In 2008 Big Society was hailed as the big idea of the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Coalition Government. Positive definitions focused on Big Society enabling local communities to promote the quality of life of people often marginalised in society. However, many disabled people's organisations have argued that Big Society is being used as a replacement for welfare support and services.

Big Society reflects a contemporary distrust of the state and a belief that individual citizens should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Our research questions the reality of Big Society for people living with learning disabilities and the risks posed by welfare cuts and austerity.

Our research questions

  1. To what extent are people with learning disabilities participating in civil society of the 21st Century?
  2. In the current climate what opportunities exist for people with learning disabilities to contribute to and benefit from the Big Society and, hence, civil society?
  3. What can be learnt about the realities of the Big Society in practice from current and emerging examples of civil society for people with learning disabilities?

How did we answer these questions?

The research was carried out through seven overlapping and interconnected phases:

  • Key stakeholder interviews with disabled people with learning disabilities, members of the third sector, policy makers, lawyers, family members.
  • Longitudinal documentary analysis of academic and policy literature relating to Big Society over the three years of the project.
  • Ethnographic case studies with community partners which involved observing, talking with and learning from our three partners (Speakup self-advocacy, Circles of Support in Lancashire and Employment colleagues in Bristol).
  • Analysis of data collected.
  • Impact workshops shared our findings with people with learning disabilities, their supporters, service providers, disability organisations and policy makers.
  • Researcher-in-residence involved the project researcher giving their time to the community partners to help promote their good practice to others.
  • Public Engagement Events: a series of intern/national events to share research findings and increase the impact of the project.

What did we find out?

Our research found that:

  • In Big Society, disabled people are often described as being 'dependent' or even as 'scroungers';
  • The policy of Big Society is focused on individual active citizens - we think this is a problem because everybody needs other people to support them;
  • We found that people who are living well do so because of their strong connections with other people;
  • Disability is a good place to start thinking about the ways in which we live together;
  • Everybody needs support from other people to be 'good citizens';
  • Friendships between people are important whether or not they are disabled people or 'non-disabled' people;

We suggest that:

  • Thinking about disability can change the way we think about society;
  • Disabled people should not be 'left out in the cold' in social policy or society;
  • Disabled people's experiences and views must always be included in discussion about what a 'good society' might look like;
  • Any changes to welfare provision must seek never to leave people isolated and lonely.

We have identified a number of key findings for people with learning disabilities, their families and professionals, service providers and policy makers who support them:

The research project ran from June 2013 - August 2015 and was a partnership project between four universities: Manchester Metropolitan University, The University of Sheffield, The University of Bristol and Northumbria University as well as civil society partners including Speakup Self-Advocacy Rotherham; BOSS Employment in Bristol, Pete and Wendy Crane (Inclusive Living Advisors), and Helen Smith and Max Neill (Community Circles Coordinators, Lancashire), Molly Mattingly (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities) and David Fiddament (MENCAP).

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this research Big Society? Disabled people with learning disabilities and civil society was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant Ref: ES/K004883/1). The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the ESRC.

More details of the project can be found here and here