A Bristol-based dance project is spreading its inclusive arts campaign, training teachers to run ballet sessions for disabled children and their non-disabled counterparts.
My piece on the Flamingo Chicks dance school, which launched two years ago as a community interest company, is on the Guardian site today. Its weekly classes in Bristol, Leeds, York and London reach 1200 three to 19-year-olds with or without disabilities, and those with illnesses such as cancer. Classes offer access to mainstream dance activity (often, such classes are segregated), develop confidence, social skills, co-ordination, communication and concentration.
Now, the sessions are launching in Ghana – dubbed “the worst place in the world to be disabled” – sessions reaching 200 children and training 10 teachers to put on classes. Founder Katie Sparkes has contacts in Africa thanks to her work supporting charities with corporate social responsibility.
Sparkes says of the work in Ghana earlier this month: “We did lots of workshops with children aged two to 25 and also did a teachers’ training session where teachers and childcare workers from a variety of schools and orgs attended. We left them with lesson plans, equipment and a host of ideas. We’ve also set up an online ‘Global Chicks’ group where we can provide on-going outreach support. Any questions, ideas or motivation they need, our teachers will respond and coach them, also providing video tips or tutorials.”
Ballet, with its discipline and formal image, might not seem an obviously accessible art form, but Sparkes says it can improve body awareness, muscle strength and core stability. Its storytelling aspects and focus on character are also accessible.
The school has eight teachers who focus on trips and performances as goals and benchmarks, instead of exams. The 45-minute or hour-long sessions include drama, dance and yoga using sensory equipment like feathers, dance ribbons, scarves and flashcards for deaf children, or hula-hoops to teach arm movements to a blind child. The relaxed atmosphere means children may wander around or makes noises without fear of flouting any rules.
There are an estimated 770,000 children with disabilities in the UK. Three quarters of families with disabled children feel so isolated that it has caused anxiety, depression and breakdown, according to charity Contact A Family. Four in ten (38%) parents of disabled children say their child ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ have the opportunity to socialise with children who aren’t disabled, according to a 2014 Mumsnet and Scope survey.
Four years after the abuse of people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View (and 30 years after the start of care in the community and 20 years after the influential Mansell Report), NHS England recently unveiled a £45m plan to move people out of institutional care and back into communities. “Homes not hospitals”, is the laudable vision.
This is where grand ambition contrasts with grim actuality, as I explain in a piece in today’s Guardian.
A report leaked to the BBC and sparked by the preventable death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk in a Southern Health Trust inpatient unit, revealed that the trust failed to investigate some 1,000 deaths in its care over a four year period.
Then yesterday, the Learning Disability Census Report 2015 from the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed there 3,000 people in inpatient units – 3,500 if you count those “unreported” in the figures (more on this here from Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, and the HSCIC explains the discrepancy under its editors’ note number eight here).
Déjà vu? In 2013, according to the HSCIC, there were also around 3,000 people in inpatient units (in fact half those in units today, were also there for the 2013 headcount). And a previous £2.86m government-funded improvement programme from the Local Government Association and NHS England tried but failed to move everyone out of such units by 1 June 2014.
The census, established in response to the abuse at Winterbourne View, also shows the average length of patients’ stay is five years, there is heavy use of antipsychotic medication (almost three-quarters of people – despite the fact that less than a third have a diagnosed psychotic disorder) and more than half self-harm, have accidents or suffer assault, restraint or seclusion. Around a fifth of all inpatients are at least 100km from home.
Reading these stark facts would lead most of us to conclude that if you have a learning disability, you’re less likely to be cared for properly in life, unlikely to have your premature death investigated thoroughly – but if you’re lucky, you might be included in a census (depending on the data collection methodology etc etc).
I’m more pragmatic than negative. My sister, Raana, who has a learning disability, leads a busy, active life where her choice is central to her daily life. There are many organisations out there doing great stuff. I’ve met people who have moved from institutions into supported housing in towns and cities, with the help of truly brilliant, hardworking care staff. I’ve spoken to families who feel involved in shaping the care of their son, daughter or sibling, some with very complex needs. I’ve read – and written – reports outlining good practice in ensuring people get out of these places. While there’s still a postcode lottery at play, “we know what good looks like”, as stressed by many social care experts I speak to.
So as I began writing today’s Guardian piece, I’d expected a narrative of cautious optimism. As I came to finishing it, the Mazars report was leaked and new figures showed little change in the number of people in inpatient units, hence the headline above this post.
The report into Southern Health by auditors Mazars – which as I write, is still not published, despite making headlines and being debated in parliament – has renewed concerns over institutional disablism, led to calls for a national inquiry and, as this piece by Andy McNicoll underlines, provoked widespread criticism over the response of the trust and its chief executive (for links to some powerful blogging and commentary, search Twitter for #mazars or #JusticeforLB).
Katherine Runswick-Cole, senior research fellow at Manchester Metroplitan University’s research institute for health and social change, suggests that until the dehumanisation of people with learning disabilities ends, inadequate care – irrespective of care setting – may linger (related issues include, for example, a hospital listing a patient’s learning disability among reasons for sticking a “do not resuscitate” order on his file).
Recent cases in supported living and residential care – non-institutional environments – reflect this concern.
In January, Thomas Rawnsley’s family will attend a pre-inquest meeting into his death. The 20-year-old, who had Down’s syndrome and autism, was taken to hospital from a residential care home in Sheffield earlier this year, but died two days later.
His mother, Paula, says: “Thomas had great empathy and compassion, he always wanted to make people laugh. If people had taken time to get to know him they would’ve found that out.”
Dismissive attitudes towards people with learning disabilities extend to their families. As Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, has said, the Mazars report only came about “because of the tireless fight for the truth by the family of Connor Sparrowhawk”.
Meanwhile, back with the grand vision – well meaning and welcome as it is – NHS England says it is working closely with regulator the Care Quality Commission to prevent any new assessment and treatment institutions from being created. But in yet more ambition vs. actuality, the Public Accounts Committee has just criticised the CQC for being ineffective.
Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother Sara Ryan, a senior researcher and autism specialist at Oxford University’s Nuffield department of primary care health sciences, says that the Mazars report “confirms that learning disabled people don’t count in life or death” (see more on this on Sara’s blog). And this post by Chris Hatton suggests some “required reading for anyone wanting to understand the issues involved in premature deaths of people with learning disabilities”.
Hard to disagree with the conclusion of Katherine Runswick-Cole who said when I interviewed her, “the pattern is abuse, inquiry, report, repeat”.
“Today is different” is a recurrent phrase in the latest show from theatre group Frozen Light. But the refrain is more than just part of the script; the words also reflect the innovative company’s hope for young people with profound disabilities.
The plot of the accessible, inclusive and multi-sensory play involves a journey of self-discovery for the main characters, Thea (Amber Onat Gregory) and Robin (Al Watts). Both dream of escaping their humdrum hometown existence, and a series of unexpected events, explained by narrator Ivy (Lucy Garland), result in a forest adventure, which changes their lives.
Frozen Light, led by co-artistic directors Garland and Gregory, is among a handful of companies that devise productions especially for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). While cultural access and inclusion have improved in recent years (projects like Autism Friendly Screenings are part of a burgeoning movement), the arts barrier remains down to people with complex physical and cognitive issues.
The group is currently on a nationwide tour of high street theatres and arts spaces. Garland and Gregory say many of their audience members have never before been into a mainstream theatre: “We want to enable people who rarely attend high street arts venues to experience the theatre. With our 26-date tour, we hope to reach as many people with PMLD as possible…We want people with profound needs to be more visible in their local areas.”
Performing to a maximum of 12 people – six people with disabilities, each supported by a carer, the three-strong cast accompanies the audience from the foyer into the performance space, ensuring a smooth transition into the theatre environment. One-to-one interactions include actors singing or talking directly to an audience member, or offering a prop to be touched. The specially composed music is pitched at an appropriately sensitive level.
In the audience for the opening performance of the tour at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury, Kent, I was drawn into the show’s multi-sensory world; swathed by leaves with a warm breeze on my skin, I could smell forest fruits and the scent of a wood after rainfall (I’m not taking poetic liberties – this is a factual description of how the show sparks your senses). The actors captivate the audience with the use of simple props and, I won’t spoil it, but the combined effect of helium balloons, LEDs, torches and white discs is quite hypnotic.
It was noticeable how much time the actors spent with each person, adapting their interactions – language and behaviour – according to need, ability and interest. One young boy who particularly enjoyed the feel of rain drops on his hands was allowed time to explore the sensations and appearance of drizzle. His joyful reaction was priceless.
Given I write and read so much about (warning: social care jargon alert) “choice and control” and “person-centred planning” or “personalisation” (ie when the unambitious “choice and control” box ticking basically means offering someone the choice between water or tea to drink..) – this was truly “person-centred” performance.
I did some editorial support work the company some months ago and, having come across the show in its conceptual infancy, I was blown away – almost literally, given the multi-sensory context – to see the fully fledged performance (a note of transparency here: this blogpost is mine and mine alone, written in my own time and, like every post on this site, independent, unsolicited and unpaid for).
Talking to parents and carers in the foyer after the show, several told me how their young people are starved of theatre that is tailor-made with complex needs in mind, but which also manages to be high quality and pitched at the right level for the audience (ie unpatronising).
One father told me his visually impaired son’s attention span was short, but he was moved to see the teenager captivated by sound, scent, taste and touch during the performance.
The MBE recently won by Shaun Webster is, he says “two fingers” to the bullying colleagues who tormented him when he worked in a warehouse some years ago.
You can’t disagree with the 43-year-old’s use of frank language – his deeply unpleasant workmates once used sticky tape to bind Webster, who has a learning disability, and stuffed a rag in his mouth. This was done “as a joke”, he recalls in an interview I did for today’s Guardian. Little wonder he has devoted his life since then to fighting for inclusion and equality.
As explained in today’s piece, the international project worker for Leeds-based human rights charity Change is a sought-after speaker and trainer in the UK and overseas. His work includes advising government departments about inclusive employment, promoting access to sex and health education for learning disabled people and recent visits to Thailand and Croatia to train health, social care and charity professionals about independent living and disability rights.
Shaun talks passionately and persuasively about issues like employment rights and independent living for people with learning disabilities, making the point (usually missed by policy makers and politicians) that the two issues must be seen together; earning your own money and having a role and responsibility supports independence.
Shaun’s current work involves a partnership with children’s charity Lumos, supporting young people to leave institutions and gain independence, choice and control. Linked to that piece of work is the report Shaun wrote, Leaving Institutions, a really great example of a publication written with a clear focus on people (not targets or statistics, or a homogeneous mass) by authors who truly know about and have experience of what they’re talking about.
The entire interview can be read here and the film below is worth a watch too:
The organisers, a company specialising in overseas moves, explains: “MoveHub and their partners noticed that families were forced to just throw large volumes of food when they moved abroad – due to customs restrictions – and decided that instead, this food should find its way to people who really needed it.”
The project estimates that the food thrown away during moves across the UK could fill 160 supermarket delivery vans each week. While it acknowledges it “can’t reverse food poverty in the UK”, the scheme is an attempt to “contribute to the organisations helping people get back on their feet”.
Among the charities benefitting from FoodHub is homeless charity Centrepoint.
It is estimated that around 3.5m tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK and this latest drive is a welcome addition to schemes like the “community supermarket” plan, under which unwanted supermarket food is already re-distributed to needy families.
* This is the last Social Issue post for 2014 – the blog will be back in January. Thanks to everyone who has read, shared, contributed to, commented on and got in touch over the last 12 months, your support’s very much appreciated.
The new network will collaborate with the council “to ensure disabled people’s involvement in the design and delivery of new policies and programmes”. In this guest post, Kevin Caulfield, who chairs HAFCAC, and fellow campaigner Debbie Domb, explain more about the new organisation and you can read more here.
Why we launched the Hammersmith and Fulham Disabled People’s Organisations Network:
DD: Our main aims are to promote the rights of disabled people, to support local disabled people to speak up and get their voices heard and to promote the social model of disability.
KC: This is hopefully dawn of new era in Hammersmith and Fulham. We want to work in equal partnership where we can with the new council. Bringing together the borough’s disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) unites our experiences, expertise providing peer organisational support.
How the new group will be different to existing organisations:
KC: We believe it’s the first local network of DPOs certainly in London. We need more than ever to work together to defend and promote inclusion human rights of disabled people.
We believe there’s something of a “tipping point” in disability rights at the moment:
KC: We have had enough of the scapegoating, punitive policy changes pushing us back to the margins and some of us over the edge to desperation, isolation, destitution and in some cases suicide or death by negligence.
DD: In the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, these factors were magnified as we were ‘David Cameron’s favourite borough.’ (Thankfully no longer ) Policies were implemented here prior to being rolled out nationwide. Disabled people were treated with total contempt by [Tory former council leader] Greenhalgh et al; we were laughed at in council meetings and not allowed to speak. cuts to our services were disguised as ‘efficiencies’ and we were treated as cash generators.
HAFCAC started as a grassroots campaigning group that was entirely self funded. Since then many grassroots campaign groups of disabled people have formed. Ian Duncan Smith particularly targeted disabled people as we were perceived as unable to fight back, groups like DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) which spearheaded actions by hundreds of disabled activists show he was mistaken.
There is a raft of issues locally that disabled people are concerned about:
KC: Nearly every aspect of our lives [concern us] but locally
· Hospital closures
· Accessible and truly affordable housing
· The breaking up of schools making inclusion of disabled students less likely
· Charging for services
· Eligibility for state support
· Cuts to standard of living, destruction of the welfare state.
· Closure independent living fund
· Taking our direct payment support service in house with no consultation
· Quality of home ‘care contracts.
We have a vision for the future work of our new organisation:
KC: I hope we have created a new model for working effectively with a council that is different from involving us just when the decision is about to be made that we are seen as a flagship borough all over for promoting disabled people equality and starting to make it really happen. That we can expose austerity for what it is a calculated pernicious opportunity used to demonise, discriminate, worsen life chances by punishing the poor and marginalised.
DD: Finally we have a council that wants to engage and work with us, the relationship is mutually beneficial. It will be fantastic if Hammersmith and Fulham can be seen as a flagship borough for disabled people’s equality, as rather than as previously the borough who ‘put disabled residents last.’
But I’m interested in the bold focus on street art and local artists in the drive to return a sliver of London to its retail glory – “Streatham – the West End of South London” no less.
Streatham architects and design company, Beep Studio, is collaborating with the local Business Improvement District, InStreatham, to create a “voids trail” that reflects the area’s local personalities “in a bid to encourage more people to explore Streatham High Road”.
The campaign features artwork on shop fronts inspired by seven famous celebrities who lived in Streatham – shoppers will explore the area’s shops via the trail, visiting each unit and stamping their trail maps to show they have visited the shop.
No prizes for guessing which South London-born model inspired the vertiginous platform depicted on one empty front.
I’ve fond memories of the longest high street in Europe (Streatham High Road), up the road from my former home in Brixton – oh, sorry, of course I mean “Brixton Village”.