Richard Lawrence and his girlfriend Esther are among the faces of a new campaign from Mencap. He explains what London is like for people with a learning disability…
‘I’ve lived in London all my life and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I grew up in Peckham and went to school in Bermondsey, which is where I met my girlfriend Esther. We had our first date watching ‘Harry Brown’ at the Peckham Multiplex eight years ago. It was Esther who had to ask me out in the end: I was too nervous she’d say no!
Esther and I both have a learning disability. Lots of people think that means something like dyslexia, but it’s not: it’s different for everyone. I can struggle to get my words out, and I need support doing some things. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just part of who I am – but it does give me a distinct perspective. For people like Esther and me, London is a different city.
We enjoy doing the same things as anyone else. I like drinking Malibu and Coke and playing pranks on my friends – I get a lot of them from Jeremy Beadle’s old show! One of my favourite things to do is going to Forbidden Planet with Esther: we’re both huge comic book nerds. But it’s hard to get into town from where we live. The London tube map might be world-famous, but it’s very confusing! Tube stations aren’t accessible for people with a learning disability: the signs sometimes point the wrong way or two ways at once, and you end up in the wrong place. It’s easy to feel trapped in a place where everyone else knows the way but they won’t stop to help you. Esther sometimes gets panic attacks if she gets lost, so I try and make sure we travel together if we can; if we get lost then we can always find the way home together. We always say our relationship is like teamwork.
Even though the tube is confusing I prefer it to the bus. On the bus you’re more likely to get abuse – I don’t know why. I’ve had people laugh at me, call me names, even shouting. There was a time about six years ago when it got really bad. I was walking in the street holding hands with Esther when some school kids started throwing stones at us and called us names. A few days later Esther was at a bus stop and the same kids threw boiling water on her. I felt damaged and scared; it hurt that I hadn’t been able to protect her.
I try and stay positive, though. Everywhere has good and bad. I love London: it’s my home and it’s where I want to live with Esther for the rest of our lives. But things do need to change. That’s why Esther and I are taking part in a new poster campaign called Here I Am, put together by Mencap, the charity supporting people with learning disabilities. We had our photos taken by Rankin – apparently he’s a big deal. It was the first time Esther or I had had a full makeover. It felt a little odd, but Esther looks amazing. (And hey, I didn’t scrub up too badly either.)
It’s crazy that there are still those who think that people with a learning disability shouldn’t vote, or get married or have sex. That isn’t right. People need to realise that we’re just the same as anyone. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I just want to have my voice heard.’