Last week I stepped out of my comfort zone and into a dilapidated church hall in Brighton where I played table tennis with a group of young adults with learning disabilities.
I didn’t distinguish myself. I’ve always had a problem with physical co-ordination. Anyone caught in the hailstorm of ping-pong balls I sent on to the floor might conclude that I had a learning disability of my own.
Though they probably wouldn’t say so. These days “learning disability” is the official euphemism for people who were once described as “mentally handicapped” and, before that, “retarded”. It’s the only acceptable formulation and you’re certainly not allowed to use it flippantly, as I just have.
On the other hand, the disability language police don’t seem terribly concerned about people with learning disabilities, just as long as you label them correctly.
The youngsters in the hall were laughing and joshing with each other. Although in their 20s, they were childishly excited by an activity that, I dare say, would produce groans of boredom from actual children. Many of them had Down’s syndrome, and in my experience people with that condition have a special gift for exuberance.
You don’t have to spend much time in their company before it rubs off on you. But that wasn’t the whole explanation for the cheerfulness in the hall. The table-tennis players had a range of learning disabilities. Some of them were quite capable of understanding that, if the activities hadn’t been laid on for them, they’d be sitting at home – perhaps in the funereal surroundings of a Brighton bedsit in November. So there was also a sense of relief in the air.
Joblessness is just as wretched for young adults with learning disabilities as it is for anyone else. It’s also infinitely more likely to happen to them: just six per cent find work. Team Domenica, the organisation that took them to the table tennis, was founded this year to train them and place them in jobs.
The charity runs a little café in the shadow of the Royal Pavilion. It’s named after Domenica Lawson, who is part of the team and has Down’s syndrome. Her mother, Rosa Monckton, is the co-founder with the businessman Martin Armstrong, also a Catholic.
Rosa is well-connected: the daughter of a viscount, she used to be managing director of Tiffany & Co in Bond Street and was an intimate friend of Diana, Princess of Wales, Domenica’s godmother. Her husband, Domenica’s father, is Dominic Lawson, one of Britain’s most distinguished journalists and the son of Lord Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer.
But any impression I might have had that Team Domenica was a charming philanthropic enterprise run by an effortlessly networking socialite was dispelled within seconds of walking into the café.
Rosa was hovering over a laptop, visibly stressed by emails throwing bureaucratic obstacles in her way. Then she and a specialist teacher had to assemble boisterous trainees into groups to walk up the hill to the table tennis. Some could go unaccompanied, others couldn’t; few things run smoothly when everyone has a different mental age. I couldn’t help thinking that we were a long way from Tiffany & Co.
When Team Domenica was launched in February, Rosa gave an upbeat interview to the Catholic Herald that described its training course for 20 participants and plans for an employment agency that would find jobs for 50 learning-disabled adults.
The course has now started and – judging by the bouncing enthusiasm of the trainees spilling out of the café – a remarkable success. But finding jobs is a different matter. Firms are reluctant to employ people who won’t sharpen their commercial edge. And, though no politician will risk saying so in public, the minimum wage doesn’t help.
“I’ve had parents in tears, just so desperate to find something for their children to do,” says Rosa. “You saw the friendship between them – we all need a peer group.
“The more I look ahead for our candidates, the more I envisage starting little businesses around Brighton, where they can cement their friendships, interact with the public, and have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.”
Mentally disabled people suffer from corrosive loneliness – and, unlike the sharp-elbowed disability lobby, they’re not in a position to extract funding from politicians and donors.
So, to cut a long story short, Team Domenica needs your support – but it’s not going to guilt-trip you. It doesn’t employ smirking “chuggers” who lunge at you in the high street, or highly paid executives who pontificate on the Today programme.
The initiative, I hope, will come from Herald readers. If you visit teamdomenica.com, you’ll find a succinct description of its aims and a painlessly quick method of donating money. Click away, and you can tell a Christmas chugger to get stuffed with a clear conscience.