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Conversation Partner Scheme

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This case study has been generated by a collaborative research study of community-university partnerships. Part of the ESRC-funded Imagine Project, the study was conducted jointly by Susanne Martikke, research officer at Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation alongside Professors Angie Hart and Andrew Church of the University of Brighton.

This project is led by Sally McVivker, Connect and Simon Horton, University of East Anglia.

When the communication disability network Connect started in 2000, the organisation’s founding members included a professor of Speech and Language Therapy and the approach it promoted was backed up by academic research. Therefore, Connect started out as a research-minded organisation. Maybe it is not a surprise that its Conversation Partner Scheme now works with a number of universities across the UK and the Republic of Ireland to involve students in supporting people with aphasia, a communication disability that can be caused by strokes or brain injuries.

The charity developed the scheme to offer a meaningful long-term support service to people with stroke and aphasia, once traditional one-to-one therapy services have come to an end. At the heart of the scheme is the involvement of those affected by aphasia to train volunteers as “conversation partners.” After Connect had piloted the programme in London, where it is based, in 2004 it started looking to develop partnerships with five NHS partner organisations elsewhere. However, it proved to be difficult to partner with the NHS and eventually, Connect built on relationships that the academic founding member had to make contact with Simon Horton at UEA in Norwich.Connect image people

In Simon, an early-career academic with prior practical experience in the NHS who was thoroughly committed to patient involvement, Sally had found a perfect match. They worked to incorporate the scheme into UEA’s curriculum for first-year students of Speech and Language Therapy. Instead of recruiting volunteers, the programme therefore drew on a ready supply of students whom it provided with important first-hand insight about disability. While this worked well, the one thing that was a challenge was to get enough referrals to keep all the students occupied. The academic calendar, with its gaps in student availability posed another obstacle that had to be overcome through flexibility in visiting schedules

Connect’s partnership with UEA led for further developments. For example, UEA recruited around twenty people with aphasia as trainers, experts and advisers, and continues to recruit and train trainers. Simon has also worked to extend the principle of his work with Connect to training for students of occupational therapy and physiotherapy. His ongoing involvement with the scheme, with Connect, with people with aphasia has meant for Simon that he now has developed an amount of expertise that is recognised more widely and helps him and the conversation partner trainers to become involved in other things, including funded research.

Connect imageThus the first Conversation Partner scheme outside of London was a community university partnership and therefore a pilot programme to pitch to other universities, many of which have taken up the offer. As a result, the scheme has gone from helping 70 people with aphasia to helping 700, as well as training over a thousand volunteers and students. All the organisations involved with Conversation Partners are now part of a network, which has inspired spin-offs in the form of research projects on related topics and evaluations of Conversation Partners, as well as enabling mutual support and advice between schemes. This has become particularly important since Connect has lacked the resources to conduct its own research.

But the partnership has not stopped there. Instead, the idea of trainers with aphasia sparked Simon’s imagination, leading to collaboration with Sally in other small projects, something that keeps Simon connected to the world of practitioners and Sally and her organisation in touch with their academic roots. Both partners believe that the partnership boosts their organisations’ credibility.


Sally McVicker, Chief Executive, Connect: 

Simon Horton, Lecturer in the School of Health Sciences, University of East Anglia: