Category Archives: Social exclusion

Prejudice and inadequate support: the situation for minority ethnic children with learning disabilities

Callum and Parmi Dheensa (photo: Parmi Dheensa)

When Parmi Dheensa’s son Callum kissed a classmate on the cheek not long after starting at a special needs primary school, a teacher asked his mother if this was “culturally appropriate”. Dheensa said that as long as the classmate was happy, nothing in her son’s Punjabi heritage forbade such displays of affection.

It is just one example over many years of professionals leaping to incorrect conclusions based on the ethnicity of her severely learning disabled son, who is now 19, says Dheensa. They also assume she does not work and is supported by an extended family when in fact she is a lone parent who works full-time. Dheensa, 43, was once told that her son’s support – he lives at home and is at a special school – was “better than it would be in India”. Fair point maybe, she says, but irrelevant to a British-born, Midlands-based family.

My Guardian article focuses on Parmi’s charity, Include Me Too, which works with 1,500 families a year. It has launched a campaign for the government to review its equality duties in relation to special needs education and support for BAME communities.

The charity has now launched a campaign asking the government to review BAME representation in government decision-making (existing involvement is, says Dheensa, “tokenistic”) and a new disability and equality strategy to ensure families get better support. The criticism is that professionals do not fully involve parents in reviews of the support they require, or in drawing up education, health and care plans, and parents or carer forums are predominately white British.

Read the article on the Guardian website.

New report demands more support for vulnerable children

Families at a Spurgeons’ children’s centre, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (photo: Bronac McNeill)
Guest post by Ross Hendry, chief executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity

New research, which we launch today, paints a picture of far too many young families struggling.

Parents with children under the age of 18 are increasingly anxious, according to Spurgeons’ Parent Report, and many feel that there is little support available.

The research shows half of parents worry their children have low self-esteem or are unhappy (46%) or are being bullied (46%)*; whilst 42% of parents think there is little to no support available from statutory, community or voluntary services to help with family challenges.

And it is many of the most vulnerable who are struggling the most. The ones who cannot or do not have a strong, stable and supportive network of family and friends to turn to. These are the families we work with, day in, day out – their children are among the 4 million living in poverty in the UK today. They are the families for whom support seems very distant and hard to attain just when their needs seem to be increasing.

What’s important is that families get the support they need when they need it. And that’s where charities like ours come in. Spurgeons Children’s Charity is driven by its mission to improve the lives of families and children who are struggling to cope; and to see every child given the chance of a hope filled future.

It is 150 years since we were first founded, but we still work at the heart of communities to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children and families in England. Our focus is supporting families who struggle to support themselves through intervention and help that centres on the child.

The reality is, despite the immense wealth and opportunities for social mobility, life for some families is as tough today as it was when we were first established. Inequality today may look different; we may know more about causes and solutions; we may spend more time talking and writing about it; but it is still an enduring social and economic scar on our society.

We offer a range of different services across the country. For example, our 23 children’s centres support parents with young children to access the help they need, ensuring poverty and deprivation don’t become barriers to a better future. We work with local partners in communities with high levels of deprivation across the UK, supporting parents and their children from pre-natal stage up to the age of five.

When parents need to develop new strategies for dealing with issues; or they feel they maybe aren’t coping as well as they could, our support worker teams are there. Sometimes just to listen; but often to provide practical support and advice too. There are a range of parenting courses; opportunities to stay and play and a chance to meet and talk with other parents.

The chance to access peer to peer support can be invaluable and a life line for many parents who often feel alone. This is true for both mums and dads and we’re keen to recognise the important roles fathers play in their children’s lives. Our Saturdads project, which started in 2009 and worked with 89 dads last year alone, helps fathers develop stronger, positive relationships; build peer support networks; and generally build their confidence as a parent. Too often public funded services are portrayed as places of dependency when the reality is a timely intervention can be the route to flourishing, maturity and development for parents and children.

Spurgeons works to support families (photo: Bronac McNeill)

The Parent Report we publish today gives us an opportunity to compare the views of the wider parent population to our own insight. From parent feedback at our services, through to safeguarding reporting, we are able to draw out comparisons and identity some common themes. What we do know from the work taking place is that it’s not always easy for families to reach out.

All too often, parents are afraid to engage. For whatever reason, whether its concern over how they will be perceived, or feeling like they have somehow failed, we’re often the last place they turn. It’s not uncommon for us to be told by parents that they wished they’d reached out sooner. But the question we need to ask is ‘why aren’t they?’

We need our services, and those offered by others like us – from government, charities, schools and GPs – to be recognised as the safe and reassuring places we believe them to be. Where parents can take their children and be free from judgement at a time in their life when they need it most.

It’s only fair that we all accept some responsibility with this – if parents don’t feel that they can access the support available, what can we do differently to help them on their way? More awareness maybe; more accessibility for the isolated and hard to reach groups most definitely; but maybe it’s more than that.

In a world where they are so many expectations and pressures, living up to a perfect ideal can make a tough job even harder. From our part, we want to ensure there is always someone there to support families – especially those in greatest need – with good information, advice and meaningful support.

About the research
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,842 GB parents with children under 18 years of age. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st – 27 April 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
* When asked about the three issues they are most concerned about for their children, either now or in the future.

People power can transform communities – we need more of it

Guest post by Tracy Fishwick, chief executive of Transform Lives

Leeds Community Homes is striving for a people-powered community housing revolution, placing the new organisation at the cutting edge of housing practice.

The not-for-profit group has raised £360,000 to invest in 16 permanently affordable homes through community shares (a type of share capital called ‘withdrawable shares’ issued by co-operatives or community benefit societies). With the first tenants due to move in by next April, the organisation’s #peoplepoweredhomes campaign is an innovative way to create housing developed by local people, to meet the housing needs of local people. The project wants to create 1,000 affordable homes over the next decade.

People-focused housing solutions are at the heart of the People’s Powerhouse event taking place next month. The housing group’s work in Leeds is the kind of positive story of local change that we hope will inspire delegates to recreate similar projects in their own communities. More good practice like this is vital at a time of chronic housing shortage, with housebuilding falling almost 100,000 homes per year short of achieving the government’s ambition.

You may have read about the People’s Powerhouse which was launched in February and originally billed in the press as “a rival ‘northern powerhouse’ conference to one that advertised 15 male speakers but no women and just 13 of all 98 listed speakers were women”.

Leeds Community Homes, Plus Dane Housing and my own company, Transform Lives, are just some of the organisations taking part. We hope the People’s Powerhouse will help create a dialogue about inclusive, good growth, and its potential to transform communities and lives across the North of England.

Other work worth replicating includes Give Get Go, which Transform Lives collaborates on with a group of housing organisations. The initiative supports social housing tenants into work – connecting unemployed people to employers through volunteering and mentoring, growing skills and confidence and creating jobs. Key to the project’s success is bringing civic institutions and leaders together for the first time to work collaboratively in Liverpool, including the University of Liverpool, Everton FC and the National Trust.

We also work with Plus Dane Housing on its Waves of Hope Big Lottery programme, which aims to tackle homelessness and other complex barriers to work. In just two years, the project has supported 236 people, 83% of whom say their rough sleeping has been reduced. And 67% report a reduction in substance misuse. Both Plus Dane Housing and our other partner, the University of Liverpool, will be showcasing this work at the People’s Powerhouse, underlining the difference we can make when we find good ways of working collaboratively and locally.

Our hope is that we will build a long-term movement for change that supports good and inclusive growth in the North with a particular focus on how people are the key to growth. The aim is to include all sectors and sections of the community, harnessing the combined skills and leverage of the public sector, voluntary, community, civic leaders and business.

As Lord Victor Adebowale, chairman of Social Enterprise UK and chief executive of social enterprise Turning Point, says: “’People’s Powerhouse’ perfectly reflects our vision for economic investment in the North of England.” Social enterprises often find innovative solutions to social issues and as Lord Victor, a People’s Powerhouse keynote speaker, adds: “We cannot allow anyone to be left behind. Investment in the North must be inclusive and must be used to support communities as well as businesses, adding value to the lives of real people.”

* The People’s Powerhouse event takes place on Wednesday 12 July from 10am-4pm at Doncaster Rovers Football Ground. For more information and to register see the website. Discounts are available including for young people and for small enterprises and charities.

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.

Street theatre focuses on social isolation

Two characters in a scene from pop-up street show The Loneliness Street Cabaret.
Two characters in a scene from pop-up street show The Loneliness Street Cabaret.

Are you too busy with tech to talk? How well do you know your older neighbours? Do you think your local community involves everyone in it?

A pop-up street theatre performance this week will focus on the epidemic of loneliness and the growing isolation of older people, as I explain on the Guardian website today.

A young audience member gets involved in a recent performance of the Loneliness Street Cabaret.
A young audience member gets involved in a recent performance of the Loneliness Street Cabaret.

The Loneliness Street Cabaret, an outdoor street performance from the Beautiful Mess Theatre Company, is showing from Tuesday to Thursday (4 to 7 October) as part of the month-long Age UK Lambeth’s Celebrating Age Festival in London.

The theatre performance, which takes place in different public spaces across the south London borough, is inspired by the fact that loneliness is increasing at a time when our our cities are becoming ever more crowded. The show has been developed using anecdotes, opinions and experiences of older people in south London.

A character is chastised in the Loneliness Street Cabaret for being too distracted by his phone to interact with people.
A character is chastised in the Loneliness Street Cabaret for being too distracted by his phone to interact with people.

The shows are performed in public spaces, from outside tube stations to public squares, in the hope that the shared experience of performance will spark the audience to have conversations and take action based on the show’s themes. Osborne says the aim is to provoke people to consider the issues highlighted by the performance: “It’s about your local community and how you fit within it,” says creative producer Chloe Osborne, “but also about what your responsibility is for ensuring that others belong in it too.”

You can read the entire piece here.

* All photos from the Beautiful Mess Theatre Company

Weather-inspired inclusive art on public display

Redstart Arts weatherSCAPE project is on display in London this week (photo: Redstart Arts)
Redstart Arts weatherSCAPE project is on display in south London this week (all photos: Redstart Arts/Sinead Kempley)

Clouds suspended from the ceiling and lighting bolt sculptures form part of a new installation from a London-based inclusive art collective.

Redstart Arts: stencilling work in preparation for this week's exhibition
Redstart Arts: stencilling work in preparation for the exhibition (all photos: Redstart)

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”.

Drawing and detailing at Redstart Arts
Drawing and detailing at Redstart Arts

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.

Sculpture produced for weatherSCAPE by Redstart Arts
Sculpture produced for weatherSCAPE by Redstart Arts

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

Bittersweet birthday for landmark disability law

“Laws are all very well, but it’s people’s attitudes that need to change.” This comment from actor and Mencap ambassador Sarah Gordy pretty well sums up opinions about the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995.

The act, 20 years old this autumn, was regarded as weaker than hoped for by campaigners – not least because its ideals were hard to enforce – and it was replaced by the Equality Act 2010 combining all anti-discrimination legislation under one law.

Back in 1995, beginning my working life, I remember talk and action relating to the most visible aspects of the new law – the installation of ramps in the workplace, for example, and accessibility on public transport.

But while such physical impact of the landmark law may be easy to spot in terms of the act’s legacy, what of the law’s less tangible elements, such as cultural attitudes to disability? Then there are the current welfare reforms and austerity measures that threaten to undermine the progress of anti-discrimination legislation and human rights.

Recent research, such as a report by Demos and Scope, Destination Unknown, outlines the disproportionate effect on disabled people of cuts to benefits including Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Employment and Support Allowance and housing benefit. Other reforms include the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and changes to unemployment benefit.

Speaking to disability campaigners and activities for a Guardian piece recently was a good litmus test for the act’s legacy. For example, Debbie Domb, of Hammersmith and Fulham Disabled People’s Organisations Network, “welfare cuts are pushing us further out of sight to the margins of society”. Activist Wendy Perez of LDA (Learning Disability Alliance) England says disabled people are now “treated like scroungers and as people who just take”: “In the last few years it feels like things have gone backwards. There used to be a lot of hope; but now it feels like hope is gone.”

As mental health campaigner Lol Butterfield, who has blogged on this site, says: “The Disability Discrimination Act has provided protection and support for people experiencing mental health conditions but we can never become complacent. We must always be reviewing its use and strength in these times of discrimination against the mentally ill. I have witnessed many positive changes within mental health services and society over all these years. But sadly we still have a long way to go.”

Baroness Jane Campbell, crossbench peer, disability rights campaigner, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Disability Group, adds: “I was extremely privileged to be part of shaping and helping implement the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). This brought rights into disabled peoples’ lives, gradually replacing the culture of welfare and charity. Sadly, the momentum was never maintained as we had dreamed.

For Clenton Farquharson, disability and equality campaigner and director of community interest company Community Navigator Services, the DDA meant suddenly he was not longer invisible: “I had a right to be noticed…But 20 years on, sadly, there is still no monitoring or enforcing of the Act, leaving us to fight as individuals for our legal rights — and that is a daunting, expensive, and dispiriting process.”

The DDA still symbolises a turning point for disability rights but while it was launched in a hopeful fanfare, two decades on for many people, the legislation rings hollow.

Arts festival uses digital tech for social inclusion

Participants promoting their festival. Photo: Stephen Candy
Participants promoting their festival. Photo: Stephen Candy
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.

Creating percussion sounds for the music element of the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim.
Creating percussion sounds for the music element of the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim.
Mixing music for the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim .
Mixing music for the festival. Photo: Annalees Lim .
SprungDigi crew member mixing SprungDigi theme song. Photo: Stephen Candy.
SprungDigi crew member mixing SprungDigi theme song. Photo: Stephen Candy.

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.

Social inclusion, sewing patterns and silver linings

Social inclusion: being "more busy" with people, places and projects is vital
Social inclusion: being “more busy” with people, places and projects is vital

“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).

Segment of a sewing pattern for a coat, decorated with hopes and solutions for the future for people with learning disabilities
Segment of a sewing pattern for a coat, decorated with hopes and solutions for the future for people with learning disabilities
People with learning disabilities should be seen as people first, with potential and talents, rather than being defined by their support needs
Another segment of the coat pattern, reflecting how people with learning disabilities should be seen as people first, rather than being defined by their support needs
One idea to help celebrate differences...
One idea to help celebrate differences…

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.

Barriers to people with learning disabilities being included in society
Barriers to people with learning disabilities being included in society

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.

I can’t wait to see it.

Exhibition reveals hidden history of learning disability

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All images copyright Jürgen Schadeberg

Powerful and rarely seen archive images of life in institutional care form part of a new exhibition that opens today.

The history of long-stay hospitals in Wales is the focus of Mencap Cymru’s Hidden Now Heard project that documents life for people with learning disabilities in the region.

The striking shots of the long-since closed institutions include rarely seen images of Hensol Hospital, Vale of Glamorgan, taken by renowned photographer Jürgen Schadeberg in 1967.

Schadeberg’s Welsh photographs range from the surprising to the thought-provoking and the unsettling. They focus on individual faces and personalities at a time when people with learning disabilities were invisible, herded into high-walled hospitals, hidden away for years.

The images hint at stark reality of life in long-term care, reflecting some of the isolation and inactivity that were its hallmarks. They show patients in workshops and in and around the hospital grounds. However, the photographs also depict some of the positive bonds between staff and children in their care.

Hensol Castle Hospital

Hensol Castle Hospital

Hensol opened in 1930 as a “colony” for the care of 100 male “mental defectives” (standard terminology at the time) with buildings added to raise numbers 460 male, female and child patients in 1935. The move towards community care meant that patient numbers eventually reduced and the institution closed in 2003. Some of the buildings are now luxury flats.

The project provokes the public to consider how we care for and treat people with learning disabilities today.

While life in the community is meant to have replaced segregation in institutions, some 2,600 people with learning disabilities or autism are stuck in the kind of units meant to be consigned to the history books. These include assessment and treatment centres run by the NHS and private companies, like the Winterbourne View unit. The preventable death of Connor Sparrowhawk (aka Laughing Boy or LB) in one of these “waste bins of life” sparked the Justice for LB campaign and the LB Bill, demanding more rights for people with disabilities and their families.

The exhibition, which runs until March at Swansea Museum, is based on oral history testimonies from people who lived in hospitals, their relatives and staff, and is run by and funded by the Heritage Lottery. All the stories from across the region will eventually be deposited in the archive at St Fagan’s, the Museum of Welsh Life.

Phyllis Jones, a patient at Hensol for over 40 years, said of her involvement in the project: “I wanted to tell everyone about Hensol, the good times and bad. They had good staff there but overall I didn’t like living there. I prefer living in my own house”.

Mencap Cymru, which has was involved in helping close many of the area’s hospitals, spent three years researching the project. It wants to record and acknowledge the stories and experiences of former patients and offer people a chance to talk about the past.

Mencap Cymru director Wayne Crocker said of the exhibition: “I very much hope that those who visit will be impressed by the stories they see but more importantly will see the amazing contributions people with a learning disability make to our communities in Wales.”

Anyone recognising the people in the photos or who have stories to tell should contact Mencap Cymru.

You can find out more on Twitter @hiddennowheard or visit the Facebook page.