Category Archives: media & communication

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

Made Possible hits the midway milestone

This post is based on a piece originally posted 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.

*Find out more about Made Possible on Unbound, or follow @Saba_Salman and #MadePosible on social media

Made Possible: diverse individuals united by a common cause

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!)

Attitudes must change: launching Made Possible

This update was originally posted on Unbound on Sunday 10 Sept:

First off, a HUGE thank you to all you brilliant early bird pledgers for getting Made Possible off the ground – I’ve been blown away by your support, feedback, encouragement and enthusiasm.

Your help in creating this book means that Made Possible reached a major crowdfunding milestone after just 2 days – the 25% mark. Sensational – we’ve not even been going for a week and we’re a quarter funded!

Thanks too to those of you who’ve fearlessly embraced the unfamiliar waters of crowdfunding; this is all new to me too, so we’re in it together.

Some of you have asked why this method to create Made Possible. Good question. Unbound felt right, not least because it’s an award-winning publishing company, but because it connects readers directly with the books they want to see written. In a nutshell, you support the book you want to read – without your pledge, the book can’t get published. And Unbound breaks the traditional boundary between reader and writer – an approach that overturns the status quo seemed like absolutely the right fit for a book that aims to do the same thing.

So here we all are, this is now our Made Possible community! Thank you for being a part of it – it’s going to grow, and as it does, we get closer to the aim of challenging some very outdated mindsets about learning disability.

If you’ve pledged, please do share the news about what you’re helping to create, and encourage others to help make this happen. You can use #MadePossible on social media and see who else is talking about what we’re trying to do.

Thanks everyone, and more soon,
Saba

Murals with a message need a new home

The access for all mural, east London (photo: Vision)
Para athletes mural, east London (photo: Vision)
Para athletes mural, east London (photo: Vision)

The public is being asked to suggest permanent homes for a trio of murals created to highlight disability issues.

A group of disabled artists, the Vision collective, created the collaborative art boards which have been displayed for a limited time on the Shoreditch Art Wall, east London, to mark the recent World Para Athletics Championships. The collective’s mission is “to inspire artists with disabilities to have an integral voice in their community through their artwork”.

Murals with a message on display in east London (photo: Vision)

A fourth mural, created with children supported by the Action for Children charity, is earmarked for use by the charity.

The murals are up until this Sunday, and the artists are inviting ideas for their relocation. The Vision group’s facilitator, Sarah Hughes, says: “We feel they are suitable for play areas, shared community space, special schools, hospitals, the Olympic Park- there are lots of possibilities.”

The Vision artists include Michelle Baharier, Dawn Barber, Dwain Bryan, Julie Cordell, David Elton, Lynda Evans, Lorraine Peacock and Sandra Pink.

For more information see the website or to suggest a location, contact sarah@murals4mankind.org

Breaking barriers: new event in UK festival calendar

2Decks, who will be on stage at the Rock House Festival (photo by Paul Mansfield)
A new festival opens this weekend, featuring some of the biggest names in the integrated music scene, uniting learning disabled and non-learning disabled musicians.

The Rock House Festival in Brighton, promoted by learning disability-led arts charity Carousel, is expected to attract a crowd of 150-200 people.

The line-up includes Zombie Crash – the groundbreaking metal band that I’ve written about in the past (I was impressed back then by their “shouty, sweary, noisy chaos, big stage personas, a self-proclaimed kick-ass attitude, loud drums, screeching guitars and songs about fighting and sex”…who wouldn’t be?).

Zombie Crash, who will perform at Saturday’s Rock House Festival (photo by Paul Mansfield)

Other names at the new festival, which takes place at music venue The Green Door Store, include 2Decks, The Daniel Wakeford Experience,(who some might recognise from the Channel 4 show The Undateables). Fellow performers include prince vaseline and Sauna Youth. The festival’s wide ranging musical genres include rock, punk, blues, soul, jazz and rock/rap crossover.

Daniel Wakeford, performing at Saturday’s Rock House Festival (photo: Carousel Arts)
The band prince vaseline (photo Carousel Arts)

The inaugural event has been sparked by the successful monthly Rock House nights at music venue The Green Door Store.

For the last eight years, the accessible Rock House nights have attracted crowds of up to 100 and feature one non-learning disabled band, alongside up to five learning disabled bands.

Musician Tom Cook and promoter Richard Phoenix, who runs community interest company Constant Flux, launched the monthly band nights eight years as a showcase for the learning disabled musicians they worked with.

It’s hoped the new festival will become an annual fixture in the UK summer festival scene.

* Festival venue The Green Door Store has wheelchair access and wheelchair accessible toilets. For ticket information, see the festival website.

Election: voting support for people with learning disabilities

Campaigner and self-advocate Gary Bourlet on politicians

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.

And while more than a million people with a learning disability are entitled to vote on June 8, according to social care provider Dimensions, only around 10% of people with learning disabilities vote. This is generally, as campaigner Gary Bourlet once told me about politicians, because “they don’t make it accessible to us … they talk in jargon.”

The links below offer accessible resources and general voting guides to support people to vote and find out more about election issues (I’ll update this roundup as – hopefully – more is added).

The manifestos (to be updated):
Liberal Democrats – easy read version available pdf

Labour – accessible formats here.

Conservatives – easy read and accessible formats manifestos here.

The Green Party – “All manifestos and alternative formats” here, including easy read, braille and audio.

There is no mention of how to get an accessible version of the UKIP manifesto.

Campaign for accessible manifestos from Mencap: “We want people with a learning disability to feel part of this election. But we need your help.”

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 guide to voting from Inclusion North: “The guide has lots of links to lots of information about how to vote.”

Love Your Vote is “a campaign run by Dimensions to support people with learning disabilities and autism to understand and exercise their right to vote.”

Every Vote Counts from United Response is “aimed specifically at making the process easier to understand for people with learning disabilities and those that support them”.

Video guide to voting from Brandon Trust is a video guide that “explains how things work in the UK, what you need to do to register to vote, and the different ways you can vote”.

Link to a short film made by BTM’s learning disability group “encouraging everyone to register to vote by May 22”

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.

RNIB on voting and elections for the visually impaired: “All voters have a right to vote independently and in secret, and local authorities have to ensure that polling stations are accessible to people with sight loss.”

Scope’s guide to accessible voting: “Accessible voting..Make sure your voice is heard this June.”

An “unbiased, easy read guide to party manifestos” from United Response

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.

Related video: Kathy Mohan angrily asks what Theresa May intends to do to help people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.