The ultimate stage of development

SOCIAL care is not just top down provision of services. Through training, lasting partnerships can be born,says Graeme Thomson.

Ian Johnston is now performing in Dancer at the Arches. Picture: Contributed

In the care sector you often hear of the services and support that organisations like Sense Scotland provide to individuals. Sometimes an assumption is made that this is a one-way transaction, with voluntary organisations always giving and caring for the people and families they support. Yet since Sense Scotland was set up by families 30 years ago, what our staff can experience are partnerships which provide them with great joy, opportunities to grow and learn and in many cases form real and meaningful friendships.

As Sense Scotland celebrates its 30 years, one of the people we support is also entering his 30th year and provides an example of the very relationships which staff, families and the people we support, hold so dearly.

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When Ian Johnston first arrived in Sense Scotland’s Adult day services in Glasgow aged 18, he was very different to the young man he is today.

Support worker Martina has worked with Ian for over eight years: She recalls: “I’ve seen how he’s come out of his shell over the years. He’s more confident.”

Ian remembers his first days at Sense Scotland and he very quickly discovered he had his own voice and creativity.

“I was dancing in the music room and everybody loved it,” he explains. Support staff like Martina and the arts team helped Ian discover that rather than being, “…a wee shy boy” he could in fact be a confident, creative and inspirational performer. This was over ten years ago, just at the start of Ian’s journey with Sense Scotland and staff started to explore just where these talents and interests might take him.

So how has Sense Scotland grown over the last 30 years? Early on we started to recognise that we had particular strengths and areas of speciality. In particular, our focus on peoples’ communication support needs helped us explore a person’s individual needs, aspirations and abilities.

In recent years we started an Asdan (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) programme to develop skills in learning, employment and life for young people and adults we support. Ian, along with many other people we support, are now choosing their own training opportunities to help them pursue their ambitions for the future. It was Martina who spotted an opportunity for Ian to grow his independence through Asdan.

“Ian was the first person I did the Asdan with,” said Martina. “I asked him if he would like to do it and Ian said, ‘Yes’. He actually surprised me, I didn’t know he knew these things about himself, so I would just write down whatever Ian said.”

“Asdan’s a different dimension to dance and music but it’s obviously important to a lot of independent skills,” added his Dad Ian. “In the longer term we have to look towards giving him some independence away from the rest of the family. This provides a good transition towards that.”

Through drama sessions with Sense Scotland’s Creative Arts Tutor, Jon Reid, Ian’s experience and confidence as a performer grew. Acting and dancing in Sense Scotland productions including Park and then Home he fast became a distinctive presence on stage. One of the audience members at the play Home certainly spotted some potential in Ian. “During the curtain call he spontaneously began to strut across the stage, revelling in the applause. Almost peacocking like some kind of Mick Jagger! I then felt I really wanted to collaborate with Ian, with his energy.”

This was the late performance artist Adrian Howells, who was on a residency at Sense Scotland in association with the Arches. Soon Adrian and performer/director/producer Gary Gardiner started a new collaboration with Ian, exploring his love of dance and music. This was to become Dancer.

“It’s really a metaphor for having agency or knowing what it is you want to do in your life,” Gary explained about Dancer. “And for Ian, that’s very much dancing, as it me for me too.”

Dancer really pushed Ian not only as a performer but in life in general as he toured the show with Gary, across Britain.

“I’ve been to Birmingham, Cardiff, London and just love it.” said Ian.

And this brings us back to that two-way transaction, those countless relationships between staff and the people we support, as well as with the wider community. One of Sense Scotland core values is to “Recognise individual worth”. So through meaningful and individualised experiences and opportunities offered to the people we support, whether it’s Asdan learning, arts, music and drama, the people we support are now contributing and sharing their talents, life experiences and enthusiasm in towns and cities across Scotland.

In fact Ian and Gary’s Dancer performance is now in demand at venues across the country, bringing people together in a shared space where they can be themselves, make new connections and of course dance.

• Graeme Thomson is communications officer for Sense Scotland. To find out more about Sense Scotland services go to: or phone: 0300 330 9292 Dancer is on as part of the Arches Behaviour Festival on Saturday the 25 and Sunday 26 April.