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How’s it going? – Enabling people with learning disabilities to share how they are feeling about their lives

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This guest blog post was written by Lois Cameron who is the Director at Talking Mats, a social enterprise whose vision is to improve the lives of people with communication difficulties, and those close to them, by increasing their capacity to communicate effectively about things that matter to them.

The Keeping Safe project has supported people with a learning disability throughout Scotland to think about their lives and express concerns. This last project was funded by Scottish Government although the work started in April 2011, as part of an earlier project involving Survivor Scotland, NHS Fife and KASP .

The project involved;

  • Developing a Talking Mats resource
  • Training staff working with adults throughout Scotland to use it
  • Training trainers to ensure sustainability within local organisations

What is Talking Mats

Talking Mats is a low tech visual communication framework originally developed at the University of Stirling.   Research demonstrates that using Talking Mats helps people with learning disabilities say more, and the quality of what they say is enhanced, compared to usual methods of communication.

This resource was developed in partnership with a range of organisations, staff who were delivering services, and people with a learning disability. The resulting Keeping Safe Talking Mat resource has three mats covering 1) Well-being  2) Relationships and 3)Thoughts and Feelings. The key outcomes of The Keys to life are embedded and the Talking Mats conversation enables people to reflect on their health, issues of choice and control, independence and their participation in wider society

As Talking Mats developed out of research it is important that people using it implement the principles in order to use it effectively. Training was seen to be key in ensuring this.  Currently over 600 staff throughout Scotland have been trained to use the resource. Despite the funded project ending, this figure is still growing because of the establishment of local trainers.  The resource and training can also be purchased directly from Talking Mats.

The Impact of the Talking Mats Keeping Safe Resource

We have many powerful and moving stories that have come from using the resource but in summary it has been shown to enable people with a learning disability to:

  • discuss new information (89%). Staff frequently commented that using the Mats revealed novel information about the person with learning disability even though they might have worked with them for a long time
  • discuss sensitive issues and resolve fears (84%) . It provided a framework that was supportive for those more difficult and or sensitive conversations e.g.’ Usually when she expresses her feelings she can get either upset or angry. She did not get upset or angry at any point through doing the Talking Mats, although the subject and things she was saying was at times difficult issues.’
  • supports thinking (89%)It helps with memory and attention as she has something visual to keep her focused.’

Initially, many staff thought using the resource would take too much time but in fact were surprised to find how much quality information they got in a short space of time.  A cost benefit analysis demonstrated that using the Keeping Safe resource is cost effective for organisations i.e. for every £1.00 an organisation spends on the training and the resource, the potential financial benefit to the organisation is £23.00. We believe the Mats create a powerful listening space and that issues can be addressed timeously and not spiral out of control. This not only has a financial benefit, but also a return in terms of an individual’s well-being and access to local non specialist services.

If you want to access the training and resources then there are trainers  in Argyll , Ayrshire and Arran, Dumfries & Galloway, Lanarkshire, Lothian, Perth & Kinross, Fife, Borders ,Glasgow and Forth Valley.  Otherwise we are holding an advanced Talking Mats course (which includes the resource)  on the 26th October in Stirling . This is open to anyone who has been Talking Mats trained. Please contact