PEOPLE with disabilities across Scotland are being urged to join a national network to strengthen their voice and increase their social contacts.

From tomorrow they will be able to sign up to a Scotland-wide peer ­network which is launching a new membership scheme to empower ­people with disabilities to be more vocal and involved in decisions about their own lives.

Set up in 2007 by the health and social care charity ARC Scotland, the National Involvement Network (NIN) gives people with a range of additional support needs, the opportunity to share what matters to them, equipping them with the skills to help shape the services they receive and the communities in which they live.

This is the first time that people with support needs have been able to sign up to be part of the NIN as a full member, with the right to vote on decisions, the chance to meet new ­people and share experiences, and the opportunity to have their voice heard and influence change for ­disabled people across Scotland.

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Ayrshire member Fiona Dawson, who has Down’s Syndrome, said the network not only let people have a say but also helped to lessen feelings of isolation.

“I have gained a lot of friends so it has a social impact and it helps to build your confidence,” she said. “We have to be in control of our support and what we want as I feel there is a lack of help and support out there. It is all about getting the right help and support for us as individuals. I feel that doesn’t always happen. For example, the human rights of a lot of people with learning disabilities are not being met. People living with disabilities need their voices to be heard.”

Gregor Hardie, who is autistic, has been part of the NIN for four years and has worked with the organisation to develop a training course about ­involvement, which helps companies on how best to support people with disabilities.

“Being part of NIN has given me a lot of confidence and enabled me to be much more open,” he said. “Membership allows people with disabilities to be involved in what is important for them – they do need to be valued in society. We can influence things that happen in the Scottish Government and we have had campaigns where members’ voices have been heard in all sorts of different things.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the Network has flourished after switching to local and national online meetings. This has enabled an increasing number of people, for whom health, mobility and geography present a challenge, to gather regularly.

Many of them have said it has helped them feel less excluded and isolated, particularly during the lockdowns, but there have also been valuable discussions around the proposed National Care Service for Scotland, the importance of human rights and how people’s lives have been affected by Covid.

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Around 250 people currently take part in the NIN every year. Through the new membership, organisers want to reach more people with ­support needs directly, so that they don’t have to rely on the ­organisations that support them in order to take part.

Twelve principles of inclusion have been set out by NIN in a Charter for Involvement and, to date, 85 organisations from health and social care partnership boards to social care support providers across Scotland have signed up to adopt it, committing themselves to putting the 12 statements into practice. According to an independent evaluation in 2018, more than 10,000 people have benefitted from taking the principles on board.

“The NIN has opened doors for so many people to have their ideas and opinions listened to and respected,” said Catherine Dempsey of ARC ­Scotland. “People connect, share experiences and learn from each other. The NIN are passionate about the Charter for Involvement they have written, and the confidence this gives them to stand up for the life they want. We’re delighted to be launching NIN membership so that more people with additional support needs can choose to join us as members, to have their voice heard and take ­control of the things that matter most to them in their lives.”