People with learning disabilities connect with friends thanks to amazing campaign that ‘buddies’ them together

As the coronavirus lockdown saw a huge surge in isolation, people with learning disabilities were especially affected as they are often unable to access the internet.

For Learning Disability Week, which kickstarts today, a new initiative has been launched to make sure people with learning disabilities can stay digitally connected to others.

Gig Buddies – a project that pairs people with and without learning disabilities (and/or autism) to be friends and go to events together – is now running an emergency appeal to help their participants who don’t currently have access to the internet get online.

They are now campaigning for donations to provide smartphones to members, helping them stay in touch with pals and have access to Gig Buddies’ online community.

The organisation is shining a light on the theme of the awareness week, which this year is the importance of friendships during lockdown.

As many as 25% of the people with learning disabilities who are supported by national voluntary befriending programme Gig Buddies are unable to digitally connect.

One person in particular who can vouch for the programme’s success, is Bethan Brown.

Bethan, 25, has been gig buddies with Lucy Wilkinson, 36, for almost four years. The pair have been staying connected via video call while quarantined, dancing together remotely.

Bethan, who has Down’s syndrome, told Uspire: “Lucy makes me feel more confident and independent. I love hanging out with her. We can still see each other on video and dance.

“I have also gone to the Gig Buddies coffee mornings on Zoom to see my friends each week and love watching their live music on @Coronavirusfest.”

Lucy added: “The one thing both me and Bethan have in common is our love of dancing.

“To keep in touch, I set up a Saturday evening dance party where I DJ-ed and we danced together on Zoom.”

It costs £220 to provide a participant with a smartphone to get them digitally connected.

Gig Buddies’ director, Paul Richards, explained: “The coronavirus crisis has highlighted bigger inequalities for people with a learning disability who aren’t online.

“While many of us are staying connected with our communities online, people with learning disabilities are more cut off from society than ever before.

“Without access to the internet, a time like this is a very lonely place to be.

“Especially if you already know what it feels like to be socially isolated, because you rely on a support worker to access the outside world.”

Gig Buddies was founded by Stay Up Late, a charity which ensures people with learning disabilities and autism can ‘stay up late’ to take part in activities after it was discovered many of them weren’t able to lead active social lives because their support workers finish at 10pm – meaning lots of people with learning disabilities have to leave events early.

For more info, visit Gig Buddies.