Alice Etherington: Founder of Camden People First on speaking up for people with learning disabilities

BY: Ciaran Willis

CATEGORY: Blog, News

Alice Etherington has been standing up for people with learning disabilities for most of her life.

Alice says it’s very important to help people with learning disabilities to speak up for themselves. “You can’t expect other people to speak up. They won’t do it all the time,” she says.

Setting up Camden People First

Alice Etherington is one of the founders of People First in Camden.

People First is a self-advocacy group for people with learning disabilities. This means it is an organisation led by people with learning disabilities. They campaign about their rights and support each other to have better lives.

In 1984, Alice went to a big meeting in the USA held by People First. She travelled with her support worker and a group of people with learning disabilities.

When she got back to the UK, Alice and three other people with learning disabilities started to meet regularly. That was around 1984 and it was the beginning of Camden People First.

Alice campaigned for people with learning disabilities to live in the community  

Alice has lived in London for many years. In the 1970s, though, people made her stay in a mental health hospital.

“It was bad because I didn’t want to go there in the first place. They put me there because they didn’t think I could help myself,” Alice says.

Alice didn’t like the hospital. There wasn’t much to do, she was bored, and she couldn’t meet friends. She didn’t think she should be there.

Sadly, at that time lots of people with learning disabilities lived in mental health hospitals or long stay institutions when they should have been living in their community.


“You can’t expect other people to speak up. They won’t do it all the time,”


In the 1980s Alice moved into her own home in Camden. She became a campaigner and worked on the Stand by Your Bed campaign with The Camden Society. For this, she protested about people with learning disabilities living in hospitals. Alice says: “I like living in London, I didn’t like the hospital.”

Alice lived on her own and worked at the library

Alice has lived independently and managed her own life. For many years she lived in her own home.

She went on holidays by herself to Bognor Regis and Whitstable on the train. “I used to go to places and meet people – meet new friends,” she says.

Alice worked as a librarian at Swiss Cottage Library for about ten years. She enjoyed it, although it had some challenges.

She sometimes got angry when people left books on the floor – so she told people off. “They were making a mess, so I had to clean it all up!” Alice says.

Her favourite part of the job was helping the children to read, she says. She also loved reading and borrowed lots of books herself.

For a long time, Alice also helped other people with learning disabilities to get jobs. Alice thinks it’s important people with learning disabilities have the chance to work and make money. Working with another disability charity The Camden Society she helped people to get a job in their café, Applejack.

Alice helps people with learning disabilities

At Camden People First Alice talked with others about how they could help people with learning disabilities.

They first met at the offices of The Camden Society. Then more and more people with learning disabilities joined their group and they moved to a new building.


‘If people don’t speak up they won’t get things done for them’


Alice did lots to help. She encouraged people to speak up about the support they were getting. She helped people to do their shopping and to make phone calls to the doctor.

When she thought people weren’t getting enough support or the right support that they needed, Alice told the Council she was not happy.

It is important to help people speak for themselves because if people don’t speak up “they won’t get things done for them”, Alice says.

Claudia, who worked with Alice at Camden People First, says that she was brilliant at encouraging people in meetings and remembers her saying: “You’ve got a mouth, you can speak!” At meetings Alice would also often tell people “You can speak up for yourself.”

Alice was also good at organising people in these meetings. She asked people to hold up a green card if they wanted to speak.

When people could not speak, though, Alice would make sure they got help to communicate and she would support them.

Alice worked as treasurer and board member at Camden People First 

For 15 years Alice was the Treasurer at Camden People First. For that job, she wrote down information about the money people spent on a spreadsheet. She also helped to pay bills and money to the Council. And she collected the receipts when people borrowed small amounts of money (petty cash).

Alice also was on the board of Camden People First. She told them how she thought it should grow and what it should be doing. Alice still comes to trustee meetings and is still part of the board.

Alice has spent a lot of time helping other people and she still encourages people with learning disabilities to speak up in the home she shares.

“I am proud that I can speak up for myself,” she says. Her work lives on in the organisation she helped to build. Camden People First continues to help people with learning disabilities to protect their rights and live good lives.

Find out more about Camden People First and their work here:

Get support from LDN London’s Community Hub in Westminster:

Find out more about how Learning Disability Network London supports people like Alice across London:


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