better, he used to love climbing trees with his brother,” she says, “but I just couldn’t imagine him ever doing anything like that again.”
“You’ll never guess what I’ve done today Mum – I’ve been rock climbing”
It has taken many years – far too many years – for Tony to have the chance to climb again. Now 49, he attends Sense’s TouchBase South East Centre in Barnet, London where, finally, he has the chance to experience all sorts of challenging and stimulating activities. Before this he and his parents spent many years in a sort of wilderness where they were isolated and largely ignored by social services.
Tony is registered blind, is very hard of hearing and has a learning disability. As a young person he attended college where he enjoyed learning a range of skills including using braille and cooking, before moving onto a local learning disability day centre when he was 21.
At first this was fine. The manager looked out for him, Tony did woodwork and work experience at a gardening centre, joined a drama group and went on a supported holiday. But gradually things deteriorated. The manager left, there were big cuts in the centre’s budgets and increasingly Tony would spend his time sitting alone in a room, often sleeping. Unsurprisingly he also became increasingly quiet and withdrawn. “He didn’t talk to you,” says Janet. “He’d answer questions but just didn’t talk.”
Eventually Tony’s mum and dad decided that it simply wasn’t worth him going to the centre. Tony worked in the garden at home and went into town with his dad, but the family was becoming increasingly isolated. “Because we had left the system, nobody ever bothered with us,” says Janet. “For years we had no contact with anybody, social services or anything. It wasn’t a life. We didn’t go anywhere, we didn’t do anything.”
“It wasn’t a life. We didn’t go anywhere, we didn’t do anything”
Tony and Janet have a strong relationship but this situation took its toll. Janet often felt depressed and anxious, especially after her husband died in 2014 and Tony was very quiet and withdrawn. There were sporadic visits from social workers, but staff turnover was high and there was little continuity.
Eventually, a new social worker came across a file about Tony that had been lost, took a much more active interest in his situation and identified that TouchBase South East could meet his needs. Getting the local authority to agree to fund his place was a lengthy process but eventually Tony was able to start.
“Of course, he was quite nervous at first,” says Janet, “like anyone would be. But it was pretty obvious from the get-go that once he got into his stride he was very excited about it.” He loves getting out and meeting the people at the centre, and trying out the variety of activities on offer – from music to cooking, trampolining to going out in the local community.
Best of all though, is that he is climbing again. “My favourite thing is rock climbing, that’s what I like.” says Tony. “I’m happy doing new things.” He has been able to take up climbing again thanks to our Sport England funded project, Sporting Sense.
“My favourite thing is rock climbing”
Graham, his support worker and intervenor, has been impressed by Tony’s progress. “He’s shown a real determination and fearlessness since he’s come to the centre. I wouldn’t have dreamed of him doing stuff like rock climbing because he was so quiet and meek. As soon as he got on the climbing wall he started to find his way, finding the hand holds. He just keeps achieving little steps and, you know, the next time I went rock climbing with him a few weeks later, he was literally climbing up the next-biggest wall, and it was, like, so immediate. He was on and he was off!”
As well as supporting Tony at the centre, Graham also works as his intervenor one day each week, helping him to access Hitchin, which is his home town. Depending on what Tony wants to do they might go shopping in town or visit Tony’s favourite café where he is a regular.
These experiences have done wonders for Tony’s confidence. He is noticeably more sociable now and his mischievous sense of humour has come to the fore. Recently he has also joined the Sense User’s Reference Group (SURG) where individuals have their say about the way that Sense provides its services. He has also come into the Sense office in London to help out with creating some braille labels for visually impaired staff.
He has also come out of his shell at home. “It’s like something has opened up for him,” says Janet. “Everything is coming in and he’s passing it back out. We talk about things now. He says `Want a cup of tea, Mum? I’ll make you one.’ Recently he said, `Can we go in a shoe shop to have a look at the shoes?’ He’s never done before. That’s new, I’m taking my son shopping and he’s telling me what he wants to do.”
“That’s new, I’m taking my son shopping and he’s telling me what he wants to do”
“Tony going to TouchBase has helped him but it’s also helped me a lot. We’re much happier now. I’m just angry that it took so long for someone to tell us about Sense. It was like Tony had been filed away.
“I can’t say enough about TouchBase, because, you know, they’ve just made our life completely different. He always comes home happy, and he can’t wait to get in the door to tell you what he’s been up to and everything.”
By Colin Anderson and Shaanvir Rehal
This article was first published in Talking Sense, the Sense members’ magazine. Click below to become a member for free!