Category Archives: Employment

Scrounger or superhero, and little in between: learning disability in the media

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’ve just spoken about the role of media in shaping attitudes to disability, and how and why is this changing at an event – Leaving No One Behind at Birmingham City University. The day was organised by the charity Include Me Too and community platform World Health Innovation Summit.

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:

With my sister Raana, (left) pic: Maya Gould

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:

Quote from writer and activist Paul Hunt

“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.

Research from Glasgow University on disability in the media

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.

Typical results from a Google image search on “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:

Portrait of Martin Bell, used in my recent Guardian article


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.

The book I’m editing, Made Possible, featured recently in the Guardian

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.

Challenges like the impact of austerity, for example, or the health inequalities, or the fact that over 3,000 people are still locked away in inappropriate institutional care.

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.

I nailed it: DJs with disabilities take to the air

Martin Bell, DJ and part-time assistant radio station manager

I met DJ Martin Bell (“not the man in the white suit!)” at the station where he works, Direction Radio in Epsom, Surrey, for a Guardian story published today.

Martin, who has a mild learning disability and cerebral palsy, recently interviewed two engineers from the PWL production company and the experience boosted his confidence. “That was my first interview. I was nervous but I nailed it,” he says. “We recorded it first and then we edited it. I enjoyed coming up with questions.”

He also won the station’s producer of the year award for 2016-17. What would he do if was not at the station? “I wouldn’t know everyone here – they are like my family. I would be at home doing nothing or going out and spending money, but I want to save and become more independent.”

Online station Direction Radio is part of social care provider Surrey Choices’ day service programme. It helps people with physical or learning disabilities to develop skills in broadcast and production.

Some 19 DJs produce and present the shows reflecting all musical genres – from rock to pop, R&B and classical. Station manager Chris Fenn (who does not have a disability) explains that DJs have “a blank canvas” to create their slots, which last between one and three hours, and decide on everything from the jingle to the playlist. “I say to all the guys, ‘You do what you want to do with it’,” says Fenn. “It’s all their choice and that’s why it’s so diverse.”

You can read my report on Martin and his fellow DJs on the Guardian website (all photos from Surrey Choices).

L-R station manager Chris Fenn and DJ Martin Bell
L-R Chris Fenn and presenter Nick Walewski
L-R Martin Bell, Nick Walewski

Made Possible: groundbreaking book hits 100% crowdfunding

Six weeks ago I launched a crowdfunding campaign for Made Possible, a groundbreaking collection of essays on success by high-achieving people with learning disabilities.

The book is inspired by my sister, who has the learning disability fragile x syndrome, as well as by some of the remarkable, succesful people I’ve met and interviewed over the last few years – all of whom happen to have a learning disability.

I’m delighted to say the book is now 100% funded, such has been the fast pace and mounting enthusiasm for the project. More than 200 diverse people and organisations have got behind the book since its launch on 6 September.

Made Possible presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability in different areas like theatre, music, art and campaigning. And, for the first time, these high achievers tell their own personal stories of success, in their own words.

It is a book to change the current narratives about learning disabled people, narratives that mean they are talked about as somehow less than human.

Thank you to everyone who’s got involved and backed this book. I can’t wait to start working on it. To find out more, follow the book’s progress and to pre-order a copy, see Made Possible on the Unbound website.

Made Possible is a month old

It’s taken less than four weeks for the book I’m editing, Made Possible, to become more than 50% crowdfunded – and this is all down to the project’s incredible and growing band of supporters.

The anthology includes the experiences of people with learning disabilities in their own words – it challenges the current narratives on learning disability which dictate that people are pitied, patronised, and not heard from directly. It presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability; these high achievers tell their own personal stories of success.

As a social affairs journalist, most of my work over the last 20 years has been influenced by the fact that I have a learning disabled sister. I know that her learning disability doesn’t define her, but society inflexibly labels her in terms of her condition, instead of recognising her personality, skills and abilities.

Attitudes must change – and that’s why we need this book, which is already halfway to being published (click here to make a pledge to help publish the book and join its community of supporters).

To hit such a milestone so soon reflects a determination of so many people to shift negative attitudes towards learning disabled people.

Made Possible also considers the wider context that undermines people’s talents and aspirations. For example, we’re in party conference season and the Conservatives are gathering in Manchester as I write. Yet most politicians (with a few rare exceptions) overlook learning disabled people – despite the fact that more than a million people with learning disabilites are entitled to vote. This is not only an equality issue – why does the political world seem to bypass people who have both a right and a desire to go to the polls? – but vote-needy politicians could do with wooing this signifcant chunk of the electorate.

Many of this book’s supporters (scroll down on this page to “Supporters”) including campaigners, activists, self-advocates and support providers – are among a strong and growing lobby working hard (all year round – not just during conference season) to change this. I’m looking forward to reflecting the vital growth in this kind of activism and awareness-raising in Made Possible.

* This post is based on an update originally published on the Unbound website

Challenging perceptions about learning disability: a personal piece

My sister Raana (left) and me (photo: Rob Gould)
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When I tell people that my youngest sister has the learning disability fragile x syndrome, there are usually two common responses. People either ask what fragile x is, or they want to know kind of support she needs.

Not many people ask my sister’s name (Raana) or how old she is (28). They do not ask about her skills (baking, ceramics), what she likes doing in her free time (zumba, movie nights), or her achievements (so many to choose from – her artwork, her college course, her public speaking, how she looks after her nephews and niece).

In a piece today for Learning Disability Today, I explain how the focus on my sister’s disability, rather than her ability, is a symptom of wider negative public perceptions about learning disability. Such perceptions mean that people with learning disabilities are regarded as devoid of personality, passive recipients of care or deserving of pity.

Overturning these attitudes and challenging stereotypes about people like my sister is the aim of the new book I have just launched, Made Possible. Made Possible is a crowdfunded collection of essays by high-achieving people with learning disabilities. The book, with the award-winning publisher Unbound, features the experiences of talented professionals in different areas like film, theatre, music, art and campaigning.

To read more, see the blog in Learning Disability Today.
To help the crowdfunding effort, see Made Possible on the Unbound website, follow #MadePossible on social media and @Saba_Salman on Twitter

How to get more learning disabled people into paid work

When I recently met Anthony Knight, an arboretum horticulturalist at Kew Gardens, his enthusiasm for work was infectious. Anthony’s knowledge about plants and trees is impressive – as is the determination with which he’s pursued his passion for gardening.

It took him nine attempts over five years before finally landing the job in November, despite having done work experience and an apprenticeship at the world-renowned botanical gardens in south-west London.

While in theory Knight, 38, was a strong contender for the job – having previously worked at Kew, at a local nursery and in garden maintenance – he has a moderate learning disability that affects how he communicates, so job interviews were a barrier. “I was not able to portray myself in the best possible light,” he says.

Knight was only successful once Kew adjusted the application process, giving him more information about the general subjects to be covered so he could better prepare for the interview. He also had support from learning disability charity Mencap.

As someone who has a learning disability and is in paid employment, Knight is rare. In the UK, just 5.8% of people with a learning disability who are known to social care services are in paid work, compared with 74% of non-disabled people. But the most up-to-date figures from a 2009 government report show that 65% of learning disabled people want paid work but have been unable to get a job.

There’s also a growing call for more people with learning disabilities to have a paid role at and a stronger influence on the kind of organisations that support them.

For more, read the full piece here.

MS treatments: life-changing, but hard to access

More than 100,000 people in the UK have multiple sclerosis (MS), the most common cause of serious physical disability in working age adults, according to the MS guidelines set out by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

My write up in the Guardian today looks at the condition, which is regarded as relatively rare. Public awareness of MS is low, but recent innovations in treating and assessing MS are creating a fresh focus on the disease.

Research suggests, for example, that MRI scans – already used in diagnosis – may be useful in predicting how MS will progress. In addition, a new drug therapy just approved in the US offers help for symptoms in the most chronic form of the condition. But, given that the drug has yet to be licensed in Europe, can the UK keep up with the latest innovations in the treatment of MS?

This was the backdrop to a recent roundtable discussion, supported by biotech company Sanofi Genzyme. Are the tools for assessing MS fit for purpose? How can early diagnosis and treatment be sped up? What matters to patients?

You can read the views of MS specialists, health experts, campaigners and people with MS on these issues in the full piece here.

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.

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.

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.