‘I am different, that is good’: how an actor with Down’s syndrome is changing perceptions

Sarah Gordy, actor.

Sarah Gordy, actor.

Really enjoyed talking to the brilliant actor Sarah Gordy for today’s interview in The Guardian.

As I explain in the piece, the established theatre and television professional, who has Down’s syndrome, is breaking new ground by playing a character without a disability.

She has just appeared in Manchester play Crocodiles, combining this with charity work, including as Mencap’s first celebrity ambassador with a learning disability, a role she took on a year ago.

If Gordy looks familiar, it’s because she’s already starred in high-profile BBC roles in Call the Midwife and in Upstairs Downstairs as well as being involved in the Shifting Perspectives exhibition, an annual project from the Down’s Syndrome Association, where she posed for the striking portrait below, entitled After Vermeer (and I blogged about the exhibition here).

Sarah Gordy in 'Sarah After Vermeer', shot by Richard Bailey

Sarah Gordy in ‘After Vermeer’, shot by Richard Bailey

As Gordy told me, “I’m just a normal person who lives a normal life.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarah_gordy

Posted in Learning disability, Music & arts, Third sector, Volunteering | Leave a comment

Tech two: UK charity recycles computers to Africa

African students benefit from the UK's unwanted, recycled computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)

African students benefit from the UK’s unwanted, recycled computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Stories of public sector waste and inefficiency are commonplace, not least amid the current climate of cuts and the notion of “doing more with less”. Which is why I was interested to hear of a project in Gloucestershire that collects old computers from police, NHS and other public bodies and charities, gives them a new lease of life and distributes them to African schools.

IT Schools Africa, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, collects old, used machines in the UK, refurbishes them – dismantling them and fixing software problems, for example – before sending them to schools in Africa.

Given the recent news of dodgy tech hardware – and frankly even dodgier tech opinions – it’s a good time to be reminded about IT’s positive impact.

The charity has sent more than 44,000 recycled computers to eight African countries since its launch, allowing an estimated 3m children access to technology. It also delivers technical support and IT teacher training in the schools.

Schools in Africa benefit from the UK's revamped computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Schools in Africa benefit from the UK’s revamped computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Manufacturing a PC, as the charity points out, consumes 240kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water. So re-using the machines not only benefits young people in Africa, but helps the environment (once the computers have reached the end of the lives in Africa, the charity also recycles the materials and parts).

In the UK, the charity offers work experience to local students and to young people with special educational needs as well as to the long-term unemployed. It works with three prisons – Cardiff, Whitemoor and Winchester – where prisoners work to refurbish computers.

Work experience students working to refurbish computers for Africa  (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Work experience students working to refurbish computers for Africa (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Over the last three year Gloucestershire Constabulary has donated 275 computers, the local NHS Trust 194 computers and charity donors include the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (147 machines), the Order of St Johns Care Trust (208 computers) and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which gave 21 computers.

Private sector firms and individuals are also among those donating machines, and the charity is using its 10 year landmark to renew its fundraising dive, hoping to expand its network of donors and its work with prisons.

Find out more here.

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Immigration: what is it like for a child?

An image from the new book Billu Leaves India! (Artist: Iain MacLeod-Brudenell)

An image from Gersh Subhra’s book Billu Leaves India! illustrated by Iain MacLeod-Brudenell

How does a young child cope when he is suddenly uprooted from the people and places he loves and confronted with a new home in a distant, completely alien land? What was it like for a child to be among the first immigrants moving to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s?

I like the idea behind a new children’s book, Billu Leaves India!, because it presents the rarely told story – from the perspective of a child – of the impact of immigration on younger members of the family. Launched yesterday at the University of Derby’s multi-faith centre , it aims to help children of immigrant families “make sense of the feelings of dislocation and strangeness, which are part of the immigrant’s journey”.

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Although fictional, the storybook for children aged seven upwards is loosely based on the childhood experiences of its author, University of Derby associate lecturer Gersh Subhra, who left his small Indian village in 1964 aged four; the family settled in Coventry. Profits from the book go to Oxfam and Derby Open Centre, which promotes better understanding between cultures in the city. The author volunteers with both organisations.

drawing copy

The book tells the tale of six-year-old Billu, who leaves his beloved village in India to emigrate to England in the 60s with his family. The book focuses on the boy’s relationship with his beloved uncle Tyaa. Tyaa makes his nephew a copper bowl as a leaving gift, symbolising the pair’s long-distance relationship.

openingdoor(E) copy

Subhra, a former youth and community worker and ex-head of the university’s Centre for Community Regeneration, explains: “ “As a boy, I grew up with stories about India and the journey that many in our community made from there to England. These anecdotes were filled with all of the emotions one can imagine; the doubts, as well as the hopes and aspirations involved in moving to a new life.

“Because it was a long time before I went back to the village of my birth in India, I’ve added into my story a fictional perspective on what it might have been like. I even had an uncle who was a bit like Billu’s who, unfortunately, I never saw again after I left for England.”

boyandlady(E) copy

Billu Leaves India! is illustrated by artist Iain MacLeod-Brudenell – also a former University of Derby lecturer – and is published through Matador, part of Troubador Publishing. Copies can be bought via the publisher’s website or on Amazon.

Posted in Race, Refugees & asylum, Third sector, Uncategorized, Volunteering, Young people | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Specialist dementia care for black and ethnic minority families

“They should not suffer in silence”, says Amina Begum, a full time carer for her mother, of why we need more culturally specific dementia services for black and South Asian communities.

Speaking to me for a Guardian piece published today ahead of World Alzheimer’s Day on Sunday, Amina spoke about the contrast in support between when her father had Alzheimer’s (he died seven years ago) and today, as she cares for her mother, Jahanara, who has vascular dementia.

Amina is lucky; there is strong targeted support in Tower Hamlets for the area’s Somali, Chinese and Bengali communities. But while there are pockets of great practice, such as the Alzheimer’s Society’s monthly “dementia cafes” that Amina and her mother attend, such specialist care is not widespread. This is despite the fact that African-Caribbean and South Asian UK communities are at greater risk of developing dementia than the indigenous white population.

Amina Begum, a full time carer for her mother who has dementia (photo: Alzheimer's Society)

Amina Begum, a full time carer for her mother who has dementia (photo: Alzheimer’s Society)

Amina told me that as she hears her mother swaps childhood stories with her peers at the Sylheti-speaking dementia cafe, she sees another side to her 65-year-old parent. Jahanara is at ease and animated instead of being confused and frustrated. The pair are among around 200 regulars at the social club for the area’s Bengali community based at the East London Mosque. Continue reading the full piece here.

*Amina and her two daughters are taking part in the fundraising Memory Walk on Saturday 28 September which aims to raise money for research into dementia.

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Festival season: access a few more areas

Music festivals and accessibility: image from the Chase Park Festival 2013

Music festivals and accessibility: the Chase Park Festival 2013

Summer festival season is underway and in just over a week, a new event in the North East will help grow the burgeoning accessible live music scene.

Inclusivity and access are not (yet) par for the course at live arts venues and events (as my family and I have found out), but the concepts are at least becoming more commonplace at music festivals.

The Middlehaven Festival in Middlesborough on Saturday 23, run by care specialists Keiro, builds on the success of the Chase Park Festival in Gateshead (the Gateshead event was established by Paul Belk; Belk, who has used a wheelchair since his brain injury, was supported at the Keiro rehabilitation centre that lent the Chase Park festival its name).

Middlehaven offers level boardwalks and wheelchair access, specialist toilets, hoisting and changing facilities, a hearing loop and a sensory “chill out” area and on-site medical services.

The images here, taken from last year’s Chase Park Festival, give you a flavour of what to expect- and what other venues and events should aspire to. For more information, check the Middlehaven website and Attitude is Everything, which works with the live music sector to improve access for deaf and disabled people.

* This is the last Social Issue post till September as the blog takes a summer break.

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Why did the Salvation Army fail to act on my claims of sexual abuse?

A woman who complained 16 years ago of being abused by charity personnel in the 1970s now wants an inquiry:

The Salvation Army failed to investigate allegations of historical child abuse, according to a woman who told the charity 16 years ago that four of its members had sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.

In 1998, Lucy Taylor (not her real name) told the Salvation Army that four men at her local branch of the charity in the north of England had abused her. Her story suggests she was groomed from the age of 10, assaulted from 12 years old and the abuse continued for eight years until she left the organisation.

Taylor says her complaints were not handled seriously either at the local branch, known as a “citadel”, which was at the centre of her allegations, or at the national headquarters in London. When she later approached police, an investigation resulted in two of the four men being arrested on suspicion of indecent assault. They were later released without charge. For legal reasons the Guardian cannot name the alleged victim, now in her 50s, or the men.

Taylor says: “I want somebody to take me seriously – listen to my problem and help me sort this out”. She adds of her alleged abusers: “I just want them to realise what they’ve done to me [but] part of me doesn’t, part of me doesn’t want them to know how it’s upset me and ruined my life.” Read the rest of my interview and report on the Guardian website.

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Enlightenment at the end of the tunnel of love

Tilley, Heart n Soul's Tunnel of Love

Singer Tilley Hughes, pictured for arts charity Heart n Soul’s Tunnel of Love

“Flirty, playful love” is not, so the general perception goes, the realm of people who happen to have a learning disability.

But that concept is being turned joyfully on its head via a heart-shaped door, a “tunnel of love”, mirrors, multi-media installations and a healthy dose of cheeky humour on London’s Southbank this summer.

Wayne, Heart n Soul's Tunnel of Love

Wayne, Heart n Soul’s Tunnel of Love

The theme of love, as perceived by artists with learning disabilities, is explored in arts organisation Heart n Soul’s latest venture at the Southbank Centre.

I’ve blogged and written articles before about the arts charity’s collaborative, awareness-raising, thought-provoking and frankly bloody good fun events and projects. Its latest move, Tunnel of Love, part of the Southbank’s Festival of Love, gives a conceptual nod and a wink to the fairgrounds of yesteryear – and it is more of the inclusive, stereotype-shattering same stuff that the arts outfit has a reputation for.

According to the London-based organisation, Tunnel of Love “raises a rare opportunity to consider a notion that seems to put society back in the 60’s once again: our attitudes to how people with learning disabilities conduct personal relationships and develop sexual behaviour”.

The Fish Police perform at a recent gig

The Fish Police perform at a recent gig

On Wednesdays until the end of August, Tunnel of Love will also feature live performance from a host of Heart n Soul artists, there are sessions from the likes of artists like singer Tilley Hughes (pictured) and the project includes the chance to catch three-piece band The Fish Police (pictured). For full information, check the Heart n Soul website.

The festival and related events run until the end of August and the charity’s annual club night multi-media extravaganza, the Beautiful Octopus Club will be back at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 6 September for the sixth year running.

Posted in Disability, Learning disability, media & communication, Music & arts, Third sector, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Campaigning in my community for mental health

Each time I return to my childhood village the memories come flooding back.

Memories of football in the street and endless walks along rugged cliffs that are some of the highest in the country. A sense of innocence from another era now gone forever.

My native town is Staithes, a small fishing village nestling beneath cliffs on the north Yorkshire coast. A tourist attraction in summer, Staithes is synonymous with Captain James Cook who worked and lived there prior to setting sail to discover Australia.

My childhood growing up in the village was mostly uneventful but rocked by my parents’ separation and my father’s mental health issues. Mental illness was very much misunderstood in the village and this was no different to any other village in England at that time.

Over 50 years later, and nearer to the grave than the cradle, I now want to return to my roots to try to bring about change, however small, around attitudes to mental health. I want to raise awareness in the village of the stigma of mental health and how it impacts on the sufferer and their families. A stigma as dangerous as the high cliffs I would climb as a child and the raging sea that batters the village in winter.

Stigma and discrimination of mental illness exists in all villages and towns. Time To Change, England’s largest mental health anti-stigma programme seeks to change all that. I volunteer for Time To Change and use my qualified psychiatric nurse knowledge and and personal ‘lived experience’ to try to bring about more awareness, understanding and tolerance of mental health.

I feel confident that the event next Thursday (24 July) will be successful. Why? A sense of community exists to this day in Staithes, which I believe is part of being from North Yorkshire and who we are as a people. A down to earth friendliness, community spirit, and willingness to help others in time of need.

What I have organised is an informal evening in the village hall to raise awareness, educate, and de- mystify some of the negative and damaging misconceptions of mental health; SOS Staithes Opposes Stigma of mental health (the title “SOS” reflects the international distress signal ‘Save Our Souls’ which the village, a once thriving port, uses so I thought that would be an apt title).

I will also talk about my advisory work with Steve Halliwell, who played the character Zak Dingle in the television soap Emmerdale , to help craft the award winning depression storyline. This was done with the aim of making mental health depictions on TV more realistic and sensitive. People here in identify with Zak Dingle as the programme is Yorkshire-based.

So far the response to my evening event has been very positive. I have visited the village and left posters everywhere. I have spoken to some people I already knew and strangers who I can now call friends. They have been very open and honest about their own mental health issues or spoke of people they know and care for. This has enthused me all the more. I appreciate their being so open and trusting very much.

I wish I had possessed the same feelings of acceptance, understanding, and trust all those years ago as a child around my fathers illness. Small rural communities such as this are more isolated than the larger towns and cities and as a consequence people are often left feeling more alienated and lacking support. I often say as a child I did not understand the word stigma but I certainly knew how it felt.

My aim is simple. I would like the people in the village to be more aware of mental health issues and how mental illness it is indiscriminate. How it effects one in four of the population and that nobody is immune.

I would like the young people to see me as a positive role model and for them to be influenced to try to bring about change themselves in whatever way they can. I would like everyone to understand that Time To Change is a social movement for change and they can all play a part, no matter how small, in this ground breaking campaign.

The young people are the future of the village. They can all make a difference to the villagers of tomorrow as well as today by their words and their actions.

• SOS: STAITHES OPPOSES STIGMA of mental health. Thursday 24th July 7 – 9pm held in Staithes village hall – An informal evening of interaction and discussion around mental health. Free entry by ticket. Refreshments available and free promotional Time To Change materials. Tickets from Lol Butterfield on 07958064025, Veronica Foster on 07891607786 or members of the village hall committee.

Posted in Health, Mental health, Social exclusion, Uncategorized, Wellbeing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping

Richard Turner and his volunteer befriender, Delia Jones

Richard Turner and his volunteer befriender, Delia Jones

“No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping…”

I saw these striking words on a postcard displayed at a recent event to celebrate volunteering. With the massive cuts in public spending and the unprecedented reform of welfare, it’s not hard to see why vulnerable people might think they don’t deserve any support.

The words, written by someone with experience of volunteering, referred to the vital work of London-based charity the Octavia Foundation. In full, the handwritten postcard read: “No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping and Octavia does such a good job of making sure that doesn’t happen.”

The event was Octavia’s annual volunteer awards, honouring some of the 250 local people who have given their time to others through the charity over the last year. Actor Tamsin Greig presented awards to those who support work with local people affected by ill health, social isolation, unemployment or poverty.

The foundation operates in the west London boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, supporting older people, working with young people, focusing on training and employment and debt advice. It runs regular groups and activities as well as some inspiring one-off projects which I’ve written about in the past.

The foundation works in one of the most affluent parts of the capital, but there is much for the charity to do in the pockets of deprivation that also exist.

I helped judge the charity’s awards, reading some incredible testimonies from people who benefit from the help of volunteers.

Delia Jones, who volunteers as a befriender for example, was highly commended. Delia was nominated by Richard, who she visits and who was involved in a serious car accident almost 40 years ago – both are pictured above.

Richard’s mother Joyce Turner, 95, who also nominated Delia, explained: “What Delia does for Richard is vital. He will tell Delia what kind of book he wants, as we have a lot of different kinds and we arrange them alphabetically so she can find them. Delia seems exactly right, and we love her visits because it gives Richard such pleasure to see her. The importance of her visit every week is that he only goes out three times a week, and if its raining or bad weather, she is the only thing that he looks forward to. She never lets us down and we can trust her.”

With welfare cuts and a squeeze on public sector funding, many support services are under threat so the work of volunteers is vital in helping society’s most vulnerable people. Some of the most innovative ideas – and inspiring, unsung heroes – are found in small, community-based projects that often don’t get the attention they deserve. The recent Octavia awards are an opportunity to put that right and focus on the important work carried out in local areas.

A full list of winners and background to the awards is on the Octavia Foundation website.

Posted in Cuts, Disability, Employment, Health, Social care, Social exclusion, Third sector, Uncategorized, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Telling the untold stories of austerity


Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites

Do you know what austerity really means?

Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”

But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.

Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.

Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.

O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.

While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.

Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.

People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.

As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”

Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.

Posted in Cuts, Disability, Education, Employment, Health, Housing, Learning disability, Mental health, Older people, Poverty, Social exclusion, Uncategorized, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment