I just wrote a column about a critically acclaimed movie opening in UK cinemas this week, one that shines a much-needed spotlight on how learning disability is represented in film.
The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen, an actor who has Down’s syndrome. He plays a man who escapes his care home to follow his ambition of becoming a professional wrestler. The film has won universal plaudits for its feelgood factor and optimistic messages about fulfilling your dreams and not judging a book by its cover.
My own take on the film, as a sibling, is that it’s a welcome move to right some wrongs about Hollywood’s representation of disabled people. Given Hollywood’s previous offerings, such as Rain Man and Forrest Gump, featuring non-disabled actors as disabled characters, having a learning disabled actor playing a learning disabled character seems like a significant step forward. The directors, who met Gottsagen at an acting camp, were offered money to replace the actor they had shaped their film around. They refused.
There is also authenticity in scenes reflecting the restrictive nature of institutions and in the portrayal of risk-averse, overprotective carers infantalising a grown man. You can read more in my column.
The movie opens just days before Brighton’s Oska Bright, billed as “the world’s biggest learning disability film festival”. The biennial event, founded 15 years ago by learning disabled film-makers and supported by disability arts charity Carousel, has a reputation for showing radical work (it hosted the UK premiere for Sanctuary in 2017). This year, for the first time, the short films being screened will be eligible for a Bafta. Timings meant that The Peanut Butter Falcon didn’t make it into the festival, but its themes align very much with the films being shown next week.
I asked two of the festival’s leading lights – committee member Sarah Watson and programme director Matthew Hellett – their thoughts on how learning disability is portrayed on film. Here’s what they said.
Sarah Watson: “I really loved The Peanut Butter Falcon! It was so cool because even though I don’t like Shia Lebouf, he really showed he can act! I thought it was funny and heart-warming but not too heart-warming. The story was really good. I liked how the actor with Learning Disabilities shone out as a proper actor. I thought it was perfect. The music was good. The film was true quality.I wish it was longer! I would like to see what happens to them at the end, what happens to the horrible wrestler – I wanted more bad things to happen to him.
All of these films are trying to break the barriers, trying to make sure that people with Down’s syndrome and learning disabilities are treated equal – which is quite rebellious and rare.
I hope we at Oska Bright kick some ass, be quite revolutionary, show brilliant work and show that we can be as good as any film festival. We want to show more Down’s syndrome and learning disabled actors to show what we can do! We can do as good as non-learning disabled actors. We are the filmmakers and the people in the films! We actually have people with autism and learning disabilities in our films! We know what the daily challenges are of these roles in the real world!
This is my message to the film industry: loosen up and trust people. Give them support and skills and a chance! If it goes wrong, so what, at least we’re trying! Give us access! Stop sitting on the fence! Some films we’ve seen lately have challenged this, so more films like The Peanut Butter Falcon and Sanctuary please!
Also there should be more female led, more disabled led films. Give us a chance! You know you want to! We’re different and have different ideas that you might never think of! “
Matthew Hellett: “I think it’s really good that films like this are being made. Of course I think there should be more of them. It’s what I hope will happen in the future. It’s exciting that more of these films are being made, I mean it’s more than exciting. It should be happening more often. And we hope it will.
Oska Bright is bigger than ever before this year, with a bigger range of films from all over the world. Hopefully when people walk away from the festival, they’ll talk about the films and have a positive outlook. We want people to recognise the films and what they’re doing. These are big bold stories from learning disabled people.
We’re pleased to have
a third of our programme as F-rated this year. We really wanted to make sure
we’re giving female learning disabled filmmakers a platform to share their
work. These films should be more out there. Women in film are already a
minority and it’s an even smaller minority for learning disabled women.
Queer Freedom is back for a second year, which is good and exciting. I want it to get stronger. It was quite difficult to find the films, even though the screening from 2017 was our most popular screening on tour this year.
There shouldn’t be an
imbalance, more films need to get made. Clearly these films are popular, so I
hope they inspire people commission more work made by or featuring people with
learning disabilties. I really hope that
the festival can make this happen. We are very serious about what we do, we’re
not going away and we’re committed to making change.
Films like Rain Man or Forrest Gump are completely, completely wrong, they are not learning disabled people in those roles. They don’t represent the stories and the lives of learning disabled people. They shouldn’t be made at all.
Oska Bright offers real representation and a platform for people to show their work. These stories are important. We’re offering support and creative opportunities for learning disabled people to share their work. Without people that look like you on the screen, you don’t know that it’s possible for you to be there yourself. You need to be able to see yourself on the big screen. It’s starting to happen more which is great to see, films like The Peanut Butter Falcon and Sanctuary are so important.”
I’m thrilled to reveal the cover for my forthcoming book, Made Possible:
Thanks to the thoughtful and endlessly creative minds at Unbound for enabling me to be fully involved in the design process (aka ‘I’ve been an utterly pedantic pain in the arse’). I’m so delighted that the cover design and concept reflect the strong and positive aims of this book influenced by my sister.
I also have an update on the publication date – the book will now be published in May 2020. This may feel a long way off (and slightly later than the original earmarked date of February) but Unbound has good commercial reasons for choosing this date in the publishing calendar. It’s vital to me – and to the book’s contributors – that this anthology reaches as many people as possible, and there’s a much stronger opportunity for that nearer the summer months.
The publication date also means that the supporters’ list will now close at midnight on Tues 27 August so if you know anyone who wants to pre-order and support the book – and get their name in every single edition as a patron – they need to do it before the end of August.
Thanks again to you all for helping to make Made Possible happen – its themes of human rights, unity, inclusion and ambition (for the many – not the elite, privileged few) feel more important now than ever.
Season’s greetings to everyone – this is me with my sister Raana, thanking everyone who’s collaborated on stories, projects and posts this past year – here’s to more of the same in 2019.
Big thanks also to all of you who’ve supported or helped publicise the crowdfunded book I’m editing, Made Possible, about the talents of people with learning disabilities. It’s
partly inspired by my sister, who has the learning disability fragile X syndrome, and aims to shatter the lazy stereotypes we have about learning disability.
Here’s hoping 2019 will bring more action, instead of just more rhetoric, as I’ve written before, and the people who have to spend the festive break in inpatient care are reunited with their families soon.
Just over a year ago I launched the crowdfunding campaign for Made Possible – and now I’m delighted to say that I’ve just delivered the manuscript to the publisher, Unbound.
And I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t stress it enough – I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has backed Made Possible, or who has shared news about its progress to ensure it gets made.
It still amazes me to think that this project – a collection of essays on success by people with learning disabilities – was fully funded within just six weeks. The speed with which the book hit its funding target proves how much this stereotype-shattering title is needed.
There are 1.5m people with learning disabilities in the UK today but people with learning disabilities aren’t asked to talk about their talent, or share the secret of their success – that’s why I wanted to create this book.
Society barely gives them lip service; they are pitied or patronsised, and rarely heard from in their own words.
Now that the manuscript’s done, I’ll be working with Unbound’s editorial team over the coming months and I’m looking forward to seeing the title take shape. People with learning disabilities face huge inequalities in everything from healthcare to education and employment (not to mention barbaric treatment, locked away in ‘care’ institutions, as reflected in recent media coverage). This book of powerful and entertaining essays by learning disabled high achievers will show an alternative approach to treating and supporting people, and the benefits of that approach.
You can find out more about the book in this Guardian piece.
So I’ve spent the last few months working with some incredible essayists for my crowdfunded book Made Possible. The book is a collection of essays on success by (note: ‘by” and not “about”) high achieving people with learning disabilities. Some pieces are still being written while others are almost complete. I’m delighted – but not surprised – to say that the ideas and stories across the essay collection are quite astounding.
The pieces of writing cover very different successes in a range of contrasting areas like the arts, campaigning and sports. But what unites these varied essays is the fact that the writers’ voices are so honest, powerful and at times just plain funny (intentionally so). This is how Made Possible will give a two-fingered salute to the outdated perceptions that exist about learning disability. The book will not only document the hugely impressive achievements of talented people with learning disabilities, but will do so in an engaging, authentic way.
On the issue of talent, my sister Raana’s always been a creative type, from her childhood fancy dress days to her current love for woodwork and baking. When she was younger though, art was her thing, and I’m delighted that a creation she made a few years ago featured in the recent national disability conference at Lancaster University.
The ninth biennial Lancaster Disability Conference run by the Centre for Disability Research (CeDR) incorporates Raana’s intricate Mosaic in its event information and publicity. If you follow #cedr18 and @CeDRLancs on Twitter you might get a glimpse of my sister’s handiwork which usually hangs in my hallway (so as many people as possible get to see it). Raana’s family and friends are so proud to see Mosaic shared more widely – a big thank you to Lancaster University and its Made Possible supporters for the opportunity to show more people what our sister – daughter – aunt – cousin – niece – friend – housemate – colleague- neighbour (because Raana is many things) can do.
The fact that learning disabled people’s talents are overlooked is an issue that cropped up in a recent interview I did for the Guardian. In conversation with Sam Clark, the new chief executive of campaigning organisation Learning Disability England, Sam’s words reflect what lies at the heart of my book: “We all bring gifts and talents, and I think it would be brilliant if we could understand that’s the case for everyone.”
I think it would be brilliant too. When I launched the crowdfunding campaign for Made Possible, I explained that shattering the tired stereotypes of “superhero” and “scrounger” is what drives this book. It also influences my articles on disability issues, some of which were recently shortlisted for a British Journalism Award for Specialist Media. Specialist writers cover issues that can be otherwise overlooked in mainstream media – my focus is the 1.5m people in the UK with a learning disability, the inequality they face and their untapped potential.
Thanks, as ever, to everyone who’s helping to get Made Possible published; by backing this book you’re helping create something that challenges the current narratives.
If you’ve not done so already, do link up with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram or using the hashtag #MadePossible
As the Twitter screenshot above says, I’m on a break from blogging and tweeting so I can progress the book, Made Possible, a collection of essays on success by high achieving people with learning disabilities (yes, you read that right – this book’s all about shattering stereotypes!).
You can find out more about this crowdfunded collection of essays here which is being published thanks to some incredible support from its patrons (a list of supporters so far is available on this page if you scroll down to ‘supporters’).
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.