Category Archives: Music & arts

Social Issue opinion piece: learning disabled people should have equal access to heritage and culture

Amber Okpa Stother leads a creative workshop (photo: Martin Livesey, Venture Arts)
Isn’t it about time that learning disabled people enjoyed the same access to cultural lives and work as everyone else?

This is one question that Venture Arts (VA) and our speakers will be asking the heritage and cultural sectors at our symposium, Making the Case, at the Grand Hall, Whitworth Art gallery on the 25th May. VA is an organisation that specialises in visual arts in the North West.

“People with autism can do things like other people that don’t have autism in society. Society should be more accepting of people and not assume people can’t do things.” This is what Amber Opka Stother says – Amber (pictured above) chairs the VA steering group, has worked at Manchester Museum and arts centre HOME Manchester and is an ambassador for learning disabled people in the heritage and culture sector.

Our symposium will showcase the experiences of learning disabled people who have formed VA’s Cultural Enrichment Programme, funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The programme has seen over 20 people undertake 16 week work placements in some of Manchester’s best known cultural and heritage venues.

On the day we will also be seeing and hearing about other projects from across the country and highlighting areas of best practice.

“Unfortunately, our experience shows that people often don’t feel that big cultural institutions are for them or know how best to welcome people into their buildings. In my view we need to see more learning disabled people working within culture to be able to start to overcome this and make real change happen”, says Amanda Sutton, VA director.

This kind of inclusion makes sense, adds Amanda: “You are going to feel much more comfortable about going into a building, that can otherwise feel quite austere and foreboding, if you can relate to and identify with the people welcoming you and working within the venue.”

In 2015, researchers Lemos and Crane looked at learning disabled people’s access to museums and galleries (pdf). It stated: “Despite longstanding commitments to access, participation, learning, equality and diversity, museums, galleries and arts venues are not currently required by funders or policy makers specifically to promote access for people with intellectual disabilities as they are in relation to other groups…Mainstream arts organisations did not seem always to have a clear framework of good practice for improving access for people with a learning disability. This was perhaps the consequence of widespread uncertainty and anxiety among those with little personal or professional experience of people with learning disabilities.”

So Venture Arts aims to rectify this through working with cultural institutions to introduce learning disabled people to every aspect of their working operations. We reckon that if we can get people in “through the back door”, they will gradually change attitudes and integrate into institutions. Through our work so far, this has indeed happened. People have been back stage, in the conservation rooms, behind the scenes, delivering tours, in museum shops, in the staff room and are now well known by all the staff and visitors alike.

Here’s what Amber thinks about her experiences with VA so far:

At Manchester Museum, I volunteered and worked in the shop and in the postroom and in the vivarium as well. I ended up doing a tour for my friends and family which they really, really enjoyed, it boosted my confidence about speaking to people. It was really nice meeting lots of new people I did things that most people don’t . It’s nice to see the different parts of the museum.

People were, very welcoming and I think I am helping them to learn more about working with people with autism too, maybe like how people communicate or something.

Now I’ve started a new placement at HOME, an arts centre, which I’m really enjoying. We get to go behind the scenes and see how the cinema works which is really interesting and we have worked at the front of house and we get to see some free shows as well and that’s really, really good.

I think it’s important to have people with autism working in these places to see what great skills people have and how it makes a difference to volunteering. They will be more interested in employing people with autism, it will make a big difference.

On a personal level, it has helped me to be more confident and it’s helped me to become more confident in doing other jobs and things. I also work in a school and this experience has influenced how I am with the children, I feel more confident because I had to speak to people and that has lifted my confidence.

Last year I also delivered a workshop about making galleries accessible at a conference called Creative Minds and I loved every minute of it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t worked at the Manchester Museum beforehand. There were a lot of people there too so I was really happy with myself.

I’m really looking forward to the symposium at the Whitworth as well and to interviewing people from museums and galleries. I’m going to interview them about the job and what we do. It will be really important to come to the symposium because you will get to hear about the great work that museums do with people with disabilities.

Even though I’ve got autism I try and do things that people without autism think that people can’t do like drive, I’ve passed my driving test that was a big achievement for me because I’ve always loved cars. People with autism can do things like other people that don’t have autism in society. We need to celebrate difference and make sure that people recognise what great things people with disabilities can do. I get upset sometimes if people don’t understand me, like my driving instructor who didn’t think I could pass my test. It’s important to listen so people can know what message people are trying to get across.

My advice for other museums? People have really great skills and they should give people the chance. People with disabilities can be really good at doing lots of great things and have skills that other people without a disability might not have, which can be valuable in a workplace. For example, people can be more understanding of other people.

It would make me happy to see people with disabilities working in museums because it’s good to see people with great skills doing a good job. If people give them a chance it would be a great place to start when people don’t feel comfortable about going into a museum.

Barriers for learning disabled people in going into a museum can be the staff of a museum because they might be a bit rude towards them or can’t understand if someone has no speech or something. It might not have a ramp or the lift might not be working or someone might be deaf as well so that could be a barrier. Museums should be more accessible to people with disabilities and people should make sure they don’t put jargon and put language that people understand on their walls.

I’m looking forward to the 25th to hear about what people are going to say. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and to what people have to say about their experiences at the museums and it should be a great day.

Find out more about the Venture Arts symposium here or follow on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Venture Arts symposium is on Friday 25 May in Manchester.

Theatre project challenges attitudes to learning disability and autism

“I hope I can get them to think a bit differently, and then to help make things happen a bit differently.”

These are the words of Dayo Koleosho, an actor with the groundbreaking theatre company Access All Areas, describing what he hopes the public will gain from his new show, Madhouse re:exit.

I’ve just written about the project for the Guardian. It’s a show that has been developed and performed by autistic and learning disabled artists and it highlights themes of institutionalisation and isolation, and explores the past, present and future of social care.

The show, which I caught during its London run, opens at the Lowry in Salford on 17 May as part of the Week 53 festival and follows more than two years of research and development.

“As services are cut, people are becoming stuck at home and the isolating walls of institutions are being replaced by people’s bedroom walls,” says Nick Llewellyn, artistic director of Access All Areas. “The walls are still there but [they are] more hidden or societal rather than physical.”

All the images here are shot by photographer Helen Murray, and you can read the entire piece about this superb show over on the Guardian website.

Dayo Koleosho as The Eater, in Madhouse re:exit by Access All Areas (all photos by Helen Murray)
Dayo Koleosho as The Eater
Imogen Roberts as The Goddess]

DJ Hassan as The BIrd

DJ Hassan as The Bird
Cian Binchy as London’s Oldest Baby

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

Revival for play that celebrates learning disability

Nathan Bessell and Heather Williams in Up Down Man at Salisbury Playhouse 2016 (Credit Richard Davenport)

A play that celebrates people with learning disabilities and that was written for an actor with Down’s syndrome is being revived this week at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatres.

Myrtle Theatre Company’s show is a sequel to the company’s Up Down Boy, which was first performed in 2013 at the National Theatre and then toured the country. Nathan Bessell, an actor with Down’s syndrome, plays Matty Butler in the play inspired by real stories from families of young people with Down’s syndrome.

As part of the run from this Wednesday (Nov 8) to November 18th, Tobacco Factory Theatres will host an evening of free events for young adults, led by REACT, the theatre’s team of young producers aged 14-25. There will be a series of free pre-show events and a post-show debate on the play’s themes. There will also be a series of relaxed performances which offer a welcoming environment for theatre-goers with additional needs.


Last year, when I interviewed the theatre company’s director, Heather Williams, she described the necessary adjustments to the production process when working with a learning disabled actor. This includes going at a slightly slower place, trying to follow “rather than lead”, being flexible and – above all – listening.

All of this, she told me, allows Nathan to grow as a performer: “You just need the right conditions to flourish.” This approach – creating an environment where people can more easily meet their potential – is one I wholeheartedly support (and a belief that drives my latest project, the book Made Possible). Find out more about the play here.

Photos of the 2016 run of Up Down Man, shot by Richard Davenport

Fresh perspectives on social care: a new exhibition

What does someone who is supported by social care look like?

Transforming stereotypical perceptions of social care is the aim of a new photography exhibition showing in London this month – some of the featured images are shown below.

SELF Season 2 is a collaboration between photographer Dean Belcher and social care provider Certitude.

Everyone featured in the exhibition is either connected with Certitude or with activities offered by Age UK Hounslow, west London. The project’s ambition is to use imagery “to depict the commonalities between people within social care rather than reinforcing the often-imposed barriers and roles that people are given”.

The new show follows the success of an exhibition (SELF: Portraits in Social Care) held in Brixton earlier this year.

* SELF: Portraits in Social Care is running until Thursday 28th September at Montague Hall, 30 Montague Rd, Hounslow TW3 1LD, Monday to Friday 3pm – 5pm. For further details, contact jmeyer@certitude.org.uk

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.

Gallery: diversity and dance at London’s Southbank

Step Live performance, Southbank, London, July 2016

On Monday, the UK’s largest inclusive secondary school dance programme puts on its annual festival of youth dance at London’s Southbank. Over 700 young people from across London and Essex will be involved in the performance.

Step Into Dance is a partnership between grant-making organisation the Jack Petchey Foundation and the Royal Academy of Dance. The scheme runs extra-curricular classes and performance opportunities across London and Essex, enabling young dancers to develop their talent and mix with a diverse range of people.

The project reaches 200 mainstream and special needs schools a year and since its launch 10 years ago, has worked with hover 50,000 young people.

The gallery of images here show the project’s regional performance events and last year’s live festival.

 

Step Into Dance at the Quest Academy, Croydon. Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Step Into Dance at the Quest Academy, Croydon.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Step Into Dance at the Quest Academy, Croydon.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Pupils at Park View School, Haringey, London.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Pupils at Park View School, Haringey, London.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Park View School, Haringey, London.Photo: Alicia Clarke
Step Live performance, Southbank, London, July 2016.Photo: Mark Lees

Pioneering performers: festival season for inclusive dance studio

Adrienne Armorer at a Step Change Studios session (photo: Step Change Studios)

Step Change Studios is the first dedicated pan-disability inclusive Latin and Ballroom dance class in London.

On Saturday, the Westminster-based school kicks off one of many summer season showcases at the Liberty festival at the Olympic Park .

Forthcoming summer appearances include performances and workshops at the Together Fest at the Arts Depot in North London on July 22. The school will also put on an inclusive dance demo at the Disability Sports Coach Summer Festival in West London on July 28.

The pioneering project’s last class before the summer break is on Saturday, and founder Rashmi Becker stresses there are no restrictions on ability, in terms of who can join in.

Step Change, which is based at the Abbey Centre and launched earlier this, is open to all. As Rashmi, a disability advocate as well as a dance specialist, explains: “We have people with learning disabilities, autism, wheelchair users with different physical and neurological conditions such as MS and cerebral palsy, people with visual impairments, young and older people…There are simple things I do to enable people to join in – for example I meet people with visual impairments at the station and support them to the dance space”.

Adrienne Armorer, for example, gave up her beloved salsa 10 years ago after developing the physically debilitating condition multiple sclerosis (MS). But she has taken up dancing again through Step Change, after hearing about the project through her local MS society.

Here’s how Adrienne, who details her experience in full on this blog, described her first Step Change class: “Wow – a 50:50 mix of wheelchair dancers and those without. Cool! A little warm-up and then we were off. I’m not a regular wheelchair user and get fatigued quite easily, so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. It was fine. Nuno and Rashmi [the instructors] are on hand to help and answer any questions. I also needed to ask one of the other wheelchair dancers how he was managing to turn his chair using just one hand. The hour flew by. What a great afternoon. We left on a high.”

For more information contact Step Change Studios Founder Rashmi Becker on 07976 363861, or email contact@stepchangestudios.com

Art for all: the Surrey gallery that targets a hidden need

Blue Figure, print, by Tendai from Feltham youth offender institution.

Leafy and affluent are default shorthands when describing the English county of Surrey, but the council ward of Westborough, Guildford, has the highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the county. Child poverty is high in Westborough, and around a quarter of all female prisoners in the UK are in custody in Surrey, including a number of lifers at HMP Send.

While the cash-strapped Tory-run council recently grabbed headlines with a threat to raise council tax by a huge 15% , this has done little to shed light on the social needs that exist in Surrey.

The issue of how Surrey’s general wealth hides specific pockets of deprivation is outlined in a new report into the social and community impact of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village (WGAV), in Compton, about a 10 minute drive from Westborough.

The gallery, opened in 1904 and dedicated to the work of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, aims to transform lives through art – “Art for All” (Barack Obama, among others, has cited Watts as an inspiration). The report, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, describes the overlooked needs. It underlines the organisation’s role, for example, running artist-led workshops with prisoners and young offenders – I’m sharing some of the works here – as well as community projects, schools and and youth organisations.

The Journey, water-based oil on canvas, by Dena from HMP Send.

There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.

Close Up, oil on canvas by Samantha from HMP Send, part of Watts Gallery’s community outreach work.

The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).

As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”

Brighton, mixed media on paper, by Jenny from HMP Send.

More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.