My research takes place in a therapeutic community comprising a population of approximately 25 support workers (of varying ages) and 45 young women and men with learning difficulties, aged between 16 and 25 years. The therapeutic community also serves as a further education college. The young people (or students as they prefer to be known) live in the therapeutic community 38 weeks of the year; the remaining part of the year being spent in the family home, together with varying periods of ‘respite’.
There is no one particular definition in the literature as to the meaning of ‘therapeutic community’. What the literature does suggest, however, is a common approach by such organisations, that facilitates groups of people to live and work together, in non-hierarchical relationships (Campling &Haigh, 1999).
My reasons for undertaking research in a therapeutic community are partly to do with the fact that I am the mother of a young woman with learning difficulties and who was recently a student at the therapeutic community. I was also a part-time volunteer at the therapeutic community in which capacity I ‘helped’ many young adults in the classroom and in the various workshops. This was as well as having numerous opportunities to chat with students during tea breaks, lunch breaks and ‘on the hoof’ between activities, as well as undertaking informal interviews with the students. I was also curious about a group of people who appear to live in isolation, away from the rest of the world, and in whom I had entrusted my daughter. I was also lucky enough to be granted funding by the ESRC to undertake my research.
On reviewing the literature around disability generally and learning difficulties in particular, it appears there is very little literature where the voices of young adults with learning difficulties take centre stage. I am also not aware of any literature concerning therapeutic communities that include an analysis of what people with learning difficulties say about their experiences in such a community. I have only come across what service-providers and other professionals say about the services that are provided for this particular group of people.
In essence, my research is about finding out how young women and men with learning difficulties, living in a therapeutic community, experience leisure. Since leisure is of central importance to ALL young people and since I am well-placed to investigate how young adults with learning difficulties experience leisure, I embarked upon a critical and rewarding period of ethnographic research.