Isn’t it about time that learning disabled people enjoyed the same access to cultural lives and work as everyone else?
This is one question that Venture Arts (VA) and our speakers will be asking the heritage and cultural sectors at our symposium, Making the Case, at the Grand Hall, Whitworth Art gallery on the 25th May. VA is an organisation that specialises in visual arts in the North West.
“People with autism can do things like other people that don’t have autism in society. Society should be more accepting of people and not assume people can’t do things.” This is what Amber Opka Stother says – Amber (pictured above) chairs the VA steering group, has worked at Manchester Museum and arts centre HOME Manchester and is an ambassador for learning disabled people in the heritage and culture sector.
Our symposium will showcase the experiences of learning disabled people who have formed VA’s Cultural Enrichment Programme, funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The programme has seen over 20 people undertake 16 week work placements in some of Manchester’s best known cultural and heritage venues.
On the day we will also be seeing and hearing about other projects from across the country and highlighting areas of best practice.
“Unfortunately, our experience shows that people often don’t feel that big cultural institutions are for them or know how best to welcome people into their buildings. In my view we need to see more learning disabled people working within culture to be able to start to overcome this and make real change happen”, says Amanda Sutton, VA director.
This kind of inclusion makes sense, adds Amanda: “You are going to feel much more comfortable about going into a building, that can otherwise feel quite austere and foreboding, if you can relate to and identify with the people welcoming you and working within the venue.”
In 2015, researchers Lemos and Crane looked at learning disabled people’s access to museums and galleries (pdf). It stated: “Despite longstanding commitments to access, participation, learning, equality and diversity, museums, galleries and arts venues are not currently required by funders or policy makers specifically to promote access for people with intellectual disabilities as they are in relation to other groups…Mainstream arts organisations did not seem always to have a clear framework of good practice for improving access for people with a learning disability. This was perhaps the consequence of widespread uncertainty and anxiety among those with little personal or professional experience of people with learning disabilities.”
So Venture Arts aims to rectify this through working with cultural institutions to introduce learning disabled people to every aspect of their working operations. We reckon that if we can get people in “through the back door”, they will gradually change attitudes and integrate into institutions. Through our work so far, this has indeed happened. People have been back stage, in the conservation rooms, behind the scenes, delivering tours, in museum shops, in the staff room and are now well known by all the staff and visitors alike.
Here’s what Amber thinks about her experiences with VA so far:
At Manchester Museum, I volunteered and worked in the shop and in the postroom and in the vivarium as well. I ended up doing a tour for my friends and family which they really, really enjoyed, it boosted my confidence about speaking to people. It was really nice meeting lots of new people I did things that most people don’t . It’s nice to see the different parts of the museum.
People were, very welcoming and I think I am helping them to learn more about working with people with autism too, maybe like how people communicate or something.
Now I’ve started a new placement at HOME, an arts centre, which I’m really enjoying. We get to go behind the scenes and see how the cinema works which is really interesting and we have worked at the front of house and we get to see some free shows as well and that’s really, really good.
I think it’s important to have people with autism working in these places to see what great skills people have and how it makes a difference to volunteering. They will be more interested in employing people with autism, it will make a big difference.
On a personal level, it has helped me to be more confident and it’s helped me to become more confident in doing other jobs and things. I also work in a school and this experience has influenced how I am with the children, I feel more confident because I had to speak to people and that has lifted my confidence.
Last year I also delivered a workshop about making galleries accessible at a conference called Creative Minds and I loved every minute of it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t worked at the Manchester Museum beforehand. There were a lot of people there too so I was really happy with myself.
I’m really looking forward to the symposium at the Whitworth as well and to interviewing people from museums and galleries. I’m going to interview them about the job and what we do. It will be really important to come to the symposium because you will get to hear about the great work that museums do with people with disabilities.
Even though I’ve got autism I try and do things that people without autism think that people can’t do like drive, I’ve passed my driving test that was a big achievement for me because I’ve always loved cars. People with autism can do things like other people that don’t have autism in society. We need to celebrate difference and make sure that people recognise what great things people with disabilities can do. I get upset sometimes if people don’t understand me, like my driving instructor who didn’t think I could pass my test. It’s important to listen so people can know what message people are trying to get across.
My advice for other museums? People have really great skills and they should give people the chance. People with disabilities can be really good at doing lots of great things and have skills that other people without a disability might not have, which can be valuable in a workplace. For example, people can be more understanding of other people.
It would make me happy to see people with disabilities working in museums because it’s good to see people with great skills doing a good job. If people give them a chance it would be a great place to start when people don’t feel comfortable about going into a museum.
Barriers for learning disabled people in going into a museum can be the staff of a museum because they might be a bit rude towards them or can’t understand if someone has no speech or something. It might not have a ramp or the lift might not be working or someone might be deaf as well so that could be a barrier. Museums should be more accessible to people with disabilities and people should make sure they don’t put jargon and put language that people understand on their walls.
I’m looking forward to the 25th to hear about what people are going to say. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and to what people have to say about their experiences at the museums and it should be a great day.
After seeing the dance company’s showcase at Sadlers Wells last night, I’d add that everyone should see its artists perform.
The one off event, called Fusion, was the UK’s first inclusive Latin and ballroom-inspired showcase, partly inspired by Rashmi’s experience of growing up with an autistic sibling.
Rashmi says: “Dance and music played an important role in our interaction, communication and creativity. As an adult, my passion for dance, particularly ballroom dance, continued, but I found limited inclusive opportunities. Step Change Studios is my response.”
Supported by Sadler’s Wells, Arts Council England and the Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund, yesterday’s programme included a free wheelchair ballroom masterclass with world champion Pawel Karpinski. The post show discussion focused on the need for more genre-busting inclusive events like Fusion. As well as “showing what’s possible”, as one audience member said, it challenges people’s perceptions of disability.
But this wasn’t some worthy event with the creative bar suddenly lowered because its A Good Thing To Do. This was in turn innovative, expressive, playful, sassy, beautiful and infectious and a reminder of what can be achieved with ambition, forward-thinking arts programming and commissioning and reasonable adjustments (to method – not to quality).
Launched in 2017, Step Change Studios enables disabled and non-disabled people to dance and in the last 12 months has held events for more than 900 disabled people including sessions in schools and arts venues.
A play that celebrates people with learning disabilities and that was written for an actor with Down’s syndrome is being revived this week at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatres.
Myrtle Theatre Company’s show is a sequel to the company’s Up Down Boy, which was first performed in 2013 at the National Theatre and then toured the country. Nathan Bessell, an actor with Down’s syndrome, plays Matty Butler in the play inspired by real stories from families of young people with Down’s syndrome.
As part of the run from this Wednesday (Nov 8) to November 18th, Tobacco Factory Theatres will host an evening of free events for young adults, led by REACT, the theatre’s team of young producers aged 14-25. There will be a series of free pre-show events and a post-show debate on the play’s themes. There will also be a series of relaxed performances which offer a welcoming environment for theatre-goers with additional needs.
Last year, when I interviewed the theatre company’s director, Heather Williams, she described the necessary adjustments to the production process when working with a learning disabled actor. This includes going at a slightly slower place, trying to follow “rather than lead”, being flexible and – above all – listening.
All of this, she told me, allows Nathan to grow as a performer: “You just need the right conditions to flourish.” This approach – creating an environment where people can more easily meet their potential – is one I wholeheartedly support (and a belief that drives my latest project, the book Made Possible). Find out more about the play here.
Photos of the 2016 run of Up Down Man, shot by Richard Davenport
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.”