As Ruth Gould, the artistic director of the UK’s biggest disability arts event, DaDaFest, pointed out in an interview I did with her for the Guardian, the latest cuts threaten to make disabled people “more invisible”. The work of disabled artists, as she says, is also at risk, thanks to sharp reductions in funding from local authorities and Arts Council England (Ace).
In 2001, Gould organised a one-off community arts event for Liverpool city council to mark International Disabled Peoples’ Day. As the head of the North West Disability Arts Forum (NWDAF), Gould, who is deaf, argued a single day was inadequate, and designed a groundbreaking week-long festival.
Fifteen years on, DaDaFest is the UK’s biggest disability arts event and Gould its artistic director. The NWDAF eventually adopted the name of the jewel in its crown (“DaDa” refers to the initial letters of each word in the phrase “disability and deaf arts”), so DaDaFest refers to both the festival and its parent charity. Each biennial extravaganza draws 10,000 visitors and participants. It has launched the careers of comedian Laurence Clark and actor Liz Carr, and helped Liverpool win European Capital of Culture 2008.
Gould commends the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity, launched in 2014 to encourage more BME, deaf and disabled people into arts, but fears such efforts are a drop in the ocean. She explains: “We don’t have the disabled people who put people on the stage – the producers, the casting directors, curators, decision makers.” She adds of DaDaFest’s recent BME seminar: “We tried to attract those we see as gatekeepers…[to] look at the barriers and issues and use them to try and influence change by identifying benchmarks that we can reflect onto to see if change if happening.”
A poetry exhibition opening today aims to challenge attitudes about learning disability and mental ill-health.
The learning disability poems are partly a tribute to the late Kim Wolf, who had Down’s syndrome; the collection includes writing inspired by her and which reflects her perspective on life.
A collaboration between Kim’s brother, former mental health social worker and poet Rogan Wolf, and disability charity United Response, the exhibition, entitled Dignity and Light, aims to “address and challenge the stigma and stereotypes and fears still associated with learning disability and – even more – with mental ill health”. As Rogan explains: “If I can see what life is actually like for you, then I am more likely to recognise and not just dismiss you”.
The poetry has been “written with, by and about people with learning disabilities and mental health needs” (United Response explains more of the background to the project here).
The poems, part of the Poems for project that supplies poem-posters for public display free of charge, are on display at Bristol’s Paintworks from today until Thursday. The collection will then be available online, as an illustrated book and, it is hoped, used in schools to raise awareness.
Rogan says of the project’s aims: “There is still this common urge to treat people who are in some way ‘different’ as dangerous aliens, or objects of scorn or mockery, people we need to keep separate. Thus, learning disability and mental ill-health are both experienced by a minority of people in our society and, though the experiences are very different, the stigmatisation both can meet is the same. It cripples lives. It shuts them off.”
While acknowledging that poems are no substitute for policy or resources, Rogan says “they can connect and can enlighten”: “Politicians keep emphasising the urgency of the need for better mental health services and better understanding – I suspect to relatively little effect. There is a crisis here and it just continues. And reports keep emphasising the need for better mental health education and resources in schools, so that children already struggling can seek help at an early stage…[the poems] can help children who are struggling recognise what might be happening and what might help.”
The collections draw on poetry written or collected over the last four decades including through Rogan’s work, personal connections, creative writing workshops and the Postcards from the Edge project run by United Response.
The poem “Other People” by Shiraz, who is supported by United Response, was part of the postcards campaign: “People are like apples or eggs. They look all right on the surface, but you don’t know what’s going on inside.”
In another poem, “A father to his son (with Down’s syndrome)”, the author, John Mclorinan, describes his child as “wonderfully irreverent, irrelevant, inappropriate, spontaneous, topsy turvey, upside down. vulnerable, perceptive, aware, eager to communicate, willing to please”.
The collections that launch today, writes United Response’s director of policy Diane Lightfoot in the illustrated book that contains them, “shine a light on those who too often remain unseen in the shadows and on the fringes of our society”.
The poem below is by Rogan, written from the perspective of his late sister Kim. The poet explains: “We often went out together. Some of the words and phrases above are Kim’s own. Somehow she had to make sense of the way people looked at her, in the street, or when she entered a public room.”
Shall we go for a walk ? When I go for a walk people look round at me.
Will you come too ?
Will you hold my hand ?
They look round at me. There’s something wrong.
Will you come too ?
Perhaps I’ll put my ear-phones in and play my music extra loud.
I am going for a walk. What’s wrong ?
Will you come too ?
Will you hold my hand ?
* See Poemsfor.org to read more or read about the exhibition opening times here.
A few images here from an innovative digital arts festival due to take place this weekend (10-12 July). The interactive event, which I wrote about today for the Guardian’s online social care pages, will feature giant portraits of learning disabled people projected onto buildings, a game played with an accessible mapping app and an inclusive, high-tech design workshop to re-imagine a town centre.
People with learning disabilities will help stage the innovative art installations and music and dance performances that they have created alongside digital and community arts practitioners. The inaugural SprungDigi Festival in Horsham, West Sussex, runs from Friday until Sunday.
The name of the free event reflects the concept that digital technology and online activity can be a springboard to social inclusion. The aim is to ensure that people with learning disabilities are more visible and feel more connected to their local areas. Read the rest of the piece here and check this festival page for more information about the weekend.
“More busy”. This quote from Kelvin Burke of Rocket Artists reflects what people with learning disabilities need in order to be more included in society; people want to be busier with opportunities to do, make and see more things, to have more time to spend with people (incidentally, that’s people who hang out with you by choice and because they share your interests, not simply because they’re paid to support you).
Kelvin shared his words at a Tate Modern seminar on inclusive arts that I was involved in earlier this week. The event’s title – “a research discussion bringing together practitioners and academics to explore issues around inclusive arts practice” – doesn’t do it full justice.
This engaging, creative, interactive, collaborative and fun event (yes, fun! There was golden ink! Stickers! Sewing patterns! And cake – both drawn and real!) encouraged participants (academics as well as artists and performers with learning disabilities and without) to explore the barriers to social inclusion, within the context of the arts sector.
People on the table I chaired talked about what stopped them from being more involved in society as well as what needs to happen to change that.
Although these issues are something I’ve looked at before (see, this piece or an opinion piece here about the unequal treatment of learning disabled people), until Monday I’d not explored them with marker pens, golden ink, coloured stickers, gargantuan Post-it notes, A4 size speech bubbles and dressmaking patterns.
But there’s a first time for everything (and now I only ever want to write in golden ink).
More seriously, the method and materials were necessary if the discussion about access and inclusion was to be accessible and inclusive, so everyone had an equal opportunity to contribute thoughts, words, doodles and designs.
I can’t faithfully describe all the challenges and solutions identified in a room buzzing with the ideas of around 50 people, but a few ideas are captured in the images on this page. (unfortunately I wasn’t able to take a shot of the “Bolloxometer” designed, I believe, to slice through meaningless rhetoric purveyed by those in authority, but I’m first in the queue for this should it ever go into production).
Time was, however, a big theme for discussion. Those who work with people who have learning disabilities said they wanted more time for sustainable projects (rather than be caught in commissioners’ and grant-makers’ short-term funding cycles). People with learning disabilities said they wanted more time to do things they enjoy, as Kelvin said.
Words like “equality”, “access”, “value” and “listen” cropped up a lot. As did the importance of celebrating differences and valuing people for what they can do, not defining them by what they can’t. While the challenge of funding and cuts (both to social care and the arts sector) was a major concern, people were generally unwilling to focus on money alone as a problem or solution, when so much rests on changing the perception of people with learning disabilities.
Rocket Artists performed towards the end of the day, captured in this lovely shot shared on Twitter by Brighton arts organisation Phoenix:
The event also included the launch of a thought-provoking and beautifully produced new book, Inclusive Arts Practice. Authored by the University of Brighton’s Alice Fox (also artistic director of Rocket Artists) and Hannah Macpherson, it was created through interviews with and guidance from learning-disabled and non-learning-disabled artists. The book looks at inclusive arts – defined as “creative collaborations between leaning disabled and non-learning-disabled artists” – and its “socially transformative potential for collaborators and audiences”.
It addresses difficult questions, such as the differences between art therapy, occupational therapy and inclusive arts and clearly sets out the practical steps to create more collaborative art. The book acknowledges the fact that the term inclusive arts “presupposes exclusion” and asks how such collaborations between artists of different abilities can have real, cultural value (something I’ve blogged about before and which the Creative Minds project is exploring).
The book makes a persuasive case for everyone to have a cultural life in their communities; Southbank Centre director Jude Kelly, for example, comments in the book on how “we believe in cultural rights as a profound part of human rights”. Creative collaborations with the use of time, trust, skills and choice, are presented as “a force for societal good”:
“People with learning disabilities tend to be undervalued members of society, are much more likely to live in poverty, and are much more likely to suffer hate crime than their non-disabled counterparts. It is estimated that around 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability and over 3,000 of these people have spent over a year in an ‘assessment centre’, often a long way from family, and which is not designed to be a permanent residence. Many people with learning disabilities do not have access to any regular creative leisure activity outside their residential environment, despite the proven benefits of such activities for health, well-being and resilience…”
Inclusive arts can make audiences “feel differently about the people whose work they see and they can feel differently about themselves”, that is one powerful message in Inclusive Arts Practice.
Which is why the inclusive arts movement has an important place when it comes to equality for people with a learning disability. “We want greater powers to be seen, to vote, to be included, have the same opportunities in social life, education and employment as everyone else,” as campaigner Gary Bourlet says, or as the rights set out in the campaigning LB Bill show).
As for the sewing pattern that everyone contributed to on the day, one stylish spark made the beautiful observation that the final garment, emblazoned with words and images setting out some ways to break down social barriers, should have a sliver lining; the team from Brighton now plans to make the dream coat a real life action mac.
Depictions of friendship, cityscapes and natural images are among the powerful photographs in an international arts competition reflecting the world from a disabled person’s perspective.
Photographers with Down’s syndrome from the UK, Greece, Japan, New Zealand and America have entered the Down’s Syndrome Association’s annual My Perspective competition which, this year, challenged people with the learning disability to go behind the lens.
As the association says: “In years gone by, people with Down’s syndrome were photographed as exhibits; the viewer was not supposed to see the person, just the difference. The Down’s syndrome Association’s My Perspective competition turns the camera around and gives people with Down’s syndrome the chance to show the world from their point of view.”
I’m sharing some of the 25 shortlisted images in the competition, which was launched in 2010, here (more can be seen here) and the winner will be announced on 11 June by a panel of judges including photographer Richard Bailey, curator of the groundbreaking Shifting Perspectives project.
The pictures reflect a beautifully wide range of subjects.
With the election a few weeks away, democracy is the timely subject of a new digital art project designed to shed light on Britain’s parliamentary history.
Democracy Street is curated by artist Jon Adams who has Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism – and I wanted to briefly mention the crowdsourced project today, on World Autism Awareness Day. Adams’ work focuses “on arts sciences and creativity as a person with Aspergers, including synaesthesia, systemising and sequencing”.
The Houses of Parliament have commissioned the project with support from The Speaker’s Art Fund and Arts Council England. A mobile web app allows users to explore and discover streets that have a connection to democracy and upload their own images. Images can include, for example, streets that share the same name as a Parliamentarian or that reflect events in democratic history. Adams will use the data generated by users to create new artistic maps of the UK and as users upload information, it appears on the web app, so you can see the crowdsourced project developing in real time.
The participatory scheme also coincides with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the 750th birthday of Parliament.
If someone’s arm was broken on TV we would see it bandaged up. If someone had diabetes we would see them receiving insulin. If we see someone had a heart condition we would see them wired up to an ECG machine.
So why when we see people displaying symptoms of mental illness do we usually see this depicted as violent or histrionic, with a focus on the challenge and not the solution?
I am watching closely as this storyline unfolds, not least because we at Time To Change are advising on this to try to ensure as much sensitivity and realism as possible.
Although only in the early stages of the illness, Steve’s behaviour is causing both consternation and confusion for those close to him, and not so close. People are trying to make sense of it all at the moment. Classic symptoms pointing to clinical depression can often be overlooked in the early stages. The programme is cleverly highlighting this and showing the insidious nature of the illness.
I believe it is all around finding the right balance between providing drama for the viewers but also ensuring mental health is not further stigmatised through lazy, damaging scriptwriting. It is a win-win situation for everyone to have mental health storylines depicted with responsibility, authenticity and maturity:
• viewers will gain more awareness of symptoms and treatment
• the programme will receive positive publicity for the research and efforts made
• a powerful anti stigma message will be ultimately delivered.
It is critical to present as authentic a picture of mental health symptoms and treatment as possible to de stigmatise mental illness. The media plays a role that must never be underestimated. It will educate and challenge opinions, it will inform. The viewers opinions and impressions are often influenced by what they see and hear on their TV screens. In advising on the Zak Dingle depression storyline in Emmerdale, I was at pains to reinforce how the illness not only impacts on the sufferer but also the family and significant others.
This is the reality.
The person who is ill does not usually suffer alone, their families/partners have usually cared for them before they seek help and continue to provide care afterwards. I will be watching the Coronation Street storyline to see how those near to Steve are effected by his own deterioration. It must also be realistic in showing the time span of the illness. It would be ludicrous for the viewers to see a decline into severe clinical depression undermined by a miraculous recovery within weeks.
Unfortunately drama that portrays a swift recovery only serves to misinform and mislead. Realism and credibility is then left on the cutting room floor. This is why good research is the key alongside learning the lessons of the past. Lessons need to be learnt and I strongly believe this will be the case in the Coronation Street plot.
Recent research by Time To Change has shown that attitudes are changing as a consequence of responsible media portrayals of mental health. We must not become complacent though and continue to build on the good work so far.
Coronation Street is a very popular soap. Many will be watching for the drama and entertainment element, while others will be scrutinising closely to look for a positive, realistic depiction.
I want these reasons to combine.
I hope nobody is left disappointed or disillusioned. I am excited by this storyline and so should others be. Excited because the storyline will, if successful, leave a seed of hope and a motivation for change in everyone’s minds. That seed will eventually grow into a realisation that when covering the topic of mental health, it is crucial this is responsibly portrayed in the media.
But I’m interested in the bold focus on street art and local artists in the drive to return a sliver of London to its retail glory – “Streatham – the West End of South London” no less.
Streatham architects and design company, Beep Studio, is collaborating with the local Business Improvement District, InStreatham, to create a “voids trail” that reflects the area’s local personalities “in a bid to encourage more people to explore Streatham High Road”.
The campaign features artwork on shop fronts inspired by seven famous celebrities who lived in Streatham – shoppers will explore the area’s shops via the trail, visiting each unit and stamping their trail maps to show they have visited the shop.
No prizes for guessing which South London-born model inspired the vertiginous platform depicted on one empty front.
I’ve fond memories of the longest high street in Europe (Streatham High Road), up the road from my former home in Brixton – oh, sorry, of course I mean “Brixton Village”.
Young photographer Kitty Day, whose sister has a learning disability, wanted to to offer an alternative way for her sibling to express herself – visually.
The result is an exhibition of photographs, entitled This is me, my Voice, my Choice, involving her sister and other young people supported by the Surrey-based charity halow (sic). The show, which opens today, includes portraits of the young people where they present themselves purely as they wish. I’m sharing two of the images, of Chim and Tommy, here.
Some participants also altered their images with colour or other materials (images not included shown) “to show themselves as they wanted to be seen”, says the charity which works with young people aged 16-35.
halow, based in Guildford, supports young people with a learning disability “to have the same life choices and chances as any other young person”.
“I wanted to give them the power to express their personality and who they really are, without someone trying to do it for them,” adds Kitty.“I had little control in the studio but I had even less in the editing. The project was done in two stages – one when the group visited me at the studio at City of Westminster College. The second stage was when control was totally given to them. They had a day to personalise their images through cutting, sticking, colouring – whatever they wanted, and I saw the photographs change completely and come to life…I learnt so much about the young people, their perception of themselves and the power of control.”
The exhibition also includes paintings where people depict themselves as a superhero of their choice.
* The exhibition runs at St Mary’s church, Quarry Street, Guilford, from Tuesday until Thursday – contact halow for opening times. Entry is free, says the charity, but donations would be appreciated. On Friday, the exhibition changes venue and culminates in a choir concert at Holy Trinity church in the High Street. Tickets cost £10.00 and are available from halow or tickets can be purchased from the Tourist Information Centre in the High Street.
If you’ve been following the debate about turning the rhetoric of community integration into reality and the plans to tackle the failures in supporting people who have a learning disability, you’ll know there’s a massive gulf between what should happen and what actually happens; between what national policy sets out as “good practice” ideals and what takes place on the ground.
This was brought home to me not only through what I’ve been researching and writing recently, but when I was told of the experience of a group of young people with complex physical disabilities in south east London.
The group from Family Link, Bromley, a charity that offers supports outside school and at weekends, visited a computer store on a Saturday morning. They were looking forward to seeing the latest gadgets and testing some of the equipment on display.
But,they were barely there a few minutes when they were asked by a member of staff to “move on” if they weren’t actually buying anything – despite the fact that there were plenty of their (non-disabled, non-wheelchair using) peers browsing just as they were.
Computer says no.
In fact, the computer your face/body doesn’t fit – so get out.
The group leader protested but, clearly made to feel unwelcome, they left. The charity has since complained to the company, which has apparently noted its objection. Family Link is awaiting a reply. The organiser of the group says she still feels cross thinking about it several days after the event.
She’s not alone, it’s hard not to feel angry about incidents like this, where people with disabilities are made to feel inferior or unwelcome in public places – as I know and have blogged before. And how ironic that the charity had the misfortune to meet such a backward-thinking dinosaur in an evnironment championing the forward-moving digital world.
I won’t name the store here as I’ve not approached it for comment, so to point the finger at the company without offering a right to reply would be shoddy treatment (though, for the record, not as shoddy as the two fingers apparently flicked at the vulnerable young people simply enjoying a morning out).
Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe it simply a rogue sales assistant who didn’t know his Disability Discrimination Act from his disk drive. Maybe there’s lax management at play that allows such attitudes to prevail.
Or maybe it’s because, as I’ve blogged before, despite years of good practice, policy and guidelines, the real pace of change out here in the real world for people with complex needs is slow.
The computer store incident is also regrettable, given what technology offers not only through its assistive form but through its educational benefits (in fact a new report today from the National Literacy Trust and Pearson underlines how touch-screen systems could tackle low literacy among boys and disadvantaged children). There’s the social aspect to technology too; something as simple as a smart phone allows easy use of text and email, for example, meaning my phone-call shunning youngest sister and I can stay in touch more easily.
This stark contrast between practice and possibility was underlined when I heard of an innovative new technology enabling disabled children to design and print objects in 3D – using only their eyes.
Disability charity Livability is currently using SHIVA (Sculpture for Health-care: Interaction and Virtual Art in 3D) at its Victoria Education Centre, a school for children with physical disabilities.
The ground breaking collaborative project was created by a group including Mark Moseley, assistive technologist at the school, the National Centre for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University and researchers from the University of Lille.
In a nutshell, “eye-gaze technology tracks where a user is looking and translates it into screen coordinates so that on screen cells or buttons can be selected”. Around 15 pupils with varying levels of disability have used the software and many models have already been produced.
The creators now hope that new funding can be found so that the software can be further developed and used by more young people.
I hope so.
More people with disabilities should – if they want to – be free to road test interesting existing and new technologies, trying out software in high street computer stores, for example, rather than being asked to leave them.