Category Archives: Music & arts

Fiction based on fact; theatre explores the threat to special needs provision

Art mirrors life for those of us with an interest in learning disability issues as a London play explores the threat to special needs schools. The play coincides with the government’s plans to overhaul special educational provision and comes at a time when learning disablility support is in jeopardy thanks to public spending cuts.

Actors in Alan Share's Death of a Nightingale

Death of a Nightingale runs at Hampstead’s New End Theatre until Sunday 3 April and focuses on the inclusion agenda which can shoehorn children with special needs into mainstream schools that offer inadequate support.

The play, written by Alan Share, a former chair of governors at a special school, also addresses the problems when a special school is threatened with closure. Since 1997, more than 100 special schools have closed, resulting in the loss of about 9,000 places for children.

Professional actors are joined on stage with learning disabled young people from the Oak Lodge School in East Finchley. The cast includes 18-year-old Max Lewis, an actor with Downs syndrome who appeared in Notes on a Scandal. Lewis plays a pupil who truants from schools that fail to meet his needs.

Written in 2009, the play is being resurrected to coincide with the government’s green paper on special educational needs. Share describes the green paper as “yet another missed opportunity for the government”. He adds: “It wants to find a quick fix for children with moderate learning difficulties and avoid the challenge of meeting more complex and varied needs.”

For more on the green paper and special educational needs provision, check out the very good Guerrillamum blog.

Disco dreams: dance nights with a difference

Liz Astor, mother to 18-year-old Olivia, who has autism, realised how desperate her daughter was to socialize on nights out with her peers when, in response to being offered a packet of dates to snack on, the teenager blurted out (entirely seriously and with great indignation): “I want to go on a date! I don’t want to eat one!”

Many similarly amusing moments tinged with a serious edge have been enjoyed in my family thanks to my youngest sister’s grappling with the vagaries of the English language and her inability to take words anything other than literally.

There was the time she stormed home from school, complaining that she had been told to “puck off!” in the playground. My mother was caught between the pedant’s reaction of correcting my sister for mishearing the word (“Actually darling, it’s not ‘puck off’ it’s…”) and an anger-fuelled desire to advise her to tell her potty-mouthed peers to puck right off back (coining a new breed of Shakespearean insult in the process perhaps?). Instead, we checked there was no bullying involved and told my sister to maintain a dignified silence.

The silent treatment shut those stupid playground puckers right up, I can tell you.

I digress. Thanks to her daughter’s literal take on the date conversation, Liz Astor realized how much Olivia wanted to enjoy the sort of nights out her mainstream peers take for granted.

Spotting a gap in provision for young autistic adults in her local area on the Surrey-Kent borders, she launched a not-for-profit group, Disco Dreams, late last year. The specialist nights in a community hall in Oxted, Surrey, are aimed at 18-30-year-olds with autism or moderate learning difficulties. “Why shouldn’t young people with autism have the same opportunities as others their age?” asks Liz.

Autism charities offer vital support for the autistic and their families, and there’s some great work being done by inclusive arts charities, but even without taking into account the fact their future is under threat in the funding cuts, opportunities for young adults with autism to socialise is patchy around the country.

The Disco Dreams nights are tailored specifically for those with autism; the DJ is aware of when noise levels overwhelm the young people, a chill-out zone provides a quiet space and entry is £10 but free to carers.

Aside from the social benefits, the positive impact of music, exercise and dance in relation to a host of health-related conditions is well-documented. For example, there was a great BBC documentary last year, Autism, Disco and Me, which showed how disco dancing transformed a young autistic boy’s life

Back on the Kent-Surrey borders, the next Disco Dreams night is scheduled for tomorrow night, Friday 21, if there is enough interest (email discodreamsdance@gmail.com for more information). The whole project is funded entirely by Liz, Lady Astor of Hever. Plugging a gap in provision in this way is very big society, but not every community is lucky enough to have such philanthropic verve in its midst. Let’s hope the venture is successful and inspires similar events elsewhere, so Olivia gets to eat her date and have one too.

Women, know your politics

Uncovered from The Original Ranch on Vimeo.

Above, ‘Uncovered’, a short animated film inspired by women’s attitudes to community, participation and politics.

The best ideas are, usually, the most simple ones. That’s one reason I’m a fan of a new project called Politics Uncovered, a community-based attempt to demystify politics for women.

Working on the premise that a) women are still woefully underrepresented in politics and b) very few people know even the basics of democracy and government, social enterprise arts organisation The Original Ranch has produced an event that is something of a beginners guide to politics.

The Original Ranch recorded women’s views about community, participation and politics during several discussion groups last year. It used the material to create a short animated film (above) which, along with a basic lesson in the workings of government, constitutes the event Politics Uncovered. The lesson explains the key structures at national and local levels, describes the main players and their roles, and gives participants an opportunity to ask questions.

The first Politics Uncovered event at the end of November involved around 30 women from London, all political novices who wanted to find out more about government issues.

According to Olivia Bellas, founder of The Original Ranch, what makes the project unique is that it is a free and accessible ‘lesson’ in politics, presented in a non-politicised environment (the launch event was at the Women’s Library in east London and offered a crèche facility) and it offers interactive and creative approaches to learning.

Put simply, if you want a beginners guide to politics, delivered in an informative but interesting way, look no further.

“Politics can be quite difficult to grasp; there are many different players, institutions, mechanisms, and formalities,” says Bellas, “and so it is hardly surprising that many people may not fully understand it”.

Although there is as yet no formal evaluation, Bellas says that anecdotal evidence from participants reveals
an increased knowledge of and interest in politics and a feeling of empowerment.

The quirky template used in Politics Uncovered could be used to raise awareness of all sorts of social issues in communities, in a visually appealing way that participants find neither too intimidating nor too condescending. I’m interested to see how the project evolves in 2011.

Young people and a load of bull

Kayla Whiting lives in Hackney, a former administrator for media social enterprise Poached Creative, she project managed the short community film Life’s A Bitch which got local young people involved in media and raised awareness about Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Here, she explains how and why she did it.

Young filmmaker Kayla Whiting and her staffies

I did the film because … I wanted to defend the breed of dog and get people in the community to think before they stereotyped the dog and also give the young people an opportunity to learn valuable media skills.

My aim was…to produce a piece of footage that would change people perception on Staffordshire Bull Terriers.

The hardest thing was…keeping the young people engaged with the project and taking responsibility of all the paper work.

The most rewarding thing was…knowing all the young people enjoyed the experience and learnt new skills; which helped them back into training.

I funded it by…applying for funding from funding body Mediabox with the help of Poached Creative and youth-led media group Mediorite.

My tips for others wanting to do the same are…to keep the work as practical as possible. Make sure you create a strong bond with your team.

The biggest problem for communities today is…young people not being able to get jobs and progress in fields they would like.

If I could have a word in David Cameron’s ear I’d… tell him to make politics more understandable and engaging.

My inspiration is… being a young person myself. Being able to help other young people and help them to work towards their dreams as I am.

In 10 years time I want to be…a millionaire!

Sandi – the networking nan

Sandi Hughes

By Sandi Hughes

Sandi Hughes, 67, describes herself as “a nan with a kick” who not only DJs in her hometown of Liverpool, but is on a mission to get more older people online. Here she describes being what she calls a “digi-elder”:

I’m a digi-elder, I use the Internet and am open to new technology – but it doesn’t always go right, like the time I got ‘lost’ on YouTube.

I was in a friend’s kitchen, there were six of us chatting, and my friend told me to get on his computer and find some tunes for us to listen to. I opened YouTube and typed in ‘Missy Elliott’ and everyone made comments on how great the bass sounded and wanted more. When the song finished, I highlighted her next song, and then the next one, and on the next one she sounded a bit different. I clicked on the next one – and realised it wasn’t Missy Elliot singing the song, so I clicked on the next one and each time I clicked on a Missy Elliott song these different girls were singing and the words were getting changed and the visuals were getting more and more raunchy, and my friend said “why are you playing that type of music?” and “what are you listening to – GET IT OFF!” he shouted.

The more I tried to get another Missy Elliott song, the more unclothed the girls were getting and the melody and ambience sounded more like an adult film. My friend shouts “I DON’T WANT THAT FILTH ON MY COMPUTER”, and leans over and flicks the power switch off, creating a blank screen and bringing silence into the kitchen.

As tech-friendly as I think I am, why didn’t I think of doing that?

I first bought myself a Mac when I was 62, to invest in the skills I had learned while using analogue equipment for a video production course. I concentrated on iMovie and iPhoto software which were simple to follow and easy to use. I have yet to play games on my Mac though – my grandson who is 20 has given me his old Nintendo games console…it’s still in my cupboard!

I was DJing for a project called Giants in the Hood which a group of artists from Helsinki held during Liverpool’s 2010 Biennial. I loved it, and had so much fun mixing vinyl and CDs and choosing tunes that kept people dancing for almost two hours. I was aware of how surprised people were at me being able to do this at 67.

Using technology, remembering which button to press can be a problem but regular practice helps. You could say that our memories have always been in analogue, but now our memories have to become digital, so we can remember everything more accurately all the time, because of the way it is fed and kept into computers.

Elders need tailor-made courses on how to get involved and connected to the Internet, support to improve their skills and protection against things like scams, identity theft and fraud.

So many things are digital now; the gas man gets me writing my name with a piece of metal onto a metal box with a plastic screen on it. “It’s called a digital signature,” he tells me. There’s mobile phones, laptops, games, video and stills cameras, Facebook, digital television, online banking – you can pay bills on the internet now, without the need to handle money – you can do your shopping in most places on the net now.

We need to be able to stay connected to our younger generation, with social networking you can keep in touch with your kids, grandkids, mates on Facebook, Twitter, Skype.

With the Internet you can access and share the sense of wonder when you just push a button and enter a place instantly that could be the other side of the world. A lot of us have a passionate desire to always want to know more, and technology and the Internet does this for me. It fulfills my need to push my creative boundaries, offers easy access to information, education, creativity and is a platform for games. It’s hard to loose stuff in a computer.

N u learn nu kwik n e z spellings of sertan wrds specialy in mob fonz n fcbk.

Politicians should pay attention to digital inclusion issues among elders because of the potential that technology and the Internet has to improve life. They could make a real commitment to listening to, valuing and investing in the elders, socially disadvantaged families, and physically challenged people who can’t access it.

There’s a big gulf between those who are ready and have access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. There are confident users of it and those who are not – but the gap will close when my generation dies, because newer generations will be born into it. Reminds me a bit of the confusion when money changed over to decimal currency in the sixties!

Internet access should be a human right. I’d like to see free broadband for pensioners, or at least a subsidised package. It’s the future – but not as we all know it, so you need to get to know it!

Sex, drugs and the electoral roll?

In terms of unusual musical collaborations, it’s right up there with Jay-Z and Coldplay or Ozzy Osbourne and Miss Piggy. Rising star of the urban grime scene, Ghetts, has paired up with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on a track urging young people to the complete the census form.

In a move that paves the way for Tinchy Stryder to hang out with MPs (oops, hang on – he already did) or Tinie Tempah to flex his lyrical muscle on behalf of the Electoral Commission (TBC), 25-year-old rapper Ghetts is calling on people to stand up and be counted on, Invisible, released this week.

On a serious note, however, the release of Invisible is part of a much-needed campaign that sees Ghetts (formerly known as Ghetto, real name Justin Regikala Clarke Samuel) encouraging young black people, to participate in the 2011 Census.

Ghetts’ reasons for taking part are simple and admirable; he feels the needs and interests of young people in the UK are ignored and that reaching them through music is one way of making sure they take part in the 2011 Census: “The point is that young people are the future. We’ve got to take every opportunity to get our views across so that we get the sort of communities that we want for our own kids. The census gives us a chance to shape the future of our neighbourhoods. It’s time to stand up and be counted.”

Grime star Ghetts

Ghetts involvement is a way for the powers that be to reach those they assume are ‘hard to reach’: “Young people can feel that they can’t influence the future, but with the help of Ghetts we can encourage them to take one step towards making a real contribution to their communities,” sas ONS head of stakeholder communications Helen Bray.

The slick production and marketing is as impressive as the message, which lends the whole project an air of credibility. As yet, it’s too early to see if it captures the attention of its target audience, or with how much cynicism the singer’s young fans will greet the track. But anything that can capture the attention of disinterested young people is welcome. Talking to an unemployed teenager from Hackney, east London, at a recent event, I asked her if she was cynical about the big society concept and she replied she had no idea what it meant (although this could just say more about the woolly nature of the concept than the teenager’s lack of knowledge).

In a break from usual pr form for a government agency, the track was launched at a school in Newham, east London and is getting airplay on radio stations with black listeners, such as BBC 1Xtra and pirate radio stations.

It’s the same tactic that led Def Jam records founder and hip hop impresario Russell Simmons to tackle election apathy among black Americans and and get involved in voter registration campaigns in the states (judging by the midterm results, it’s debatable as to how far his message got through).

Invisible explains that people need to fill in and return the census questionnaire to make sure local and national authorities know where services such as transport, housing, hospitals, schools, community centres and libraries are needed for the future. Ghetts raps: “Just remember this; if minorities don’t fill in the forms what’s the point in living in Britain at all? There ain’t nothing worse than being invisible but we can change that, ASAP.”

The census is carried out every 10 years by the ONS and helps government allocate resources to the areas that need them the most. On March 27 next year, 25m households in England and Wales will get a questionnaire through the post or by hand.

And now, in a gratuitously playful exercise not intended to detract from the message above, here are some tracks that might appear on Now That’s What I Call Census! Anyone got any others?
Nobody home – Pink Floyd
Where the streets have no name – U2
Across 110th Street – Bobby Womack
Say my name – Destiny’s Child
My name is – Eminem
Is there anybody out there – Pink Floyd
Who are You- The Who
That’s not my name – The Ting Tings

Shades, strut and soul; a universal arts experience

Rapper Dean Rodney has a soulful strut, a powerful pair of lungs and a learning disability. Dark shades, smooth black suit, definitely supercool. I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank tonight to see his band, the Fish Police, a fired-up trio that fuses hip hop with funk and punk and lists Japanese anime and fast food among its eclectic inspirations.

Fish Police met when musician and lyricist Charles Stuart trained two learning disabled youngsters, Dean (now Fish Police singer, rapper, bass and lyrics) and Matthew Howe (the trio’s equally cool rhythm guitarist) as part of a youth band based at disability arts organisation Heart n Soul.

Next month the Fish Police will be releasing their debut album, Cheeseburger Man (Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man for the McDonald’s generation?), performing at the Lincoln Center in New York and at Liverpool’s DaDa Fest, the UK’s largest disability and deaf arts festival. Their music is a fresh and freestyling antidote to the conveyor-belt fodder jostling for space in today’s uninspiringly plastic charts.

I came across Heart n Soul over a year ago when I heard about one of its artists, soul singer Lizzie Emeh. Lizzie broke new ground by becoming what’s thought to be the first learning disabled solo artist to release an album to the general public. Loud and Proud was three years in the making and produced with the support of Heart n Soul, 33 years after Lizzie’s parents were told never she would never walk or talk following complications at birth.

In 1984, musician Mark Williams (now Heart n Soul’s director) wanted to explore how music and art could make a difference in communities. He began running creative sessions in east London for a group of people with learning disabilities who went to the local day centre, The Mulberry Centre. Eventually The Mulberry Crew, as they came to be known, moved into a bigger arts complex in Deptford and became Heart n Soul, with the aim of working towards professional productions – not simply, as was then the norm, undergoing art therapy.

The charity now runs a hugely popular club night for people with learning disabilities, the Beautiful Octopus club, and has a consultancy arm to advise other organisations on setting up cultural events for those with special needs. It also employs people with a learning disability and markets arts events to the learning disabled.

The Fish Police, Lizzie Emeh and their other talented peers are also regulars at Heart n Soul’s summer arts festival which is based on the Beautiful Octopus club night. The event isn’t on most people’s summer festival radars, but it should be. Along with live music, the event a couple of months ago boasted a comedy stage, improv and open mic sessions, face painting, a massage tent, a chill out zone designed by the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, cinema room, dance floor and VJs and DJs. Performance art is notoriously hard to pull off, but the trio of artists performing as Live Heart did so with panache, demonstrating why the Tate Modern recently invited them to perform. K:DNA showed off their inspired blend of funk, reggae and classical music while the Riki Jodelko Band were an amazingly tight soul-pop outfit, astounding when they covered Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved.

Best of all, I loved the inclusive nature of the event. The Beautiful Octopus invites everyone to have a good time, regardless of ability or special need. When you enter the world of Heart n Soul’s festivals or club nights, when you immerse yourself in the melee of fancy dress, fairy wings and face paints, when someone in a clown outfit tumbles head over heels into a perfect cartwheel right in front of you, whether they have a learning disability or not is irrelevant – what’s important is that they’re having fun. And it’s infectious.

Frankly, in this environment (compared to other events I’ve blogged about) it’s impossible not to roll with the good times. I’m working on my cartwheel for next summer…for tonight, the shades and soulful strut will have to do.

* The Beautiful Octopus Club is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, tonight (Friday 8 Oct) 7pm-12am. Entry is free.

What about a little cultural equality?

I always thought going to see a West End musical on a Saturday night would be intolerable. Turns out it simply exposed the intolerance of other people.

I recently took my 21-year-old sister, who happens to have a learning disability, to see the sort of shiny dance-a-thon that I’ve always avoided because of the incumbent hen groups and coach parties (intolerant? Me?). But it was her birthday and I was game, especially as her idol, ex-Hear’Say singer Noel Sullivan, was in the lead role.

The evening got off to a great start. We had a drink in a Soho bar, an old haunt that I’d never thought I’d be able to take her to, thanks to her dislike of noisy crowds. But we got there before it was busy, she leafed through her show programme, happy and excited.

En route to the theatre, I could feel my sister’s excitement mounting (something about how she shot through Piccadilly, wielding her rolled up programme like a crowd-dispersal baton, muttering “out the way!” to anyone in her path).

Her happiness was infectious. We took our seats a couple of rows from the stage. The lights went down. The curtain came up. Our problems began.

Her gentle thigh slapping became more enthusiastic, as did the clapping, whooping, jiving and singing (pitch and word-perfect, by the way) through each of the 20 musical numbers. The culmination involved vigorous hip wiggling to the “Greased Lightning” medley; legs akimbo, arms outstretched, index finger sweeping the stage horizon, left to right.

There she was – my wonderfully ecstatic sister, wearing her Grease t-shirt and an expression of unbridled joy.

There I was, squirming uncomfortably somewhere between the rock of seeing my sister so happy and the hard place of being with someone so outrageously flouting the Unwritten Rules of Acceptable Behaviour.

Where are the coach loads and fancy-dressed brides-to-be when you need them? Other than clapping, not one other blasted person stood up to show they were even having a mildly good time.

I suggested “just bopping” while sitting down. Bopping? The repression I felt physically was so intense, it had even sent my vocabulary hurtling back to Enid Blyton’s England! I suggested “not dancing” – a ludicrous option, met with an astonished “why?”. The stage was full of dancers and singers, music boomed out across the auditorium, why shouldn’t she show she was enjoying herself?

As the performance continued, we suffered much staring, several irritated glances and a handful of few tuts until finally a miserable-faced mother and daughter duo in front of us turned round and exhaled a violent “SHHHHHHHH!”, motioning angrily for my sister to sit down.

“What exactly would you like me to do?” I hissed through clenched teeth.

By the time the woman sitting next to me put her hand on mine, I was ready to recite the universal declaration of human rights; instead she restored my faith in humanity.

“She’s special, let her be,” she whispered. Unable to reply thanks to the lump that had suddenly taken up residence in my throat, I heard her say she had a granddaughter with Aspergers and, anyway, most people probably wanted to do what my sister was doing but were too uptight.

While I was fuming at the reactions of what was ultimately a tiny minority, the wise soul next to me made me accept that the “situation” was not in fact a “situation” but simply a bloody good night out for my sister.

So what to do?

One well-meaning friend who I talked to afterwards suggested a designated area in the auditorium for people with special needs “so they can enjoy the show and no one else will be disturbed”. Hey! Great idea! Why hasn’t someone else thought of segregation? Hang on – they did, what was it called now..oh yes – apartheid!

What we need is cultural equality, as promoted by organisations such as Arts and Disability Ireland which advocate the engagement of people with disabilities as audience members. There’s some good work around promoting disability access at outdoor events and several organisations lobby on such issues but there seems less around the actual inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream audiences.

Anyone know of any schemes along these lines?

By the way, to the miserable mother and daughter combo, should I ever have the misfortune to clap eyes on either of you sorry people again, I’d (a) perform a citizens arrest for crimes against happiness and (b) present you with two complimentary tickets to a special musical that I reckon you’d love. Want me to arrange for you to meet the cast?