All posts by Saba Salman

Saba Salman is a social affairs journalist and commissioning editor who writes regularly for The Guardian. Saba is a trustee of the charity Sibs, which supports siblings of disabled children and adults, and an RSA fellow. She is a former Evening Standard local government and social affairs correspondent.

Pioneering performers: festival season for inclusive dance studio

Adrienne Armorer at a Step Change Studios session (photo: Step Change Studios)

Step Change Studios is the first dedicated pan-disability inclusive Latin and Ballroom dance class in London.

On Saturday, the Westminster-based school kicks off one of many summer season showcases at the Liberty festival at the Olympic Park .

Forthcoming summer appearances include performances and workshops at the Together Fest at the Arts Depot in North London on July 22. The school will also put on an inclusive dance demo at the Disability Sports Coach Summer Festival in West London on July 28.

The pioneering project’s last class before the summer break is on Saturday, and founder Rashmi Becker stresses there are no restrictions on ability, in terms of who can join in.

Step Change, which is based at the Abbey Centre and launched earlier this, is open to all. As Rashmi, a disability advocate as well as a dance specialist, explains: “We have people with learning disabilities, autism, wheelchair users with different physical and neurological conditions such as MS and cerebral palsy, people with visual impairments, young and older people…There are simple things I do to enable people to join in – for example I meet people with visual impairments at the station and support them to the dance space”.

Adrienne Armorer, for example, gave up her beloved salsa 10 years ago after developing the physically debilitating condition multiple sclerosis (MS). But she has taken up dancing again through Step Change, after hearing about the project through her local MS society.

Here’s how Adrienne, who details her experience in full on this blog, described her first Step Change class: “Wow – a 50:50 mix of wheelchair dancers and those without. Cool! A little warm-up and then we were off. I’m not a regular wheelchair user and get fatigued quite easily, so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. It was fine. Nuno and Rashmi [the instructors] are on hand to help and answer any questions. I also needed to ask one of the other wheelchair dancers how he was managing to turn his chair using just one hand. The hour flew by. What a great afternoon. We left on a high.”

For more information contact Step Change Studios Founder Rashmi Becker on 07976 363861, or email contact@stepchangestudios.com

Sexism, stereotypes – and getting sanitary bins on site

Recent graduates talk about candidly women in construction (photo: Leon Csernohlavek)

Do women get a good deal in construction?

This was the question debated by a group of young women in diverse roles in the construction industry for an article I’ve just done for Construction Manager magazine.

According the Office of National Statistics, women account for just 12.8% of the workforce. Then there is the gender pay gap – the construction and building trades’ supervisors have the highest in the sector, with men paid 45.4% more than women. Little wonder then that the number of women in construction has dropped by 17% in the last 10 years, compared to a 6.5% drop for all workers in the industry.

You can read the full piece to see why it makes economic as well as ethical sense to increase the numbers of women in the industry. Among the topics debated were the fact that more action is needed to break the stereotype that construction is a man’s industry.

The roundtable heard that issues such as a lack of female toilets or sanitary bins are common. As one participant said, if a woman working on site has to leave the project several times a day to find a public lavatory, there is a strong productivity case – as well as a human rights case – for installing facilities.

Thanks to all who took part in what was a fascinating and determined debate – and all power to these strong young women and their efforts to shake up a male-dominated sector.

Election: voting support for people with learning disabilities

Campaigner and self-advocate Gary Bourlet on politicians

The Conservatives’ manifesto pledges on social care have been both controversial and muddled, but at least the issue of support (and how we pay for it) is finally a subject for mainstream national debate. Campaigners have long argued that plans to fix the broken social care system must be high on the political agenda, but many of the people who rely on it most are rarely wooed by politicians – as the above quote from Gary Bourlet makes clear.

And while more than a million people with a learning disability are entitled to vote on June 8, according to social care provider Dimensions, only around 10% of people with learning disabilities vote. This is generally, as campaigner Gary Bourlet once told me about politicians, because “they don’t make it accessible to us … they talk in jargon.”

The links below offer accessible resources and general voting guides to support people to vote and find out more about election issues (I’ll update this roundup as – hopefully – more is added).

The manifestos (to be updated):
Liberal Democrats – easy read version available pdf

Labour – accessible formats here.

Conservatives – easy read and accessible formats manifestos here.

The Green Party – “All manifestos and alternative formats” here, including easy read, braille and audio.

There is no mention of how to get an accessible version of the UKIP manifesto.

Campaign for accessible manifestos from Mencap: “We want people with a learning disability to feel part of this election. But we need your help.”

Guides to voting:
Easy read guide to voting in the general election published by the Electoral Commission and Mencap – pdf: “People with a learning disability have as much right to vote as anyone else. Don’t let anyone else tell you different.” (See also this pdf from the Electoral Commission on disabled people’s voting rights).

Easy read guide to voting from Inclusion North: “The guide has lots of links to lots of information about how to vote.”

Love Your Vote is “a campaign run by Dimensions to support people with learning disabilities and autism to understand and exercise their right to vote.”

Every Vote Counts from United Response is “aimed specifically at making the process easier to understand for people with learning disabilities and those that support them”.

Video guide to voting from Brandon Trust is a video guide that “explains how things work in the UK, what you need to do to register to vote, and the different ways you can vote”.

Link to a short film made by BTM’s learning disability group “encouraging everyone to register to vote by May 22”

Easy read summary of social care issues that all parties should consider, from VODG: “Our General Election statement sets out the issues VODG wants all political parties to consider during the General Election 2017 campaign.”

Event at 10.30am Sat 3 June University of East Anglia: “Learning Disability nursing students at the School of Health Sciences have organised an information day for people with learning disabilities so that they can find out more about voting in the upcoming general election…The political parties will be represented at this drop-in session and will provide accessible information and discuss their policies with people with learning disabilities.” Also see the related Facebook group.

RNIB on voting and elections for the visually impaired: “All voters have a right to vote independently and in secret, and local authorities have to ensure that polling stations are accessible to people with sight loss.”

Scope’s guide to accessible voting: “Accessible voting..Make sure your voice is heard this June.”

An “unbiased, easy read guide to party manifestos” from United Response

On social media:
You can also follow the hashtags #LoveYourVote #EveryVoteCounts #LDvote #EasyReadElection #LDVote2017 on Twitter.

* This post was updated on Mon 22 May with information on the University of East Anglia event, Green Party manifesto and Conservative Party manifesto, on Fri 26 May with RNIB info and Scope’s voting guide and on Fri 2 June with the United Response resource.

Related video: Kathy Mohan angrily asks what Theresa May intends to do to help people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

Art for all: the Surrey gallery that targets a hidden need

Blue Figure, print, by Tendai from Feltham youth offender institution.

Leafy and affluent are default shorthands when describing the English county of Surrey, but the council ward of Westborough, Guildford, has the highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the county. Child poverty is high in Westborough, and around a quarter of all female prisoners in the UK are in custody in Surrey, including a number of lifers at HMP Send.

While the cash-strapped Tory-run council recently grabbed headlines with a threat to raise council tax by a huge 15% , this has done little to shed light on the social needs that exist in Surrey.

The issue of how Surrey’s general wealth hides specific pockets of deprivation is outlined in a new report into the social and community impact of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village (WGAV), in Compton, about a 10 minute drive from Westborough.

The gallery, opened in 1904 and dedicated to the work of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, aims to transform lives through art – “Art for All” (Barack Obama, among others, has cited Watts as an inspiration). The report, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, describes the overlooked needs. It underlines the organisation’s role, for example, running artist-led workshops with prisoners and young offenders – I’m sharing some of the works here – as well as community projects, schools and and youth organisations.

The Journey, water-based oil on canvas, by Dena from HMP Send.

There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.

Close Up, oil on canvas by Samantha from HMP Send, part of Watts Gallery’s community outreach work.

The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).

As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”

Brighton, mixed media on paper, by Jenny from HMP Send.

More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.

Why we need to save sheltered housing from more cuts

“A certain amount of support has gone, so this has made people themselves more involved with each other – we get together more.”

I spoke to older people like Val, Rene and Jane, who live in sheltered housing on the south coast, for a piece in the Guardian this morning; the comment above reflects how the kind of housing they live in has changed radically in recent decades.

Rene spoke to me about the shock felt by residents as support services are cut, their criticism of government and the need to rally round and adapt (with peer-to-peer support, for example) as help is scaled back.

Over 20 years ago, for example, the Worthing Homes sheltered complex I visited had housing staff onsite who ran activities. Now, thanks to years of government cutbacks to sheltered housing support, there are three frontline staff rotating across up to 2,000 homes in the region, depending on need, and drop-in sessions run by external experts.

General sheltered housing, like that run by Worthing Homes, offers low-level support and self-contained accommodation for low income people aged 55 or older. Benefits include greater independence and less reliance on health and social care.

But this kind of housing has suffered thanks to historic and widespread cuts to the supporting people fund (the national programme for housing related support available to councils). Now, it is at further risk. The government was forced last year to defer its unpopular decision to impose a cap on housing benefit to supported housing; the proposal was included in a recent government consultation and is due to covered in a forthcoming green paper. Campaigners including the National Housing Federation (NHF) have been challenging the funding plans, with Age UK warning of “uncertainty about the future of sheltered housing in the social rented sector”.

Residents’ concerns over the loss of on site staff in sheltered housing are well documented, but years of central and local government cuts mean that it is now the norm for on-site staff to be axed in favour of telecare and floating support (short-term help with specific problems like benefits). There are no precise figures, but a 2012 review by Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that as far back as 2009, local authorities estimated that by 2011, 38% of sheltered housing would have floating support, not on-site provision.

The approach in the Worthing region, an area known for its high proportion of older people, underlines the value of sheltered housing as the population ages, and mirrors similar moves across the country.

Communal garden, Pearson’s Court sheltered housing scheme in Worthing, West Sussex.

Simon Anderson, Worthing Homes head of customer services, says the landlord and residents have tried to work together since the council funding cut: “We were asked to do much more work for less money…but ultimately this is a housing provider and its residents coming together [through agreeing new initiatives] at a time of austerity”.

A 2012 Age UK report, Making it Work for Us [pdf] suggests “listening and responding to the views of residents should be fundamental in shaping what sheltered and retirement housing offers”. Simon explains: “Some people who moved in when there was someone [staff] here all the time…Now they’ll be thinking ‘I didn’t sign up for this’…So in conjunction with them, we began discussions on what the future service would look like. Social isolation was a significant issue for many”.

With the green paper on such issues due after the election, and further funding changes looming, Simon acknowledges “the lack of clarity and certainty”, yet he is resolute: “We have no plans to withdraw our sheltered schemes as they bring significant benefits to our residents as well as savings to the public purse by maintaining our residents’ health, tenancies and independence.”

You can read the full piece here.

Loneliness among older people: a new epidemic

Roy Warman’s wife, Phyllis, died in January 2015. Buoyed by well-wishers in the first few weeks of bereavement, the visits and telephone calls gradually dwindled, and he felt increasingly alone. Many of his friends have passed away, he does not have any family nearby and the couple never had children. He explains: “The longer it goes without speaking to someone, the harder it gets.” He describes loneliness as “one of the hardest things that you will encounter in life”, likening feeling low to “living in a void”.

Roy Warman credits Age UK with helping to turn his life around Photograph: Amanda Searle/Guardian

Today he is part of the charity Age UK’s telephone befriending service that matches older people with like-minded volunteers for friendship or phone calls. Roy has weekly phone calls with a volunteer he describes as “like the daughter I never had” and he also has regular visits from another volunteer as part of Age UK’s face-to-face befriending scheme.

The kind of weekly phone call or visit that Roy gets are among the solutions to help ease the loneliness epidemic affecting 1.2 million older people in England; I’ve written about this for the Guardian today.

Age UK says that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that this has an adverse impact on mental health, and the challenge will increase as our population ages. In the next 20 years, England’s over-85 population is set to rise from nearly 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million.

Read the full story here.

Growth of inclusive project to break barriers to ballet

The UK’s Flamingo Chicks also delivers inclusive dance workshops overseas, this is a session at the Multikids Academy school in Accra, Ghana (photograph: Flamingo Chicks)

 

“It is the one place she can be herself” is how one parent described the inclusive dance school I wrote about for the Guardian last year.

I’ve been following the progress of the Bristol-based Flamingo Chicks, which has just published its latest impact report and is now preparing for its spring show tomorrow, Saturday (you can read more about the background to the organisation in this original piece).

An inclusive dance session run by Flamingo Chicks (photograph: Flamingo Chicks)
The three-year-old community interest company, which has English National Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo as a patron, brings disabled and non-disabled children together to do ballet.

Over 2000 children and young people aged 2 to 25 attended the classes and workshops in 2016-17 through workshops across the UK and regular classes in Bradford, York, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and London. The campaigning slogan is “ballet not barriers” and while the majority of young participants have a range of physical disabilities, learning disabilities and autism, 22% are not disabled.

The need for more more inclusive arts groups is reflected in a recent survey by charity Scope and parenting website Mumsnet. It showed that four in 10 parents of disabled children say their child rarely or never has the opportunity to play with non-disabled children.

Josie and her helper Joe at an inclusive dance session (photograph: Flamingo Chicks)

Josie Wilkins, who has a learning disability, attended mainstream dance classes with the help of her older sister, but as she got older the “gap” between her and the other pupils became wider and she had to leave. The family found Flamingo Chicks, where Josie, 10, who is also visually impaired, is a regular. She recently had major surgery but returned to class as soon as she was out of hospital, wearing, Ingrid adds “a pink tutu, and dancing in her wheelchair using just one arm!”

Recognising that preconceptions about ballet may put off boys, Flamingo Chicks launched boys only groups and introduced more male teachers and volunteers (in the last year, 38% of participants were boys). The company’s recent Dad & Me campaign also focused on the challenges fathers face when caring for a disabled child. Of 250 fathers who participated in a survey as part of the campaign, only 10% had told their boss they had a disabled child, mostly due to fear that it affect their career.

Alfie Pearson, who attends the inclusive dance sessions, with his dad and sister (photograph: Flamingo Kids)

The organisation has also delivered training and workshops overseas (I’ve blogged about this before), so its model can be emulated elsewhere. The overseas work includes collaborations with the special school in Ghana (pictured at the top of this post), a country once described as “the worst place in the world to be disabled”.

Find out more about Flamingo Chicks and its #balletnotbarriers campaign on the website, Facebook or Twitter

The disability and employment gap: interview


Around 49% of disabled people in the UK aged 16–64 are in work, compared with 81% of non-disabled people, according to government figures.

The government has said it wants to narrow this gap (the figure has remained the same for decades) but at the same time its various policies and cuts relating to disabled people undermine this aim. A recent government green paper on work, health and employment, proposes to help at least 1 million disabled people into work, but has met with a lukewarm response from campaigners.

This was the context to a recent interview with Gareth Parry, the chief executive of employment organisation Remploy, which has £50m of contracts from central and local government to help disabled people get jobs or support them back into work.

Parry, who worked his way up Remploy after starting as a trainee almost 30 years ago, has depression, something that he says gives him a more personal insight into his job running employment support organisation (“It reinforced the importance of organisations like Remploy; work gave me routine, structure, focus, when everything else in my life was in chaos”).

He is a forthright speaker about how his personal experience influences his role at the helm of an organisation aiming to support people with mental health issues; he wants more senior executives to be open about mental ill-health, for example.

The organisation, however, has its critics. While Remploy was launched by the postwar government in 1945 to give disabled second world war veterans sheltered employment, the last factories closed in 2013 in line with the idea that mainstream employment was preferable to segregated jobs. Yet many felt the closures abandoned disadvantaged people.

More recently, in April 2015, Remploy was outsourced to a joint venture between US-born international outsourcing giant Maximus – which has come under fire as the provider of the Department for Work and Pensions’ controversial “fit for work” tests – and Remploy’s employees, who have a 30% stake in the business. Critics say that being owned by Maximus undermines Remploy’s status as a champion of disabled people.

Parry rejects such suggestions: “I can understand why people would see it that way, but we have a strong social conscience, the employee ownership keeps us focused on that, the profits don’t go overseas to America, they go back into the [Remploy] business.”

Longer term, Parry believes Remploy could take on international work, like advising other countries on closing sheltered factories. He adds: “Our mission around equality in the workplace has always been and is within the confines of the UK, but if we want to make a real difference in society in the UK, the opportunity we have now is to say ‘why stop there?’” Future issues in employment support, he adds, include sustaining an ageing workforce, with help for issues like dementia in the workplace and other age-related conditions.

In terms of other changes, Parry’s words on the rise of online support (as opposed to face to face advice) reflect a general trend towards more online and digital support: “I’m not suggesting online will replace face-to-face services, but the idea of giving the power of choice to the individual as to how they access services is meaningful”.

Remploy is almost unrecognisable in terms of its remit, ownership structure and operations since its inception more than 70 years ago; as the government and local government contracts on which it once relied are dwindling, it will be interesting to see where the next few years take Remploy – and, most importantly, those it helps.

The full interview is here.

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews

Unique art from survivors of brain injury

Artist Nick Mayers, a member of the Submit to Love studio collective.
Artists Nick Mayers, a member of the Submit to Love studio collective.

A unique art collective in London consisting of brain injury survivors is exhibiting its “unguarded, emotive” work for the first time.

The Submit to Love Studios, supported by brain injury charity Headway East London, is a creative space in Hackney for over 50 survivors of brain injury – barely any of the artists had practiced art before their injuries. The work of around 30 of the collective’s members is featured in a new exhibition that runs until 23 February at Stratford Circus Arts Centre.

MRI, by Graham Naylor, showing as part of an exhibition by brain injury survivors (credit: Headway east London)
MRI, by Graham Naylor, showing as part of an exhibition by brain injury survivors (credit: Headway east London)
Artist Jon Barry's work, Lady in Green, in progress.
Artist Jon Barry’s work, Lady in Green, in progress.
Birds, by Laura Wood
Birds, by Laura Wood

While many of the creatives have had solo exhibitions since joining the project, this is the first time they are showing work that outlines how their experiences, including recovery, have influenced their art. The show asks visitors to consider the question “how far can one life-changing incident be seen in the artistic work you create?”.

In a related event this Saturday, the collective, which began 10 years ago, is involved in an free art workshop at London’s Southbank Centre. The event involves the artists encouraging the public to participate in on the theme of “what love means to you” with contributions acting as the basis for a collaborative piece at the Submit to Love studio. The workshop takes place in the Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 11am – 2pm and is recommended for ages six upwards.

Freckle Face, by Chippy Aiton
Freckle Face, by Chippy Aiton
Elvis in London, by Cecil Waldron
Elvis in London, by Cecil Waldron
Creature, by Ad
Creature, by Ad

According to Headway, survivors of brain injury are often excluded from society, have lost skills, occupations and cannot communicate as they used to; art is an outlet for communication and self-expression. The charity is keen to reposition art from a simple rehabilitation activity to “both a vocation and passion project”.

Three Chicks Going to a Do, by Tony Allen
Three Chicks Going to a Do, by Tony Allen

* The exhibition, sponsored by Hyphen Law, is open 9am-6pm (Mon-Sat) and 09.30am–2pm (Sun) until Tuesday 23 February 2017 and entry is free. Venue: Stratford Circus Arts Centre, Theatre Square, London E15