30/07/2015 08:30 BST | Updated 29/07/2016 06:59 BST

Through My Friends, I Learnt To Be 'Me'

I haven't always found it easy to make friends. I used to be really aware of my learning disability and I used to worry about what other people thought of me. I was quiet and not myself. I found it hard to talk about having a learning disability because I didn't want people to think I was stupid.

All people need friends. Just because you have a learning disability it does not make this any different but it can sometimes be harder for people with a learning disability. With all the cuts, more people with a learning disability are stuck at home all day, bored and lonely, without the right support to get out in their community and meet existing friends or make new ones.

International Day of Friendship 2015: 'With good friends, you can't lose.' Source: Mencap

I know I found it hard when I was younger. I tried really hard to make friends but I did not always feel comfortable. For example, I went to a social group but I felt left out and ended up leaving.

I was lucky that there were certain people around me - a few close friends, my family and my mum especially who helped to build my confidence. They made me realise I do have a voice, they made me see I had something to say and some people would like me for it. It felt like a flashlight coming on.

It is amazing how far I have come from the shy girl who hid away. I now work as a campaigner for the Royal Mencap Society where I regularly stand up and speak in front of hundreds of people and where I am not afraid to walk up to a politician and challenge them. My younger self could never have dreamed of this.

Something that has been really important to me is the great friends I have around me. I've made some great friends at work, especially other colleagues with a learning disability like Dean who makes me laugh every day, Gina, who is always there for me and Lorainne who looked after me when I started the job - she's like my work sister. There are other people who don't have a learning disability, like my very good friend Lisa, who I have lots in common with. We are both Surrey girls and both like looking glam. Most importantly, though, we've been there for each other when things have got tough and I know I can really trust her.


Ciara (left) and Gina. Source: Mencap

So what makes a good friend? For me, it relies on three things: Trust, humour and loyalty. But trust is the most important thing for me. I still take longer to trust people because of what happened when I was younger, and I do tend to feel safer with other people who have a learning disability. Like a lot of people I also feel nervous meeting new groups of people because I'm nervous of being judged.

My husband, Mark, is my best friend. He doesn't have a learning disability. We met at college and I fancied him straight away. We've been married for just over two years but together for ten years. As well as being husband and wife, we are the best of friends. We make each other laugh all the time, even when I'm nagging him in the kitchen when he's trying to cook. I think we've learnt a lot from each other. He's taught me about respecting people. He helps me to think about things. I think I've taught Mark to stand up for himself more. He doesn't take as much rubbish from people as he used to - me included!

People with a learning disability have the same right to friendships and relationships as anyone else. To be healthy and happy you need good friendships. I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without my friends.