Carving Out a New Community Role

Young people with intellectual disabilities have been given support and encouragement in a mutually beneficial Men’s Shed programme.

In the last 20 years, the Men’s Shed movement has gone from strength to strength. There are now almost 1,000 Men’s Sheds around Australia; volunteer-run sites where men can work on personal or communal projects, chat, or simply be in a space together.

The programme provides facilities for activities such as woodwork, metalwork, gardening, arts and crafts, and computer projects. Nathan Wilson, an associate professor at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University, became interested in the Men’s Shed movement after seeing the benefits that participation in special Men’s Shed programmes offered both retired men with intellectual disabilities and young men at risk. 

 This interest sparked an ongoing Men’s Shed research partnership with Reinie Cordier, an associate professor at Curtin University, over the last 10 years. In particular, Wilson and Cordier wanted to see whether this community resource might also help young men with intellectual disabilities who had finished school, for whom there aren’t always many options for social interaction, activities and learning.

Need to know

  • MECSH stands for Maternal Early Childhood Sustained Home visiting programme.
  • It is embedded in existing services and builds up their capabilities.
  • It has helped around 15,000 families across Australia, the UK, the US and South Korea.

“The choices are to either get an expert disability service in to provide support and activities, and pay for it, or you acknowledge community capacity, and the people out there in society that actually want to help others and give back,” Wilson says.

And while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for the positive impact of Men’s Sheds, Wilson said there is a lack of rigorous academic evidence. So with his collaborators at Curtin University in Perth, Wilson launched a six-week pilot study in 2017 to assess whether it was feasible to place young men with intellectual disabilities into a Men’s Shed, and to find out what support the younger and older participants in such an initiative might need.

The pilot study showed that the programme was feasible. “The mentors wanted longer than six weeks because it wasn’t enough time to get to know these young blokes,” Wilson says. “They wanted to really get a sense of where the young men were coming from and what their aspirations may be.”

Now a second study has trialled a six-month mentoring programme. Mentors were given training for working with young men with intellectual disabilities, and a researcher, a trained occupational therapist, remained on-site for the first six weeks to help when needed.

“Toward the end of the six weeks, the main reason the mentors needed the researchers there was almost to gain permission to use their own common sense,” Wilson says.

Angus Buchanan, a professor at Curtin University who has been involved with the project, says the benefits for both parties are easy to see. “When I went to the final graduation lunch, I saw people with pride and self-esteem, and self-efficacy; that sense of ‘I’ve been accepted for who I am, and I’m part of something’,” he says. “There was a lovely reciprocity between the elders and the young guys.”

The data didn’t show quantitative changes in factors such as depression or loneliness for the young participants, or in physical health-related measures for the older male mentors. For the young mentees however, there was a significantly improved sense of community-based quality of life, and for the mentors, a significantly improved sense of mental wellbeing. 

Further, the qualitative data provides a glowing testimony from the people involved, and from the young men’s parents. Many of the young men who have participated have since found paid employment; and that the programme has delivered some unexpected social benefits.

Don is a mentor at the Manning Men’s Shed, and has helped two young men with woodworking projects. He has been particularly delighted by seeing them blossom during the program. “One of the things that was unexpected was participation in social events; we’ve had dinners and extended outings, and they all came to these lunches and dinners, and I think that was successful.” 

One participant, Declan, who worked on projects such as repairing a sideboard, building toy boxes and wooden toys, even surprised himself with this. “Some of us went with our folks just in case we weren’t entirely up to it, but there was a couple of times where I decided to go to social events on my own,” he says. “The occupational therapist in charge of the program considered that a really big leap, especially for someone who’s not entirely as socially capable as others.”

Wilson and colleagues hope that the results will inform development of guidelines that can be used by other Men’s Sheds who might be interested in mentoring programmes.

“What we’d like to come from this is for the concept of mentoring young people at Men’s Sheds to gain a little bit more prominence, so people can start to see the potential benefit that these organisations are giving to disadvantaged people in their community.” 

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Nathan Wilson

Nathan Wilson's research interests are in applied research that enhances the health, wellbeing and social participation of people with long-term disabilities. In particular, Dr Wilson has expertise on the intersection of disability, men’s health and sexual health with over 25 published scientific articles in the area. Dr Wilson was recently elected to the role of President of the Professional Association of Nurses in Developmental Disabilities, Australia (PANDDA). In 2014, Dr Wilson co-edited a special journal issue on developmental disability and sexual health with Dr Michelle McCarthy, a colleague from the University of Kent, UK. In addition, he has co-authored a book on Transition to Retirement for older people with a lifelong disability based on a highly successful ARC-Linkage project led by Professor Roger J Stancliffe. Dr Wilson and Prof Stanclfife recently conducted an international webinar about this project supported by the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disability. More recently, Dr Wilson co-authored with A/Prof Reinie Cordier the first ever formal review of peer reviewed literature about Men's Sheds. Dr Wilson presents regularly at national and international scientific meetings and has research collaborations with groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and South Africa. 


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Future-Care is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.