A pint with the regulars at the Glass Pig: Pubs don't always welcome people with learning difficulties, so Edward Donohue opened his own, writes Harry Pugh

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Wednesday night is music night at the Glass Pig. A jazz band begins to warm up in a corner of the function room. Groups of young people are seated at the tables, sipping their drinks while tapping their feet to the rhythm.

It is not immediately apparent what makes this pub unique, but study those young jazz fans closely and you will observe oddities in their behaviour. One young man walks up and down with his fingers in his ears. Another continues rocking after the music has stopped. An attractive young girl waves her arms about violently.

The Glass Pig in Herefordshire is the only pub in Britain bought and run for people with severe learning difficulties. The name was chosen by the landlord, Edward Donohue, from an old Lancashire expression his grandmother used: 'If you can't have the moon, settle for a glass pig.'

He and his wife, Janet, started the Midsomer Trust six years ago to run homes for young people with varying degrees of intellectual limitation. There are now eight homes with a total of 39 residents, mostly in their twenties and thirties.

Mr Donohue has had several unhappy experiences of taking small parties of his residents into regular pubs. 'Some people look at them askance, and back away, while others can be downright rude, and even ridicule them. It's not just ignorant customers. Landlords can be just as bad. I once took a small party to a pub in Ledbury for a lunchtime drink. The landlord saw us getting out of the minibus, and he met us at the door. He said he wasn't open, even though we could see other drinkers inside.'

There have also been problems with more tolerant landlords. 'Sometimes my young people can be a bit slow making up their minds what they want to drink, and bar staff get impatient with them and tell them to hurry up. I've had licencees coming up to me saying, 'You'll have them all out by nine o'clock, won't you?' '

People with learning difficulties are usually unaware of these embarrassments, and they love to socialise. Mr Donohue believes integrating them with the community adds a new dimension to their lives. That was why, when he found other pubs closed to them, he decided to buy his own.

The Foley Arms, surrounded by hop fields and cider orchards in the village of Tarrington, in Hereford and Worcester, initially looked gloomy and uninviting. Edward Donohue bought it for pounds 135,000 and spent another pounds 55,000 brightening it up. The Glass Pig sign went up and it reopened for business.

'It was an experiment, but after three months it's working well,' he says. 'It's the best thing we've ever done. It improves the quality of life for our residents, and it's helping them to learn the social graces.'

Some of the young men have become regulars, visiting the pub two or three times a week. They play pool and, even though they struggle with the scoring, some of them are quite deadly on the dartboard. What gives their landlord most pleasure is the way they mingle and play games with other customers, mostly locals from the village.

But the special night is Wednesday. Residents are ferried in by minibus. Debbie Borge, who is in charge of eight residents at one of the homes, says: 'They look forward to it for days. Some of the girls start getting ready in the afternoon. It takes them a long time to make themselves look nice with make-up and jewellery. It's something they really enjoy.'

None of them drinks very much. I ask one pretty, smartly dressed girl, Renata, who is sitting alone, what she is drinking. 'Cider,' she says slowly. 'Just one glass.' She had bought it herself, and a bag of plain crisps, from the bar. Unable to count, she had handed her purse to the barmaid, Zoe Ward, who had counted out 95p and given it back to her.

The residents are given pounds 5 a week each to spend as they wish, and that's the money they bring to the pub. Most of them, like Renata, just have one drink, perhaps two, and a bag of crisps.

Mark Low, the bar manager, says: 'One or two of the lads might have a pint of beer, but most of them drink low-alcohol lager or cider. I've never seen any of them have too much. Really, they're perfect customers. You need a bit of patience taking their orders, because some of them take a long time making up their mind, but they're no trouble.'

A small number of the residents are autistic, and hardly communicate at all, but they rock backwards and forwards to the music on Wednesday nights. With others, their disability is hardly perceptible. Over a glass of cider, Angus, 33, tells me how much he enjoys his nights in the pub. He plays darts and pool and, on karaoke evenings, does an Elvis Presley impersonation. 'I just love it,' he says.

The reputation of the Glass Pig is spreading, and groups of handicapped people travel there from other areas. Edward Donohue is pleased to see them but is also anxious that the pub doesn't end up catering solely for these customers: 'I want to see integration - people with learning difficulties mingling and socialising with other customers. That's what pubs are for.'

With the jazz in full swing, Claire, a deaf woman in her twenties, crosses the floor. She is carrying a bag of crisps. She gives three crisps to Renata, kisses her on the cheek, then goes back to her seat. Janet Donohue says: 'That's something you don't often see in pubs - customers being nice and kind to each other.'

(Photograph omitted)