Dance, says WDSA patron Rashmi Becker, has no boundaries: “It is for everyone and can be enjoyed anywhere….Dance can make us think, smile, relate to one another, it can be a positive motivating force and simply, it is good for our well-being.”
All photos: WDSA
For more information, watch the short film Motion, recently commissioned by WDSA:
Clouds suspended from the ceiling and lighting bolt sculptures form part of a new installation from a London-based inclusive art collective.
Redstart Arts, a collaborative group of artists with learning disabilities, have been developing weatherSCAPE for several months and the works are now open for public view, coinciding with Learning Disability Week.
The aim of Redstart is to encourage its members’ creativity, critical thinking and also to challenge public preconceptions about artists with learning disabilities. The artists do this through producing high quality pieces of art for public exhibition and by using community arts venues to create the works.
Artist Colleen Campbell says she enjoys “drawing on big paper, being with my friends”. For fellow Redstart member Uduehi Imienwarin, it is “using the stencil to make the weather words” that is particularly interesting. Byron McCarthy, meanwhile, says he loves the “purple lightning” and, referring to the research behind the installation, “books on weather”.
Another participant, David Quan, has no speech but likes to do printing using bubble wrap. Gerard Allen is similarly non-verbal, but Cash Aspeek, an inclusive arts specialist who launched the group in 2011, says that his mood and behaviours reflect that he is especially taken by the opportunity to perform with the Redstart group “whenever the opportunity arises”.
Redstart Arts has a residency at the Deptford Lounge and the Horniman Museum. The group meets weekly and involves up to 10 artists with learning disabilities aged 25 to 29 who collaborate with other artists. For example, local artist Chris Marshall has worked with the group on the weather project, which was mostly funded by the Arts Council.
Cash and Chris say the inspiration for “came from the artists in the 6o’s who worked with inflatables and free form events, breaking barriers in terms of art being inclusive, including people and communities”…Redstart Arts have responded to the environment of the Deptford Lounge, they discovered the atrium space at the back of the building and got excited by its height and drama…[and wished] to explore this space to its fullest potential creating floating free forms derived out of our discussions and observations of our local dramatic weather.”
Cash explains how the project is led by the people involved: “They come in with ideas; we have a lot of art materials available and such a lot of room for each artist to express themselves in a way they really want. We do a lot of experimenting with materials and then seeing what people are drawn to, really observing what each person leans towards.”
In 2012, the artists created figures for the Olympics which were displayed on the rooftop of ATP gallery in Deptford. The collective’s next project involves creating discovery boxes – participants’ personal box of made objects for public display – for the Horniman Museum.
* weatherSCAPE can be seen 10am-5pm from Wednesday 22 June to Sunday 3 July at the Atrium, Deptford Lounge, Deptford SE8 4RJ
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.”
“I always wanted it to be about dance, drama, feelings”, said actor Nathan Bessell recently of the new play he has inspired and collaborated on.
The 31-year-old stars in Up Down Man, at the Salisbury Playhouse until March 12. The play, as I explain in this piece on the Guardian’s social care network today, is about Matty, a young adult with Down’s syndrome. Bessell, who plays Matty, has influenced the script, which also draws on stories from families of people who have a learning disability.
To explore the issues raised, there will be three discussion forums for professionals in health or social care, theatre managers and families, with the first of these happening this weekend.
The show, by Bristol-based Myrtle Theatre Company, involves dialogue, original music and dance, and is a sequel to the company’s Up Down Boy, which I featured on the blog some time ago. The original play, also starting Bessell and written by his mother, Sue Shields, was performed in 2013 at the National Theatre and toured the country. The sequel, written by Brendan Murray, is not autobiographical, but follows the same character into adulthood and is presented from his perspective.
The two years of research and development involved in the new play currently running at the Salisbury Playhouse Murray involved the views and experiences of families and carers, with the process tailored to enable Bessell, who has limited vocabulary and a hearing impairment, to contribute.
Heather Williams, the artistic director of the Mytrle Theatre Company, has known Bessell since she began working with him when he was 16. Williams
Williams says her fellow actor’s influence has led to a more thoughtful, and gradual method of making theatre. However, as she stresses in today’s piece, the aim is also to produce a high quality piece of entertainment: “I hope people won’t think, ‘I’m going to see an issue-based play’, but come and see a damn good piece of theatre that changes the way they think.”
A Bristol-based dance project is spreading its inclusive arts campaign, training teachers to run ballet sessions for disabled children and their non-disabled counterparts.
My piece on the Flamingo Chicks dance school, which launched two years ago as a community interest company, is on the Guardian site today. Its weekly classes in Bristol, Leeds, York and London reach 1200 three to 19-year-olds with or without disabilities, and those with illnesses such as cancer. Classes offer access to mainstream dance activity (often, such classes are segregated), develop confidence, social skills, co-ordination, communication and concentration.
Now, the sessions are launching in Ghana – dubbed “the worst place in the world to be disabled” – sessions reaching 200 children and training 10 teachers to put on classes. Founder Katie Sparkes has contacts in Africa thanks to her work supporting charities with corporate social responsibility.
Sparkes says of the work in Ghana earlier this month: “We did lots of workshops with children aged two to 25 and also did a teachers’ training session where teachers and childcare workers from a variety of schools and orgs attended. We left them with lesson plans, equipment and a host of ideas. We’ve also set up an online ‘Global Chicks’ group where we can provide on-going outreach support. Any questions, ideas or motivation they need, our teachers will respond and coach them, also providing video tips or tutorials.”
Ballet, with its discipline and formal image, might not seem an obviously accessible art form, but Sparkes says it can improve body awareness, muscle strength and core stability. Its storytelling aspects and focus on character are also accessible.
The school has eight teachers who focus on trips and performances as goals and benchmarks, instead of exams. The 45-minute or hour-long sessions include drama, dance and yoga using sensory equipment like feathers, dance ribbons, scarves and flashcards for deaf children, or hula-hoops to teach arm movements to a blind child. The relaxed atmosphere means children may wander around or makes noises without fear of flouting any rules.
There are an estimated 770,000 children with disabilities in the UK. Three quarters of families with disabled children feel so isolated that it has caused anxiety, depression and breakdown, according to charity Contact A Family. Four in ten (38%) parents of disabled children say their child ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ have the opportunity to socialise with children who aren’t disabled, according to a 2014 Mumsnet and Scope survey.
By 2025 there will be one million people with dementia in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society; a project I reported on today for the Guardian online is proving the impact of arts-based therapy on people with the condition.
Take Eddie (not his real name). When he first met arts practitioner Jill, from London-based arts group Age Exchange, he was withdrawn and uncommunicative.
Eyes downcast, head bowed, hands clasped and legs crossed; Eddie, an introverted wheelchair user, had been in a dementia care home for a decade when he began sessions Jill.
Over six weekly reminiscence arts sessions – work that explores memories using creative activity – Jill noticed how Eddie became “awake, sitting upright in his wheelchair, trying to talk, being better at regulating his mood and behaviour … He felt safe enough to allow himself to express some of these stored up energies and feelings through movement and making sounds which freed him and allowed him to start opening up and connecting with people.”
A simple gesture after the final session – previously unimaginable – reflected the transformation. Jill recalls: “I was very touched as we said goodbye; he extended his right hand towards me, I took it and we shook hands.”
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.
“Today is different” is a recurrent phrase in the latest show from theatre group Frozen Light. But the refrain is more than just part of the script; the words also reflect the innovative company’s hope for young people with profound disabilities.
The plot of the accessible, inclusive and multi-sensory play involves a journey of self-discovery for the main characters, Thea (Amber Onat Gregory) and Robin (Al Watts). Both dream of escaping their humdrum hometown existence, and a series of unexpected events, explained by narrator Ivy (Lucy Garland), result in a forest adventure, which changes their lives.
Frozen Light, led by co-artistic directors Garland and Gregory, is among a handful of companies that devise productions especially for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). While cultural access and inclusion have improved in recent years (projects like Autism Friendly Screenings are part of a burgeoning movement), the arts barrier remains down to people with complex physical and cognitive issues.
The group is currently on a nationwide tour of high street theatres and arts spaces. Garland and Gregory say many of their audience members have never before been into a mainstream theatre: “We want to enable people who rarely attend high street arts venues to experience the theatre. With our 26-date tour, we hope to reach as many people with PMLD as possible…We want people with profound needs to be more visible in their local areas.”
Performing to a maximum of 12 people – six people with disabilities, each supported by a carer, the three-strong cast accompanies the audience from the foyer into the performance space, ensuring a smooth transition into the theatre environment. One-to-one interactions include actors singing or talking directly to an audience member, or offering a prop to be touched. The specially composed music is pitched at an appropriately sensitive level.
In the audience for the opening performance of the tour at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury, Kent, I was drawn into the show’s multi-sensory world; swathed by leaves with a warm breeze on my skin, I could smell forest fruits and the scent of a wood after rainfall (I’m not taking poetic liberties – this is a factual description of how the show sparks your senses). The actors captivate the audience with the use of simple props and, I won’t spoil it, but the combined effect of helium balloons, LEDs, torches and white discs is quite hypnotic.
It was noticeable how much time the actors spent with each person, adapting their interactions – language and behaviour – according to need, ability and interest. One young boy who particularly enjoyed the feel of rain drops on his hands was allowed time to explore the sensations and appearance of drizzle. His joyful reaction was priceless.
Given I write and read so much about (warning: social care jargon alert) “choice and control” and “person-centred planning” or “personalisation” (ie when the unambitious “choice and control” box ticking basically means offering someone the choice between water or tea to drink..) – this was truly “person-centred” performance.
I did some editorial support work the company some months ago and, having come across the show in its conceptual infancy, I was blown away – almost literally, given the multi-sensory context – to see the fully fledged performance (a note of transparency here: this blogpost is mine and mine alone, written in my own time and, like every post on this site, independent, unsolicited and unpaid for).
Talking to parents and carers in the foyer after the show, several told me how their young people are starved of theatre that is tailor-made with complex needs in mind, but which also manages to be high quality and pitched at the right level for the audience (ie unpatronising).
One father told me his visually impaired son’s attention span was short, but he was moved to see the teenager captivated by sound, scent, taste and touch during the performance.
“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.