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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Storytelling for people with learning disabilities: ‘We just natter away’

Lisa Johnson of the writing group Story Balloons (pic: Jonathan Raimondi)

Lisa Johnson of the writing group Story Balloons (pic: Jonathan Raimondi)

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Lisa Johnson is a writer. The 30-year-old from Sheffield recently had a book published, a collection of poems, songs and stories put together with fellow authors from her writing collective. Today she will take part in a workshop in her home city, explaining the creative process and encouraging others to write.

She says of Story Balloons, her weekly writing group: “It is something I look forward to.” Uptown Boy, her poem about love, she adds, makes her feel “very happy”. “I always wanted to write,’ she says, adding that writing has changed her: “I feel more confident, proud of what I’ve achieved.”

Story Balloons helps counter stereotypes and improve confidence, and has led to a published book – read more in my piece in the Guardian

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Jon Snow: simplify news to encourage voting

Shanna Lau discusses voting and accessibility with Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow

Shanna interviews Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow about current affairs, voting and accessibility

News, current affairs and politics are inaccessible to people with learning disabilities, as campaigner Gary Bourlet recently told me.

If it is rare to see learning disabled people interviewed or mentioned in the mainstream media (unless they’re involved in a care scandal), then it is completely unheard of to see someone with a learning disability conducting an interview.

Which is why I’m posting these images of Shanna Lau and Jermaine Williams who visited Channel 4 last month (to coincide with the local and European elections) to interview Jon Snow. The news anchor talked about accessibility in the news and voting and their interview is published today in the bi-monthly Easy News, the first accessible news magazine for people with learning disabilities which is supported by United Response.

Shanna Lau and  Jermaine Williams at Channel 4 news

Shanna Lau and Jermaine Williams at Channel 4 news

Shanna and Jermaine are part of the team that produces the magazine; launched last year, it uses simple words and images to create easy to explain big news stories and help people engage with current affairs and politics.Stories include the death of Nelson Mandela, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics and the 2014 Budget. By the sixth edition, 3,272 people had downloaded it – 250 per cent over target. According to United Response, 90 per cent of readers say it is easier to understand than other news sources while 78 per cent feel politics is now relevant to their lives, compared to 31 per cent a year previously.

L-R, Shanna Lau, Jon Snow and Jermaine Williams at Channel 4

L-R, Shanna Lau, Jon Snow and Jermaine Williams at Channel 4

Jon Snow told Easy News: “I think sometimes [news is] happening in places in the world that [people] have never heard of…And it’s very difficult to explain to people in a short space of time – because you only have a very short time in the news – it’s very difficult to give them all the facts. And sometimes you need a lot of facts to understand what a story is all about.

“I certainly think that [news can help people to vote]. If you are able to simplify it, which we very often do not, we assume a level of understanding which often isn’t out there. But I think if you can simplify it, it will make it very much easier for people to vote.”

An easy read version of the full interview, which was set up by United Response with help from disability campaigner, Kaliya Franklin, is in the ninth edition of Easy News published today. To download the latest edition of Easy News and to sign up for future editions, go to the United Response website.

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We need to listen to the quieter voices

Weaving, Raana Salman

Weaving, Raana Salman

Today is the start of Learning Disability Week 2014, the annual campaigning and awareness drive run by Mencap.

This year’s campaign week celebrates people overcoming adversity, prejudice and ignorance and it’s a welcome moment to focus on the positive amid the social and political inequity faced by people with learning disabilities (you can follow events and issues on Twitter using the hashtag #LDWeek14).

I’m thinking specifically of just two issues I’ve recently reported on; the needless death of young Connor Sparrowhawk and the consequent #justiceforLB campaign, and the related fact that people with learning disabilities feel ignored by politicians.

So today’s post is linked to something I’ve blogged here before, in a piece on a thought-provoking arts project run by the charity Creative Minds. There is growing – although unfortunately as yet not mainstream – debate about “learning disability arts”, and the quality of work being produced by people with learning disabilities.

Firstly, I want to share some of my sister Raana‘s artwork.

Obvious bias and sibling pride aside, so many friends and family have been genuinely surprised and impressed – and no, not in a patronising way – when I’ve revealed the creation they’re admiring has been crafted by my sister. Seriously – why would I hang crap on my walls (unless from an elephant and painted by Chris Ofili)?

She may not be a conversationalist or a writer, but pictures speak a thousand words and what she’s made is bold and beautiful. That said, Raana still produces her signature lozenge-shaped bullet cars and blobby, squat people (the hair is always spikey – a hangover from her boyband-loving days…these pieces are most definitely not on my walls), but here’s a taster of why I love what she does:

Mosaic collage, Raana Salman

Mosaic collage, Raana Salman

Felt work, Raana Salman

Felt work, Raana Salman

Detail from landscape, Raana Salman

Detail from landscape, Raana Salman

Pottery, Raana Salman

Pottery, Raana Salman

Church, Raana Salman

Church, Raana Salman

Secondly, while thinking about an art-related post, I came across some powerful pieces of work produced by members of Outside In. Based at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the project is a platform for artists “who find it difficult to access the art world either because of mental health issues, disability, health, social circumstance or because their work does not conform to what is normally consider as art”.

The pieces here are by artists who happen to have learning disabilities.

Aeroplanes & Spades, by Manuel Bonifacio

Aeroplanes & Spades, by Manuel Bonifacio

Musicians, by Michelle Roberts

Musicians, by Michelle Roberts

Hippo, by Neville  Jermyn

Hippo, by Neville Jermyn

Harry Potter Books, by Josie Goddard

Harry Potter Books, by Josie Goddard

The works should trigger some questions about “outsider art” and the gap between the treatment of and attitudes towards people who have learning disabilities and those who do not. What the Outside In project calls “the idea of there being an ‘us’ and ‘them’”. As one of the project’s award-winning artists, Carlo Keshishian, believes that “Outside In can function as a mouthpiece to project the voices of quieter people.”

That’s what we need – more people listening to and acting on the wishes of those whose voices (and by voice I mean profile, choice, representation, status) are not as loud as those in the “mainstream”.

And finally, take another look at the photographs of the artwork on this page. Ask yourself this, if you didn’t know, how many of the pieces would you genuinely have thought were produced by people with learning disabilities?

* I can’t end this post without signposting you to the colourful creations here by “industrious artist” Connor Sparrowhawk, aka LB, currently being sold in postcard and print form to raise funds for legal representation at the inquest. Connor died in a specialist NHS unit last year and the #JusticeforLB campaign is pushing for answers about his death and raising awareness about learning disability – this letter signed by more than 500 people, explains the issues and necessary action.

Colour, Connor Sparrowhawk

Colour, Connor Sparrowhawk

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Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?

More than one million people with learning disabilities are eligible to vote – so why are they ignored by politicians?

My interview with Gary Bourlet in today’s Guardian explains how the veteran disability campaigner wants to give people like himself, with learning disabilities, a greater voice and presence so they feature in places other than “secret footage on Panorama”, referring to Winterbourne View, where the abuse of patients with learning disabilities was exposed by the BBC in 2011. To this end, he has set up People First England, to encourage adults with learning disabilities, rather than care professionals, to participate in politics and appear on TV and radio discussing stories that affect them.

“We want people speaking for themselves about issues that concern them, rather than the professionals,” he says. “We want greater powers to be seen, to vote, to be included, have the same opportunities in social life, education and employment as everyone else.” Bourlet, 55, has launched the user-led charity with disability rights activist Kaliya Franklin.

You can read the rest of the piece here while my post from yesterday adds some more context to Bourlet’s message.

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