Published on: 21st June 2022

Pictured left to right at this week’s group are Carole Palfrey, support officer from PossAbilities; Daniel Latham, group member and Kirsty Savidge, speech and language therapist wit.pngTo mark Learning Disability Week (20-26 June) a Heywood-based sign language group is reaching out offer support to people with a learning disability and those who care for them.

Around 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability, with 65,000 living in Greater Manchester. And 50 to 90 per cent of these people experience communication difficulties. This can lead to health and social care inequalities, poorer life opportunities and mental health issues. It can also lead to loneliness, which is the theme of this year’s awareness week.

Sign language can help people overcome communication difficulties, enabling them to build relationships, take part in activities, education, and work and make choices about their treatment, care. Ultimately this will help improve their independence, mental health and ensure they can reach their full potential and lead happy meaningful lives.

Kirsty Savidge is a speech and language therapist with the Heywood, Middleton, and Rochdale adult community learning disability service, provided by Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

In 2019, she began to support Middleton mum Aileen, 70, and her daughter Helen, 35, who has Down’s syndrome.

Following a challenging period, Helen was finding communicating with others even tougher than before. Kirsty, who is also trained in sign language, tried various approaches with Helen and signing proved to be the method Helen preferred.

Their success sparked the idea of setting up a weekly group to help as many people as possible communicate more effectively through sign language. Kirsty worked with local social enterprise PossAbilities to make this happen and the group has been running for two years.

Aileen was keen for Helen to be able to practice her signing skills with other people who were communicating the same way. With no suitable group existing, Kirsty persuaded PossAbilities to start their own signing group.

The group includes people with a learning disability, their families, and carers and those who simply want to communicate better with someone who has communication difficulties.

Each week the group chooses a theme, which has included health and hygiene, safeguarding and healthy eating. Sometimes the theme is linked to a seasonal event such as Christmas or Eid, or an awareness week.

The group learns a range of functional signs, allowing them to better communicate their wishes and needs on the chosen topic.

There’s also a social aspect to the group, with members invited to share their story, if they wish. And each session ends on a high, with a song and dance.

After taking a break from the group during the pandemic, Helen and her mum have recently begun to attend again.

On why she enjoys her work and why the group has been so valuable, Kirsty said:

“Teaching sign language is one of the favourite parts of my job. It can make a huge difference to people.

“This warm friendly group gives people a chance to practise signing and learn new signs in a fun way. It is a time to answer queries about signs and encourage everyone to express themselves through sign. It helps everyone to see that all forms of communication are welcome and valued.”

People from the group have praised it for being a brilliant way to learn a new skill, inclusive, fun and something to look forward to.

The group is held on Tuesdays from 1pm to 1.30pm at the social lounge, Cherwell Centre, Cherwell Avenue, Heywood OL10 4SY. As a bonus, the centre boasts a free onsite farm and sensory garden. If people would like to join, they can call 01706 692181.