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A Positive Influence

My awareness of My Life My Choice, started during Covid. I saw a tweet looking for phone buddies - connecting people via phone calls, with people with learning difficulties. I normally do quite a lot of volunteering in my day-to-day life and most of that had stopped because of Covid. I was probably scratching that itch of liking to do things for other people.  


I'm a really big believer in volunteering and when I had young kids, I think it was a massive mental health benefit, to be away from my kids. Part of it as well, is to make sure that I'm not just in my slightly lazy echo chamber. So, I got involved with the phone buddy system. It's quite a rigorous process to make sure that you get matched well because you're dealing with vulnerable adults. So, I was like, which DBS do you want? I've got about seven. 


I was matched with my buddy, Abul. And I used to call him once a week, sometimes twice, and just have a chat, and see how he was. It was hard, we weren't doing very much at the time, but we kind of learned a bit about each other. Still now when I hear his answer phone message, I just immediately smile. Even though at times it’s been demanding, you can't see Abul, or talk to him without smiling. Whenever I call him and I get the answer phone message, I've always got a big grin on my face, because he's just a very sunny person. So, it's really nice.   


The programme ‘Gig Buddies’ is about matching people up to go to gigs and do stuff. Once we were able to meet again, we were able to transition from telephone buddy to gig buddy. We don't actually go to gigs; we tend to go and have coffee once a month. It was really nice the first time I met Abul, because I had no real frame of reference of what he looked like. I’m not even sure whether I knew he's in a wheelchair because we'd only spoken on the phone, but I think I knew how old he was. He has a carer with him all the time, so we have kind of become a bit of a trio, but I try to make sure that my focus is always on Abul. 


One of the things I really like about him is he always asks how are you? He really genuinely wants to know what I've been doing, what my kids have been doing. He's a very curious sort of person and always cares about what you've been up to. And he's funny. You can sort of take the mickey a bit and do a little bit of gentle prodding, and he'll do the same back. I’m definitely not his only friend, he's got a girlfriend, he's got friends. He's always very popular because he's a very chatty, a very well-liked person. 


He's got very particular ways of doing things and he's got a very strong personality. He loves dates and diaries, so half of our meeting will be arranging the next one. And he likes technology, so we'll talk about what new phone he’s getting. He doesn’t like being late for things, so if we were going straight from coffee to the walking group he'd get quite agitated. He's possibly a little bit more relaxed now than he was. Generally, I think he's one of those constants where he stays at his lovely level of Abul-ness, and the chaos of the outside world doesn't affect him. Maybe I'm making an assumption there actually, but he's quite level I would say. 


My Life My Choice is about people living their fullest life. And for all of us, the social side is really important. A really great thing is it’s completely service user led. They help other people with learning difficulties, to do the things and find the things that they enjoy. I think to do them with a friendship group is what gives life meaning. You don’t want to patronise people and go, that's the limit of your life. You want it to be a limitless life.  


They have a really good walking club, so I sometimes join him on that, and we go Christmas shopping together. I've really enjoyed the Christmas shopping. We’ve done that the last two years and I think that's where we've had the most fun. Sitting in a coffee shop is lovely… but it's often noisy and busy, and it can be a bit intense. Whereas if we're going and doing something, I found the conversations sometimes a bit easier. I think he quite likes me someone doing stuff with him, and he always seems like he enjoys our chats and our meetups and things. I don't want to put words into his mouth about what he gets out of it, but those are the things that I sense.  


We've definitely found it harder to meet up after I started the new job and was working more. It's been harder to find time and he will change appointments, which when I'm really busy means that often I'm struggling to meet with him. But it's always lovely to see him. I don't want it to get to the point where it feels like a burden, which it doesn't at all, because I really enjoy it.  


I was really pleased my boys came to an event yesterday. I spoke to them, and I said, you know, there are going to be lots and lots of people there with learning difficulties, and they didn't bat an eyelid. I really like them to see, this is my friend, he’s a different ethnicity from me, he's in a wheelchair, he's got learning difficulties, and we can have a relationship. And that's what I think is really, really important, that I’m friends with someone who's had a really different life experience from me, and yet we can find things to connect on.  


I think he's helped me challenge myself or understand myself a little bit better. And he's definitely taught me patience, because you have to be quite patient. Patience isn't my strong point; Abul and my kids are working on that with me. They're a tag team of trying to get me to be more patient. I think it gives you a much broader perspective on life, thinking about things and considering another person’s mindset, you don't have to always get it right, you just have to be curious about seeing it from someone else's perspective. And that's something that doesn't come naturally to me in life. Seeing it from his point of view, and seeing the challenges that he faces, but also the way that he faces the majority of them with very, very good grace. Systemic things like decisions that are made, or people’s thoughtlessness of where they’ve parked, or how they're walking, do frustrate me. But you see a lot of kindness towards him as well. We go to the coffee shop, and he has to have things a certain temperature, and he has a straw, and some of the staff just bend over backwards to make sure that he's got everything he needs. So that's really nice to see.  


My slight concern is that because I can express myself in a wider way than Abul, my voice is the one that's heard and not his, as it's hard for him to actually tell his story. I love sitting here with biscuits and talking about me but, there’s inequality, just because of our ability, our eloquence or how we can express ourselves. I suppose the concern is that I put words in his mouth. But he goes, yeah, it's good. And it’s good means a lot to him, but it's hard to get more depth than that. I would like his point of view. I don't want to make assumptions or kind of put words into his mouth.   


I think something I've definitely learned, and need to improve on as well, is to be an ally with people with learning difficulties. And about how we put forward information and services that cater for them. Most of the time, I just see a lot of kindness from people, especially in the service industry. But still at times you think, why on earth are you behaving like that to someone who's obviously got learning difficulties? There's still a way to go, but what reassures me is that the majority of people are really very thoughtful and kind towards Abul.  


It makes my life richer. It makes it more complicated as well, but it definitely makes it richer. I come away from a meeting or a phone call with him feeling better about the world. He's a very sunny person. He's a positive influence on my life. It’s fun as well. I’d wholeheartedly recommend. 


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