In a piece for the Byline Times, I call for a more accurate reflection the lives of those with learning disabilities in society and the media, and explains how my new book of essays, written by learning disabled people, aims to change the narrative.
Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will probably think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts. That’s if they think of anything at all.
The latest figures from NHS England show that 451 people who have died from the Coronavirus since 24 March were recorded as having a learning disability or autism. According to the Care Quality Commission, there has been a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among this group of people compared to last year.
Mainstream media coverage of the Coronavirus reflects a nonchalance. Give or take the odd exception, the reporting has failed to acknowledge the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s 1.5 million learning disabled people like my youngest sister Raana.
Outside of COVID-19, if learning disability issues hit the headlines, they usually reinforce stereotypes about “vulnerable people” unable to fend for themselves. And when a story makes the media, it rarely includes direct words from someone with a learning disability.
This is the reason for the book Made Possible: Stories of Success by People with Learning Disabilities. The anthology, which I edited, challenges stereotypes through the stories of people whose achievements are awe-inspiring – regardless of their disability. They describe, in their own words, what needs to happen for learning disabled people to reach their potential. The powerful first-person experiences are from a human rights campaigner, a critically acclaimed actor, a civil rights activist, a singer-songwriter, an elite swimmer, a fine artist, an award-wining filmmaker and an elected mayor.
Read the rest of the article, first published in June, here
Baron-Cohen hopes his centre’s recent findings will encourage better practical help (a lifelong support worker, for example) “so there’s a pathway from discovery in the lab through to changing people’s lives”. This is crucial because academics are often cricitised for failing to translate knowledge into practice. A 2013 report by the charity Research Autism questioned why studies to look at effective services or to fully involve autistic people. Baron-Cohen says: “The old style of doing research was, without [us] realising it, arrogant, in that the scientists thought up the questions and then did it. The new way is to involve people from the outset… to co-design the studies and check the relevance and wording.”
His theories have also been
challenged by autistic people who argue that they fuel the myth that they cannot
empathise. Autistic academic Damian Milton, a
lecturer at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, says: “Simon’s a nice guy and
knowledgeable in a lot of areas, but the empathising and sympathising theory
suggests a lack of cognitive empathy, which many people in the autistic
community disagree with.” Milton’s double
empathy theory is a critique of Baron-Cohen’s, describing a mutual empathy problem between autistic and
In response, Baron-Cohen says that with empathy “we need to make sure it’s [moving] two ways”. He stresses that while autistic people may struggle to imagine others’ emotions, they feel emotion if others are upset (the distinction between cognitive and affective empathy).
He says of criticism: “Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time explaining what it is I’m not saying…people just take the headline and think I’m saying autistic people are macho and aggressive.” Baron-Cohen stresses that “equality between the sexes is very important”, adding that his research explores groups of males and females “on average”, adding “this is not about individuals”.
I just did a Guardian interview with Sheila Hollins. The crossbench peer is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on learning disability and mental health but the says her greatest achievement is founding Beyond Words, a pioneering not-for-profit organisation that produces picture books to help people with communication issues. “Beyond Words is what I feel most passionate about because it’s about transforming people’s lives,” she says.
Its origins lie in Hollins’ use of pictures to interact with her son, Nigel, who has a learning disability. “He would roar with laughter at Laurel and Hardy [silent] films but didn’t put a word together till he was eight.” When Nigel was nervous about an adventure holiday, his parents drew pictures depicting activities like abseiling: “When we put things into pictures, he felt more in control.”
Thirty years on, Beyond Words has distributed or sold 100,000 copies of its 57 titles, which cover everything from relationships to surviving abuse. Each title involves 100 learning disabled people as advisers or authors. There are 60 associated book clubs with 350-400 members.
Nigel Hollins, now 47, is a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. He lives independently in a flat near his family with support from a personal assistant. His mother says: “People see Nigel in the shops, cafe or train station. He has a life in the community.”
People with learning disabilities are pitied or patronised, but rarely heard from in their own words.
Made Possible is an attempt to challenge this and change attitudes – it’s the crowdfunded book I’m editing, featuring essays on success by high achieving people with learning disabilities.
It was very cool to see Made Possible sweep into 2018 with a feature in the January issue of disability lifestyle magazine Enable. In the print edition, Enable used this shot of my baseball-cap loving sister (who has partly inspired the book) looking thoughtful and determined:
The article describes the book’s aim of putting learning disabled people’s personalities and potential before their disability. The editorial also reflects Made Possible’s diverse range of essay contributors, and explains its goal of challenging stereotypes: “Many traditional texts focusing on disability, be it physical, sensory or learning, are factual in a medical or academic context. Made Possible is set to change this narrative by appealing to a wider audience in a bid to open the world of creativity, talent, varied skills and experiences to the general public.”
The book’s contributors have also been busy developing and working on the essays, and we’ve been unpicking the concept of success in the process. As the Enable article says of Made Possible’s theme, “success is different for everyone”, and although we’re at the inital stages, it’s already fascinating (and often surprising) to discover the essayists’ views on achievement – and who defines this.
At a time when disabled people bear the brunt of society’s inequalities, from healthcare to housing and employment, redressing the imbalance and describing how people can fulfil their ambitions is more vital than ever (you can read more about the timely aspects of this book in this recent Guardian piece by scrolling down to “Why do we need this book?”).
It’s also been superb to see new supporters pre-ordering copies of the book – thank you! If you’ve recently joined us, do connect if you’d like to on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #MadePossible.
Also much gratitude to those of you already in touch and mentioning the book on social media, it’s a tip top way to keep #MadePossible on the radar. Do continue to share the Made Possible page with others you think might be interested in what we’re trying to do.
Scrounger or superhero – and little in between. This is how people like my sister, who happens to have a learning disability, are generally seen in society and the media.
The missing part of the equation is what led me to develop the book Made Possible, a crowdfunded collection of essays on success by high-achieving people with learning disabilities. I’m currently working on the anthology with the publisher Unbound and it’s available for pre-order here.
I wanted to support the event because of its aim to bring together a diverse range of people, including campaigners, families, self-advocates and professionals (check out #LeavingNoOneBehind #WHIS to get a feel for the debate).
This post is based on the discussions at the event, and on my views as the sibling of someone with a learning disability and as a social affairs journalist. I’ve focused on print and online media influences perceptions; broadcast media clearly has a major role – but it’s not where my experience over the past 20 years lies.
Firstly, here’s Raana:
Raana’s 28. She loves Chinese food. She adores listening to music (current favourite activity: exploring Queen’s back catalogue – loud). She’s a talented baker and has just started a woodwork course. She has a wicked, dry sense of humour (proof here).
She also also has the moderate learning disability fragile x syndrome. She lives in supported housing and will need lifelong care and support.
The way I describe Raana – with her character, abilities first, diagnosis, label and support needs second, is how I see her. It’s how her family, friends and support staff see her.
But it’s not how she would be portrayed in the mainstream press.
Instead, this comment from the writer and activist Paul Hunt, reflects how she and other learning disabled people are seen:
“We are tired of being statistics, cases, wonderfully courageous examples to the world, pitiable objects to stimulate funding”. Paul Hunt wrote these words in 1966 – his comment is 51 years old, but it’s still relevant (charity fundraising has changed since then, but the rest of the words are spot on – sadly).
Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts.
These reinforce stereotypes of learning disabled as individuals to be pitied or patronised. The middle ground is absent; the gap between Raana’s reality and how she’s represented is huge.
How often, for example, do you read an article about learning disability in the mainstream media which includes a direct quote from someone with a learning disability?
Stories are about people, not with people.
Caveat: as a former national newspaper reporter, I know only too well that the fast-pace of the newsroom and the pressure of deadlines mean it’s not always possible to get all the interviews you’d like. This is harder for general news reporters reacting to breaking stories than it is for specialists or feature writers who have just the right contacts and/or the time to reflect every angle of the story. But there’s still more than can be done – and much of it is very simple.
Take the language used in news and features.
There’s a huge amount of research shows how media influences public attitudes. One focus group project by Glasgow University a few years ago showed people thought up to 70% of disability benefit claims were fraudulent. People said they came to this conclusion based on articles about ‘scroungers’.
The real figure of fraudulent benefit claims? Just 1 per cent.
The language used in mainstream media is often problematic. I wince when I read about people “suffering from autism” – “coping with a learning disability” – or being “vulnerable”.
Images used in stories often don’t help.
As a quick – but very unscientific – litmus test – I typed the words “learning disability” into Google’s image search.
This is a flavor of what I found – the most common pictures that came up were the dreadful “headclutcher” stock image that often accompanies articles about learning disability.
These images say, defeat, frustration, confusion, negativity.
This is not how I see my sister, her friends or the learning disabled campaigners I know.
This is more how I see them:
This shot is from a story I did a few days ago about Martin, Martin’s 22 and works part-time as a DJ at a local radio station (you can read about him here). Martin also happens to have a moderate learning disability and cerebral palsy.
We need more of this.
An obvious – but nonetheless important – point to make here is about the disability and employment gap. A more diverse workforce in the creative sector will impact on representation. Only 6% of people with learning disabilities work, for example, but around 65% want to (I wrote about this issue in the Guardian recently)
But there is cause for optimism. There is a slow but significant shift in the representation of learning disabled people thanks to the rise in grassroots activism, family campaigning, self-advocacy and the growing empowerment agenda.
Social media is helping spread awareness and spread a different narrative.
This rise in self-advocacy is what led me to develop Made Possible. The book’s aim is to challenge stereotypes; it targets a mainstream readership and introduces readers to learning disabled people in areas like arts, politics and campaigning. Their achievements are impressive regardless of their disability.
While I’m researching the book, I’m trying to keep three words in mind – attitude, ability, aspiration:
Am I sharing experiences that help shift public attitudes?
Am I reporting people’s abilities, not just their disabilities?
Am I reflecting people’s potential – what do they aspire to achieve, and how can this happen?
And although I’m focusing on positive representation of learning disability, it’s worth stressing that there’s an equally vital need to highlight the challenges.
The two go hand – a more authentic portrayal of people’s lives (their qualities, hopes and aspirations) and reporting the inequalities they face.
Because readers are more likely to care about the inequality and support the need to solve it if they feel closer to the real people experiencing that inequality – if they stop seeing learning disabled people as “the other”, or as statistics (as Paul Hunt wrote over 50 years ago..) and as people first.
It’s often said that media should reflect, serve and strengthen society. Which means we have to be more accurate and authentic about how we include and portray a huge section of that society – including my sister – which happens to have a disability.
Anxiety and mobility issues mean that 76-year-old Anna Bolton* is usually housebound. But regular calls to a free, confidential helpline for older people have helped her “feel normal”.
Bolton’s mental health deteriorated after she was widowed two years ago. Although she has had some support from local mental health counsellors in her native north-east England, help from Blackpool-based The Silver Line was “invaluable” and more immediate than waiting months for a counselling referral.
The Silver Line, created in 2013 by Esther Rantzen (who also created Childline), is a free, 24-hour, 365-day-a-year helpline offering information and friendship, and signposts people to local organisations for support or social activities.
“There’s still stigma about mental health,” says Bolton. “It’s often easier to speak to a stranger, and nice to know you can call day or night.”
Bolton, who has no family nearby, contacted the helpline after it was mentioned by a receptionist at her GP surgery. She is among the 10,000 people who call the helpline – often referred to as the Childline for older people – every week.
Guest post by Ross Hendry, chief executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity
New research, which we launch today, paints a picture of far too many young families struggling.
Parents with children under the age of 18 are increasingly anxious, according to Spurgeons’ Parent Report, and many feel that there is little support available.
The research shows half of parents worry their children have low self-esteem or are unhappy (46%) or are being bullied (46%)*; whilst 42% of parents think there is little to no support available from statutory, community or voluntary services to help with family challenges.
And it is many of the most vulnerable who are struggling the most. The ones who cannot or do not have a strong, stable and supportive network of family and friends to turn to. These are the families we work with, day in, day out – their children are among the 4 million living in poverty in the UK today. They are the families for whom support seems very distant and hard to attain just when their needs seem to be increasing.
What’s important is that families get the support they need when they need it. And that’s where charities like ours come in. Spurgeons Children’s Charity is driven by its mission to improve the lives of families and children who are struggling to cope; and to see every child given the chance of a hope filled future.
It is 150 years since we were first founded, but we still work at the heart of communities to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children and families in England. Our focus is supporting families who struggle to support themselves through intervention and help that centres on the child.
The reality is, despite the immense wealth and opportunities for social mobility, life for some families is as tough today as it was when we were first established. Inequality today may look different; we may know more about causes and solutions; we may spend more time talking and writing about it; but it is still an enduring social and economic scar on our society.
We offer a range of different services across the country. For example, our 23 children’s centres support parents with young children to access the help they need, ensuring poverty and deprivation don’t become barriers to a better future. We work with local partners in communities with high levels of deprivation across the UK, supporting parents and their children from pre-natal stage up to the age of five.
When parents need to develop new strategies for dealing with issues; or they feel they maybe aren’t coping as well as they could, our support worker teams are there. Sometimes just to listen; but often to provide practical support and advice too. There are a range of parenting courses; opportunities to stay and play and a chance to meet and talk with other parents.
The chance to access peer to peer support can be invaluable and a life line for many parents who often feel alone. This is true for both mums and dads and we’re keen to recognise the important roles fathers play in their children’s lives. Our Saturdads project, which started in 2009 and worked with 89 dads last year alone, helps fathers develop stronger, positive relationships; build peer support networks; and generally build their confidence as a parent. Too often public funded services are portrayed as places of dependency when the reality is a timely intervention can be the route to flourishing, maturity and development for parents and children.
The Parent Report we publish today gives us an opportunity to compare the views of the wider parent population to our own insight. From parent feedback at our services, through to safeguarding reporting, we are able to draw out comparisons and identity some common themes. What we do know from the work taking place is that it’s not always easy for families to reach out.
All too often, parents are afraid to engage. For whatever reason, whether its concern over how they will be perceived, or feeling like they have somehow failed, we’re often the last place they turn. It’s not uncommon for us to be told by parents that they wished they’d reached out sooner. But the question we need to ask is ‘why aren’t they?’
We need our services, and those offered by others like us – from government, charities, schools and GPs – to be recognised as the safe and reassuring places we believe them to be. Where parents can take their children and be free from judgement at a time in their life when they need it most.
It’s only fair that we all accept some responsibility with this – if parents don’t feel that they can access the support available, what can we do differently to help them on their way? More awareness maybe; more accessibility for the isolated and hard to reach groups most definitely; but maybe it’s more than that.
In a world where they are so many expectations and pressures, living up to a perfect ideal can make a tough job even harder. From our part, we want to ensure there is always someone there to support families – especially those in greatest need – with good information, advice and meaningful support.
About the research All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,842 GB parents with children under 18 years of age. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st – 27 April 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). * When asked about the three issues they are most concerned about for their children, either now or in the future.
Guest post by Tracy Fishwick, chief executive of Transform Lives
Leeds Community Homes is striving for a people-powered community housing revolution, placing the new organisation at the cutting edge of housing practice.
The not-for-profit group has raised £360,000 to invest in 16 permanently affordable homes through community shares (a type of share capital called ‘withdrawable shares’ issued by co-operatives or community benefit societies). With the first tenants due to move in by next April, the organisation’s #peoplepoweredhomes campaign is an innovative way to create housing developed by local people, to meet the housing needs of local people. The project wants to create 1,000 affordable homes over the next decade.
People-focused housing solutions are at the heart of the People’s Powerhouse event taking place next month. The housing group’s work in Leeds is the kind of positive story of local change that we hope will inspire delegates to recreate similar projects in their own communities. More good practice like this is vital at a time of chronic housing shortage, with housebuilding falling almost 100,000 homes per year short of achieving the government’s ambition.
You may have read about the People’s Powerhouse which was launched in February and originally billed in the press as “a rival ‘northern powerhouse’ conference to one that advertised 15 male speakers but no women and just 13 of all 98 listed speakers were women”.
Leeds Community Homes, Plus Dane Housing and my own company, Transform Lives, are just some of the organisations taking part. We hope the People’s Powerhouse will help create a dialogue about inclusive, good growth, and its potential to transform communities and lives across the North of England.
Other work worth replicating includes Give Get Go, which Transform Lives collaborates on with a group of housing organisations. The initiative supports social housing tenants into work – connecting unemployed people to employers through volunteering and mentoring, growing skills and confidence and creating jobs. Key to the project’s success is bringing civic institutions and leaders together for the first time to work collaboratively in Liverpool, including the University of Liverpool, Everton FC and the National Trust.
We also work with Plus Dane Housing on its Waves of Hope Big Lottery programme, which aims to tackle homelessness and other complex barriers to work. In just two years, the project has supported 236 people, 83% of whom say their rough sleeping has been reduced. And 67% report a reduction in substance misuse. Both Plus Dane Housing and our other partner, the University of Liverpool, will be showcasing this work at the People’s Powerhouse, underlining the difference we can make when we find good ways of working collaboratively and locally.
Our hope is that we will build a long-term movement for change that supports good and inclusive growth in the North with a particular focus on how people are the key to growth. The aim is to include all sectors and sections of the community, harnessing the combined skills and leverage of the public sector, voluntary, community, civic leaders and business.
As Lord Victor Adebowale, chairman of Social Enterprise UK and chief executive of social enterprise Turning Point, says: “’People’s Powerhouse’ perfectly reflects our vision for economic investment in the North of England.” Social enterprises often find innovative solutions to social issues and as Lord Victor, a People’s Powerhouse keynote speaker, adds: “We cannot allow anyone to be left behind. Investment in the North must be inclusive and must be used to support communities as well as businesses, adding value to the lives of real people.”
* The People’s Powerhouse event takes place on Wednesday 12 July from 10am-4pm at Doncaster Rovers Football Ground. For more information and to register see the website. Discounts are available including for young people and for small enterprises and charities.
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.
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 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.
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.