City designers bringing urban spaces back to life

Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, using tidal power to generate renewable electricity

Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, using tidal power to generate renewable electricity

Croydon’s historic Wandle Park, restored

Croydon’s historic Wandle Park, restored

London’s Burgess Park, where the transformation included a 3,000 square metre play area

London’s Burgess Park, where the transformation included a 3,000 square metre play area

City Park, Birmingham, from semi-derelict area into a busy urban space

City Park, Birmingham, from semi-derelict area into a busy urban space

Swansea and Croydon – not places usually synonymous with cutting edge design and urban rejuvenation, but both have just been named as among the most forward-thinking places for landscape design.

Among the big projects worth picturing here is the first tidal lagoon – the world’s largest power-generating lagoon – in Swansea Bay and the regenerated Wandle Park in Croydon, south London.

Both are among the winners in the annual Landscape Institute awards, announced yesterday. The awards are granted to outstanding examples of work by the landscape architects. Full details are here.

Posted in Local government, Sustainability, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

No one should suffer like this

Connor Sparrowhawk, who died a preventable death in a Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust unit.

Connor Sparrowhawk, who died a preventable death in a Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust unit.

Stephen Andrade-Martinez is detained in an inpatient unit 80 miles from his London home. He is pictured (right) with his brother Josh.

Stephen Andrade-Martinez is detained in an inpatient unit 80 miles from his London home. He is pictured (right) with his brother Josh.

Tianze Ni, from Fife, stuck in a Middlesborough inpatient unit miles from home.

Tianze Ni, from Fife, stuck in a Middlesborough inpatient unit miles from home.

It is now three years since the abuse inflicted on people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View highlighted the desperate need to get people out of such institutional settings.

In those three years, we know of two people who have died in these kind of assessment and treatment units since then (Connor Sparrowhawk, pictured at the top of the page, and Stephanie Bincliffe). Many more – Tianze and Stephen (also pictured above) among them – are still being placed by health and social care authorities in such places.

The “abject failure” to move people out of these woeful environments is clear. The piece in today’s Guardian looks at this issue, including a report today by Sir Stephen Bubb, Winterbourne View – Time to Change and the momentum for change driven by families and campaigners.

Assessment and treatment centres are inappropriate institutions, modern day versions of the prison-like settings we thought we’d dismantled years ago - holding pens in which to warehouse some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Read that first sentence again – two people died (they had no life-threatening illnesses) in a clinical environment where they were placed for care, assessment and treatment – and ask how it is possible that we can let this happen?

Why “we”? Because of the collective responsibility: public and private sector funders enable these places to be created; health and social care providers run them; commissioners place people in them; politicians and policy makers seem unable to hold anyone to account for them; there is little mainstream interest media reporting in this area and the public – beyond shock at the odd high profile headline – is generally apathetic.

The fact that there have been two deaths in the three years since we’re meant to have eradicated these kinds of places is starkly made by Sara Ryan in today’s Guardian. She describes such units as “waste bins of life”.

Sara’s son Connor Sparrowhawk (aka Laughing Boy or LB) died a preventable death last year in a Southern Health NHS unit, and the widespread outrage that followed created the Justice for LB campaign with the related 107 Days drive, and draft disability rights legislation in LB’s name, the LB Bill.

It’s hoped that a green paper in February next year will reflect some elements of the bill.

Disability and human rights barrister Steve Broach, who is helping to draft the bill alongside Connor’s parents (Sara Ryan and Richard Huggins), Mark Neary and George Julian, says the project is using social media to galvanise a diverse community, including people with disabilities, professionals, families and academics. “We’re trying to crowdsource changes to the law – people are patronised and it’s wrongly assumed that disabled people and their families cannot understand their legal rights,” says Broach.

Kevin Healey, campaigner for autism rights who has supported three of the families mentioned in the piece today, says that people are effectively “penalised for having a learning disability or autism”. He says the successful campaigns to return people home are vital, but rare.

Healey adds: “It’s like we’re going back to the days of the 1940s when people with autism used to be institutionalised, but this is the 21st century.” Healey warns that where the authorities return people home, it is important to protect and preserve any new community-based packages of care amid the sweeping welfare cuts.

One mother, Leo Andrade-Martinez, told me of the son she is campaigning for (Stephen has been moved 80 miles away from home and restricted to a two-hour weekly visit from his parents) that “no one should suffer like this”.

Her words are horribly familiar to anyone interested in disability rights.

For more than 20 years – from 1993’s Mansell Report to the 2006 Our Health, Our Care, Our Say white paper, it’s been clear what “good looks like” when it comes to supporting people with learning disabilities. But still, seeing it in practice is the exception and not the rule.

You can read the full piece in The Guardian here.

Links for further reading:
* Petitions for Tianze Ni and Stephen Andrade-Martinez, both in units miles from their families. Website for campaigner Kevin Healey involved in the family campaigns.

* New Justice for LB website from where you can access different parts of the campaign and the latest updates, including news on the private members bill for disability rights

* The story of how the LB Bill is being shaped through crowdsourcing

Posted in Disability, Learning disability, Social care, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Groundbreaking digital project to tackle domestic violence

With today the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I was interested to hear of a scheme from the States that aims to help abused women find support online within seconds.

The web is full of information about domestic violence, but searching for local, reliable and relevant services often means trawling through and weeding out old information and advert-laden sites.

The recently launched American resource Domestic Shelters seeks to put that right. “Aggregating an ocean of information into a single place” is how project leaders refer to the scheme.

The newly launched project, a partnership between the American National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and charity Theresa’s Fund, says it is the first and largest fully searchable directory of domestic violence projects in the US, and includes around 3,000 places for women to find help quickly and easily.

Users enter their location, language and service preferences (emergency shelter, for example, or advice), and at a click, can find the nearest, most appropriate support. Recognising the fact that people increasingly use phones and tablets to conduct searches website is optimised for such devices.

I don’t know enough about the American support system to comment on the quality of resources people find via the new website, nor their accessibility, but the project got my interest as it comes at a time when domestic violence refuges in the UK are at crisis point.

One in four women (and one in six men) in the UK will be a victim of domestic violence during their lifetime, according to research. Two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

This is what one domestic violence campaigner and writer, Sarafina Bianco, has said about the project: “If this site had been around while I was searching for help, I probably could have started my healing journey much sooner.”

She adds: “When I was preparing to leave my abuser, I did not know there were non-profits working to support survivors of domestic abuse, so I secretly planned by myself, hoping my logic would surface at a time when I was truly panicking and in a traumatic state. That was five years ago. Even after leaving and finding out there were resources, it took several Google searches to find the local non-profits in my area.

“Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, if it was difficult for me to find them after leaving, how someone still in their abusive relationship could find them without getting caught… streamlines a very important process for any person, at any point in their recovery, to find the nearest service providers who will help them begin thriving in society once more.”

While the project only launched a couple of months ago, you can see how its benefit may go beyond the immediate goal of signposting to the right support; in time, depending on how its search terms and traffic are analysed and the results shared, it might shed some light on the kinds of services the country needs more of.

Posted in Abuse, Domestic violence, Third sector, Women | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Janet Carr: They used to say ‘they’re never likely to walk or talk’

Amazing, incredible, inspiring…overused words but I found myself unable to avoid using them when describing my meeting with the pioneering psychologist Janet Carr, who has just finished the world’s longest study (50 years) of people with Down’s syndrome. Carr’s life’s work has been a commitment to changing attitudes about learning disability, and in particular Down’s syndrome.

As I explain in an interview published in The Guardian today, Carr’s longitudinal study began with 54 babies born in the year to November 1964 and living with their families in a part of south-east England. Carr’s aim was to establish the children’s educational needs using intelligence tests such as pattern-matching. The research, which began when the babies were six weeks old, was conceived by the Medical Research Council psychiatric genetics research unit at London’s Maudsley Hospital. It was initially intended to last just 10 months but the young researcher wanted to look longer term and explore family interactions.

“I thought, as well as looking at how the little people are, I’d like to look at how it affected their families. It was widely accepted that having a baby with a disability meant that it would be a disaster, that families would break up. That’s what I expected to find,” she recalls. In fact Carr discovered that, while the babies’ development was slower than their non-disabled peers, families coped well as the children grew, with youngsters bonding and developing good relationships with their brothers and sisters.

You can read the rest of my interview with Janet Carr here.

Posted in Disability, Learning disability | Tagged | Leave a comment

My campaign to change attitudes, one event at a time

We have just ‘celebrated’ World Mental Health day (10 October). I, and many like me, hope that as each year passes so does the stigma and discrimination of mental health. Stigma impacts like a disease – if left untreated, the result is devastating.

Attitudes are certainly changing around mental health, although slowly. As pointed out by Time to Change, the mental health campaign I’m involved in, perceptions are changing. The National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey shows that since 2011, an estimated two million people – or 4.8% of the population – have improved attitudes towards people with a mental illness.
In addition, the data suggests that more people are acknowledging they know someone with a mental health problem (64% in 2013 compared with 58% in 2009). However nearly half (49%) of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their own mental health.

Anti stigma work has taken up a large part of my life in psychiatric nursing. And, although it sometimes feels like two steps forward and one back (as the research quoted above hints), the long and winding journey is worth the taking and the rewards are for the benefit of everyone.

I have seen the impact of stigma. I have also felt it. I have seen the destruction it causes people who experience mental illness and their loved ones. This is the motivation for my work.

The recent news about the impact of isolation underlines the need for more work along these lines. Both young people and older folk are affected by severe loneliness.

These issues provided the context for a talk I organised in my childhood village in July, and which I blogged about on these pages.

My talk was about the stigma of mental health and aimed to promote Time To Change. I wanted to raise awareness of the insidious impact of stigma and its long-term damage, and explore how we can all make a difference to the lives of others through our daily interactions. I wanted my message to reach across the village and, more personally, make a mark in the place where I spent my childhood years.

For me going back to my former home, which I left almost 40 years ago, was quite an emotional occasion. It had been the culmination of a life long ambition, a seed borne in childhood that had finally flowered. In the dark corners of my mind has sat the repressed thoughts from childhood of my father’s mental health issues, and the attitudes of others at the time to this.

Assembled in the room of around 50 people were faces from my childhood, alongside faces of the present. An eclectic range of people and experiences, young and old. Friends and family sat beside strangers. I will always be very grateful for the efforts they made to attend and help me to achieve my ambition.

Social contact and interaction is a powerful weapon in challenging ignorance and the myths surrounding mental health. Breaking down the invisible barriers we put up and accepting people as people, rather than defining them by their mental health condition is critical. The two-hour event was informal and interactive thereby providing the ‘safe’ space for those who wished to be open and share their personal experiences, or the experiences of others they hold close.

I started with a mythbusting quiz about mental health to highlight the misconceptions that exist, then spoke about my work in mental health nursing, my anti-stigma initiatives, and also my own experience of depression. I covered my work in the media with the TV soap Emmerdale, advising on the award winning depression storyline of one of the main characters, Zak Dingle.

I stressed it was my hope to encourage the viewers to empathise with Zak’s plight, to see him as being vulnerable and a victim of his circumstances rather than a danger to others, and criminalized

To contrast with this I also explained my advisory role with the character Darrell Makepeace in BBC Radio 4 The Archers. This character had not been received positively by listeners because the producer had decided to criminalise this character. Despite this, I stressed this at the very least ensured people were talking about mental health.

It was a success. I was at pains to ensure it went well because it meant so much to me. I have delivered many talks and presentations previously to large and small audiences but this one was more personal.

Since that summer’s evening I have spoken to people to gauge how things went. Did it make a difference? Has it changed their views? Inspired them? Where do we go from here? The responses have enthused me.

I intend to arrange a follow up event to build on this and plant another seed for the future. A seed for the young people, some who, sadly, will inevitably grow up with the same experiences I had.

Hopefully there will be some changes in attitudes resulting from that evening. It might seem to many just a single, small event, but if it can change just a handful of attitudes and encourage people to talk about mental health, it will be a success. Change drips slowly, but it will come all the same. One day.

Posted in Health, media & communication, Mental health, Older people, Wellbeing, Young people | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

‘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.

Posted in Cuts, Education, Local government, Poverty, Third sector, Young people | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

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”.


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.

Posted in Health, Older people, Race, Third sector, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Disability, Learning disability, Music & arts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment