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.
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.
There has been surge of support for Made Possible, the non-fiction book challenging learning disability stereotypes I’m crowdfunding with the award-winning publisher Unbound. The crowdfunding campaign has been so popular that the anthology is more than halfway to being published – just three weeks after launch. Wow (the background to the book is in this previous post).
I’m so grateful to everyone who’s pre-ordering Made Possible (all supporters get their name printed in the book), as well as sharing its aims and inviting others to get involved. As I write this update, there are 127 people in our Made Possible community, and I’m absolutely delighted that the book’s incredible range of supporters includes learning disability self-advocates, family members, campaigners, professionals, support organisations and people interested in human rights.
If you’re on social media, do follow #MadePossible and connect on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram – I’d welcome the chance to hear from you if you fancy saying hello.
During Unbound’s recent Anthology Week, which offered a social media focus on the publisher’s essay or story collections, some Made Possible makers tweeted about why they decided to help publish Made Possible:,
Thanks so much to everyone for joining the growing campaign to publish this book; I’m looking forward to seeing what the next week brings.
Just 11 days since launch and Made Possible is already more than 40% crowdfunded – that’s down to 100 brilliantly supportive people so far helping to create this groundbreaking book by pledging and pre-ordering it.
I’m working with award-winning publisher Unbound on Made Possible, a collection of essays by successful people with learning disabilities. It’s incredible that it’s almost half way to being published and has hit the 100 supporter landmark, something that is entirely down to a group of diverse individuals united by a common cause.
People with learning disabilities are pitied or patronsised, but this new book challenges the current narratives. It presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability and, for the first time, they tell their own personal success stories in their own words.
You can read more about the book here and check the latest updates here.
Follow me on Twitter @Saba_Salman and #MadePossible to keep up to date with progress.
You can also check out the #UnboundAnthology thread this week (and if you’ve already made a pledge to help create this unique book, then thank you!)
If it is rare to see learning disabled people interviewed or mentioned in the mainstream media (unless they’re involved in a care scandal), then it is completely unheard of to see someone with a learning disability conducting an interview.
Which is why I’m posting these images of Shanna Lau and Jermaine Williams who visited Channel 4 last month (to coincide with the local and European elections) to interview Jon Snow. The news anchor talked about accessibility in the news and voting and their interview is published today in the bi-monthly Easy News, the first accessible news magazine for people with learning disabilities which is supported by United Response.
Shanna and Jermaine are part of the team that produces the magazine; launched last year, it uses simple words and images to create easy to explain big news stories and help people engage with current affairs and politics.Stories include the death of Nelson Mandela, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics and the 2014 Budget. By the sixth edition, 3,272 people had downloaded it – 250 per cent over target. According to United Response, 90 per cent of readers say it is easier to understand than other news sources while 78 per cent feel politics is now relevant to their lives, compared to 31 per cent a year previously.
Jon Snow told Easy News: “I think sometimes [news is] happening in places in the world that [people] have never heard of…And it’s very difficult to explain to people in a short space of time – because you only have a very short time in the news – it’s very difficult to give them all the facts. And sometimes you need a lot of facts to understand what a story is all about.
“I certainly think that [news can help people to vote]. If you are able to simplify it, which we very often do not, we assume a level of understanding which often isn’t out there. But I think if you can simplify it, it will make it very much easier for people to vote.”
An easy read version of the full interview, which was set up by United Response with help from disability campaigner, Kaliya Franklin, is in the ninth edition of Easy News published today. To download the latest edition of Easy News and to sign up for future editions, go to the United Response website.
Hello all, briefly highlighting my words posted in the comments thread under my Guardian interview last week with the Muslim mayor of Tower Hamlets council, Lutfur Rahman.
I’m re-posting my comment here for clarity given there were around 140 responses last time I looked.
“Thanks if you’ve read and commented on this piece. As many of you know, it’s written for the SocietyGuardian interview slot, which has a particular format and tone and if it was an investigation or piece of long-form journalism, it would have been tagged as such. The aim, mentioned early on, is to push aside the mutual mudslinging, hype and hate, and look specifically at whether or not aspects of the latest budget stack up long term – essentially, can the council balance its books? The piece doesn’t set out to repeat or re–explore the well–documented allegations and criticisms which are available to read in other places:
‘Is it time that Tower Hamlets, a political morass and England’s third most deprived authority where half the 250,000 residents are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, mostly Bangladeshi, be looked at afresh?’
While it’s not possible to include or analyse every element of spending or cuts in 1200 words, the piece ultimately disputes Rahman’s claim of fireproofing the frontline and his divisive nature, outlined at the start, is reflected by many of the responses here.”
Here’s a comment from my editor in the same thread:
“As the editor of the Society section I commissioned Saba to interview Lutfur Rahman, about the plans he had in place to try to protect public services in Tower Hamlets from huge spending cuts. He seemed to be taking a very different approach to councils such as Newcastle, whose leader we profiled a couple of weeks earlier. The interview was intended to explore Rahman’s approach by giving him a chance to put his case and to assess whether or not his plans were viable.
I appreciated that he is a divisive figure for various reasons outlined in the interview – such as alleged links to Islamic fundamentalist groups which he has has repeatedly and categorically denied – but the purpose of the interview was not to focus on this aspect of his leadership which has been the subject of TV documentaries and countless column inches, but to focus on his policy initiatives. I feel that it achieved this, as some of you have acknowledged in your comments.”
If you’re interested in reading more, try this, on the Telegraph website, which leads on from the comments thread and outlines issues not included in the Guardian piece. These issues weren’t included for the reasons stated in the piece itself and in the two responses above.
More background, history, facts, detail as well as conjecture from all parties involved – journalists, commentators, residents, Rahman’s supporters, his opponents and politicians of all hues – is easily found via a quick Google search.
Finally, there are a couple of links here and here (specifically the section marked footnote on the second link) by other writers who have felt compelled to clarify their reporting of and interviews with Rahman.
Enter, if you will, the parallel universe of the traditional local authority careers advisor, where nothing bears much relation to a young person’s dreams or talents.
In this spooky alternative reality, I have followed the 1985 suggestion of my school-based careers advisor, ditched my “unrealistic” dream of becoming a journalist and am now a teacher.
Mr Saba Salman, meanwhile, didn’t become a documentary filmmaker but stuck to the advice of his careers advisor and became – ta daa! – a careers advisor! And among my friends I count an abattoir worker (she wanted to be a vet but the computer said ‘no’), a prison officer (she’s actually a showbiz journalist) and a lawyer (she said she was shy but liked languages and writing – she’s now a European social policy consultant).
This parallel universe is, of course, based on events some two decades ago, but it’s incredible that so many people still recall the terrible advice they had – and it’s coloured their image of the entire profession.
My nice but singularly insipid adviser informed me that journalism was “a bit difficult” to get into and refused to organise work experience at my local paper on the grounds that I’d be turned away from such a competitive profession. Credit to her that instead of finishing me off completely by yelling “HEY LOSER! YOU’RE ONLY 13 AND YOU’VE YOUR WHOLE LIFE AHEAD OF YOU BUT – BEHOLD – I CRAP ON YOUR DREAMS!”, she comforted me with the affirmation that I was “a good all rounder” who would be suited to teaching.
Now I take my hat off to teachers; I know some inspiring ones working in challenging schools, and it was my brilliant English teacher who supported my interest in writing. But I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do – and teaching wasn’t it.
Mr Saba Salman had a similar experience. After explaining that he liked reading, writing and photography, he was inexplicably told to work in careers advice. Meanwhile my pet-friendly friend punched her likes (people, animals) into a computer programme during her advice session and was told to work in a slaughter house…and so the stories go on.
Was there a massive yet unreported national shortage of teachers, careers advisors, prison officers and abattoir staff in the mid-80s? Were well-meaning careers advisors attempting to rebalance the economy? Or was the service just plain rubbish?
I ignored the patronsing old boot who misadvised me, concluding that it was she who was difficult, not my chosen career. But how many of my peers took the advice along with an unsuitable career path after someone rode roughshod over their dreams?
The careers advice has changed since I was at school. Known as Connexions, what it does well is to target the young and vulnerable with information on careers and personal issues. But its shortfalls were documented in a report from the CfBT Educational Trust last year and Connexions offices face massive job losses as a result of public spending cuts.
So it was with interest that I noted the recent news that the government is to take careers advice responsibility away from councils and launch its first all-age careers service building on Next Step and Connexions. The all-age service launches in 2012 and aims to offer seamless and universal careers advice.
Connexions will disappear. Councils will still advise vulnerable young people, but with what funding and under what auspices is unknown- and that might impact on the disadvantaged.
However, the Department of Innovation, Business and Skills acknowledges that careers guidance is at the heart of increasing social mobility. The pledge that schools will be under a legal duty to secure independent, impartial careers guidance for students is interesting, as is the option for a kite mark for the best career guidance and a register of providers meeting the highest standards.
The new service should include a strong online presence as young people are increasingly looking to the internet for advice. The online youth support charity YouthNet, for example, runs a rich, web-based careers advice resource The Site with a valuable ‘ask the experts’ option.
And the service could help older workers. Research published today by the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) and Cranfield School of Management describes the stagnation in the careers of many over 50s. With the fixed retirement age being abolished in 2011, and the state pension age rising for both men and women to 66 in 2020, many people might look for a career change later in their life.
Of course unless the job market picks up, the recipients of this world-class careers advice won’t actually have anywhere to actually launch their careers – but let’s not quibble about that for now.
And finally, Mrs West Sussex County Council Careers Advisor c1985, it is to you I dedicate this blogpost (a form of journalism no less). Because it is with no thanks to you that I am here today. Cheers.
Less than a week since its launch and The Social Issue gets onto the radar of the Guardian’s Society Daily blog; Patrick Butler, the paper’s editor of society, health and education policy was clearly blown away with the irresistible combination of Shaks Ghosh and Groucho Marx (Shaks wrote the guest blog, Groucho provided the SocialSpeak quote).
Thanks to everyone who’s commented on the blog so far, either on the site or via email – the feedback’s been helpful and, as a result, there are a few gentle tweaks and subtle additions here and there. Spot the difference.