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Cinema to shift attitudes

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Photograph: Seth Johnson/Signature/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

I just wrote a column about a critically acclaimed movie opening in UK cinemas this week, one that shines a much-needed spotlight on how learning disability is represented in film.

The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen, an actor who has Down’s syndrome. He plays a man who escapes his care home to follow his ambition of becoming a professional wrestler. The film has won universal plaudits for its feelgood factor and optimistic messages about fulfilling your dreams and not judging a book by its cover.

My own take on the film, as a sibling, is that it’s a welcome move to right some wrongs about Hollywood’s representation of disabled people. Given Hollywood’s previous offerings, such as Rain Man and Forrest Gump, featuring non-disabled actors as disabled characters, having a learning disabled actor playing a learning disabled character seems like a significant step forward. The directors, who met Gottsagen at an acting camp, were offered money to replace the actor they had shaped their film around. They refused.

There is also authenticity in scenes reflecting the restrictive nature of institutions and in the portrayal of risk-averse, overprotective carers infantalising a grown man. You can read more in my column.

The movie opens just days before Brighton’s Oska Bright, billed as “the world’s biggest learning disability film festival”. The biennial event, founded 15 years ago by learning disabled film-makers and supported by disability arts charity Carousel, has a reputation for showing radical work (it hosted the UK premiere for Sanctuary in 2017). This year, for the first time, the short films being screened will be eligible for a Bafta. Timings meant that The Peanut Butter Falcon didn’t make it into the festival, but its themes align very much with the films being shown next week.

I asked two of the festival’s leading lights – committee member Sarah Watson and programme director Matthew Hellett – their thoughts on how learning disability is portrayed on film. Here’s what they said.

Sarah Watson: “I really loved The Peanut Butter Falcon! It was so cool because even though I don’t like Shia Lebouf, he really showed he can act! I thought it was funny and heart-warming but not too heart-warming. The story was really good. I liked how the actor with Learning Disabilities shone out as a proper actor. I thought it was perfect. The music was good. The film was true quality.I wish it was longer! I would like to see what happens to them at the end, what happens to the horrible wrestler – I wanted more bad things to happen to him.

All of these films are trying to break the barriers, trying to make sure that people with Down’s syndrome and learning disabilities are treated equal – which is quite rebellious and rare.

I hope we at Oska Bright kick some ass, be quite revolutionary, show brilliant work and show that we can be as good as any film festival. We want to show more Down’s syndrome and learning disabled actors to show what we can do! We can do as good as non-learning disabled actors. We are the filmmakers and the people in the films! We actually have people with autism and learning disabilities in our films! We know what the daily challenges are of these roles in the real world!

This is my message to the film industry: loosen up and trust people. Give them support and skills and a chance! If it goes wrong, so what, at least we’re trying! Give us access! Stop sitting on the fence! Some films we’ve seen lately have challenged this, so more films like The Peanut Butter Falcon and Sanctuary please!

Also there should be more female led, more disabled led films. Give us a chance! You know you want to! We’re different and have different ideas that you might never think of! “

Matthew Hellett: “I think it’s really good that films like this are being made. Of course I think there should be more of them. It’s what I hope will happen in the future. It’s exciting that more of these films are being made, I mean it’s more than exciting. It should be happening more often. And we hope it will.

Oska Bright is bigger than ever before this year, with a bigger range of films from all over the world. Hopefully when people walk away from the festival, they’ll talk about the films and have a positive outlook. We want people to recognise the films and what they’re doing. These are big bold stories from learning disabled people.

We’re pleased to have a third of our programme as F-rated this year. We really wanted to make sure we’re giving female learning disabled filmmakers a platform to share their work. These films should be more out there. Women in film are already a minority and it’s an even smaller minority for learning disabled women.

Queer Freedom is back for a second year, which is good and exciting. I want it to get stronger. It was quite difficult to find the films, even though the screening from 2017 was our most popular screening on tour this year.

There shouldn’t be an imbalance, more films need to get made. Clearly these films are popular, so I hope they inspire people commission more work made by or featuring people with learning disabilties.  I really hope that the festival can make this happen. We are very serious about what we do, we’re not going away and we’re committed to making change.

Films like Rain Man or Forrest Gump are completely, completely wrong, they are not learning disabled people in those roles. They don’t represent the stories and the lives of learning disabled people. They shouldn’t be made at all.

Oska Bright offers real representation and a platform for people to show their work. These stories are important. We’re offering support and creative opportunities for learning disabled people to share their work. Without people that look like you on the screen, you don’t know that it’s possible for you to be there yourself. You need to be able to see yourself on the big screen. It’s starting to happen more which is great to see, films like The Peanut Butter Falcon and Sanctuary are so important.”

Read more here and find out more about Osaka Bright and The Peanut Butter Falcon

simon baron-cohen interview

 Simon Baron-Cohen: ‘Brains come in types, and they’re all normal.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

I recently interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen, a world-leading expert on autism, for the Guardian.

His latest research reflects the huge gulf between advancements in awareness and research and real, practical improvements to people’s lives.

Such findings from the Cambridge professor and director of the university’s influential Autism Research Centre add more weight to existing evidence about the significant challenges facing autistic people. Diagnosis can take years; children face cuts to special educational needs provisionjust 16% of autistic people had jobs in 2016 (compared with 80% of non-autistic people); and they are among those locked up in secure hospital-style units instead of living in communities. The Autism Act a decade ago obliged the government to create a strategy to improve support, but legislation has fallen short of promises.

Baron-Cohen hopes his centre’s recent findings will encourage better practical help (a lifelong support worker, for example) “so there’s a pathway from discovery in the lab through to changing people’s lives”.  This is crucial because academics are often cricitised for failing to translate knowledge into practice. A 2013 report by the charity Research Autism questioned why studies to look at effective services or to fully involve autistic people. Baron-Cohen says: “The old style of doing research was, without [us] realising it, arrogant, in that the scientists thought up the questions and then did it. The new way is to involve people from the outset… to co-design the studies and check the relevance and wording.”

I also spoke to Baron-Cohen about criticism of and controversy about some of his theories. Notably, his “extreme male brain’ concept, outlined in his provocative book, The Essential Difference. This describes men’s brains being wired for systemising and women’s for empathising. This led to criticisms of “neurosexism” and gender stereotyping which could risk misdiagnosis or under-diagnosis of autistic women.

His theories have also been challenged by autistic people who argue that they fuel the myth that they cannot empathise. Autistic academic Damian Milton, a lecturer at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, says: “Simon’s a nice guy and knowledgeable in a lot of areas, but the empathising and sympathising theory suggests a lack of cognitive empathy, which many people in the autistic community disagree with.” Milton’s double empathy theory is a critique of Baron-Cohen’s, describing a mutual empathy problem between autistic and non-autistic people.

In response, Baron-Cohen says that with empathy “we need to make sure it’s [moving] two ways”. He stresses that while autistic people may struggle to imagine others’ emotions, they feel emotion if others are upset (the distinction between cognitive and affective empathy).

He says of criticism: “Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time explaining what it is I’m not saying…people just take the headline and think I’m saying autistic people are macho and aggressive.” Baron-Cohen stresses that “equality between the sexes is very important”, adding that his research explores groups of males and females “on average”, adding “this is not about individuals”.

You can read the piece in the Guardian here.

As a disabled Asian woman, I’ve had to fight for my independence

 Gazala Iqbal: ‘The government needs to ask disabled people what they want.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Gazala Iqbal, now 46, was overprotected at home and her sense of dependency was reinforced by patronising attitudes from health and social care professionals. One district nurse told Bradford born and bred Iqbal that she spoke really good English “for an Asian woman”.

Iqbal’s story is echoed in a story I’ve just written. The article is also based on new research by user-led charity Asian People’s Disability Alliance (APDA) into the barriers to independence for disabled Asian women. The report, Humare Avaaz (“our voice” in Urdu), follows 18 months of community research involving 90 women with a physical or learning disability, mental health issues, long-term condition or caring responsibility.

Ignorance of health and social care among families, APDA’s findings suggest, is compounded by professional assumptions. While the authorities are aware of the low or late uptake of services, the report states, they “appear content to presume that this is a choice made by ethnic minority communities”.

There are solutions. Bradford council is embedding a human rights approach into its social work. Over the last two years, the learning disability team has made support more accessible, encouraging engagement with the Asian community.

Read the full story in the Guardian

collaborative cast breaks barriers to dance

Step Change rehearsals at Studio Wayne Macgregor

I’ve written before about the innovative work of Step Change Studios – an inclusiveLatin and ballroom-inspired company for disabled and non-disabled dancers. Now, as these photos show, the company is preparing for its second show, Fairy Tales, at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio.

Step Change Studios’ 20-strong cast is rehearsing for a storytelling-themed show next Thursday.

Since its launch in 2017, Step Change Studios has enabled almost 2,000 disabled people to dance in different venues from schools to hospitals and care homes.   

Founder Rashmi Becker says of the project: “I wanted to provide a platform for talent and challenge established notions of ballroom and who can dance.”

For info and tickets, see the Sadlers Wells website

‘People with learning disabilities must be put at the centre of their care’

Sheila Hollins with her son, Nigel, who is now a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

I just did a Guardian interview with Sheila Hollins. The crossbench peer is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on learning disability and mental health but the says her greatest achievement is founding Beyond Words, a pioneering not-for-profit organisation that produces picture books to help people with communication issues. “Beyond Words is what I feel most passionate about because it’s about transforming people’s lives,” she says.

Its origins lie in Hollins’ use of pictures to interact with her son, Nigel, who has a learning disability. “He would roar with laughter at Laurel and Hardy [silent] films but didn’t put a word together till he was eight.” When Nigel was nervous about an adventure holiday, his parents drew pictures depicting activities like abseiling: “When we put things into pictures, he felt more in control.”

Thirty years on, Beyond Words has distributed or sold 100,000 copies of its 57 titles, which cover everything from relationships to surviving abuse. Each title involves 100 learning disabled people as advisers or authors. There are 60 associated book clubs with 350-400 members.

Nigel Hollins, now 47, is a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. He lives independently in a flat near his family with support from a personal assistant. His mother says: “People see Nigel in the shops, cafe or train station. He has a life in the community.”

Read the full interview in the Guardian

My sister’s ordinary life

I write a lot about failures in care for learning disabled people, but I just wrote something that reflects the complete opposite – it’s about my sister Raana’s very good support, and her hopes and dreams. It’s about what’s possible if and when people get the right help in a way that suits them.

Last night, another Panorama programme reflected the reality of the crisis in social care and the human impact of years of underfunding. Writing about what’s good doesn’t make the horrific stuff any easier to bear, but it does show how little it really takes to enable people to live the life they want.

You can read the post on the Fragile X Society website.

Read the piece here: https://www.fragilex.org.uk/post/my-sister-s-ordinary-life-by-saba-salman

Reports and reviews on repeat

The government’s care watchdog the Care Quality Commission, published an interim report today into the treatment of people wiht learning disabilities and/or autism.

The report calls for a review of how adults, children and young people are locked up, segregated, restrained, far from home (that’s right – a report calling for another report..and today’s publication is just the interim report).

The health secretary’s response is that such cases will be reviewed – so, another report then.

Rather than write another report on this, here are a few headlines from recent pieces I’ve worked on with families and campaigners that tell you all you need to know:

Abuse of learning disabled people won’t stop until we all matter equally

You can’t rehabilitate someone into society when they’re locked away

[eight] years on from Winterbourne, why has nothing changed?

Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?

We must stop learning disabled people being dumped in waste bins of life

Why did Connor Sparrowhawk die in a specialist NHS unit?

And on that last question by the way, the campaign #JusticeforLB fought for the answer.

Tomorrow, the BBC will broadcast an expose by Panorama on abuse of people with learning disabilities and autism in secure hospitals.

There is now such a huge amount of evidence going back decades – from media to official goverment reports – about what’s wrong with how our health and social care services support learning disabled and autistic people. And a ton more on what needs to happen.


On Twitter today, #notcomplicated was a popular hashtag among campaigners, showing what’s possible in terms of supporting people well and upholding their human rights. So if I was about to get involved in the next report, review, investigation, guidance, consultation document, toolkit, standard, benchmark, framework or remit for a ‘working group’ (list goes on..) in this area, I’d start right there.

*This post is based on my short Twitter thread earlier today

My sister has Fragile X syndrome. The barriers to an ordinary life are institutional

What makes an “ordinary life” for the UK’s 1.5 million learning disabled people? Having relationships, choosing where to live or when to go out? Things that most of us take for granted are often denied to people like my sister Raana, who has Fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited cause of learning disability.

With the right support and an enlightened attitude that’s mindful of people’s human rights, people with learning disabilities and autism can enjoy the things most of us take for granted. I wrote an opinion piece about this for the Guardian.

The article also describes the short film Raana made for a recent conference run by charity Stay Up Late, a ground breaking event where everyone who spoke had a learning disability or autism, and most of the 130-strong audience worked in social care.  My sister’s film shows what she can do when she has the right support, sometging that will also be reflected in my forthcoming book, Made Possible.

As Andrew Walker from Stay Up Late’s quality checking team says: “We’re the experts. We’re the people who want to live a life … we’re no different from anyone else. We should be treated the same.”

my ordinary life, A film by Raana salman

        

A five-minute film by Raana Salman

My sister Raana made this film on the theme of community – helped by her brilliant support worker Indra – for sharing at this week’s (Un)Ordinary Conference in London.

The event, held by the campaigning learning disability charity Stay Up Late, was billed as “a learning disabilities conference with a difference” because professionals from the social care sector made up much of the audience and those on the platform had a learning disability and/or autism.

The event explored learning disabled people’s views on community, relationships and employment.

I’ll write about my own thoughts later, but right now I don’t want to put my own filter on what Raana wanted to share – not least because if I did, that filter would spontaneously combust into a zillion radiant pieces of joy.

I am so incredibly proud of my creative, determined sister, a fact that will be obvious to those who’ve supported and been following the progress of the book Raana’s inspired, Made Possible.

What I will add though, for context, is that Raana has fragile x syndrome and in the past she’s found it tricky to do some of the things she does now. And while she’s done public speaking in familiar places with friends and her trusted support staff, it was a huge deal for her to travel up to London for the day and be in a place she’d never been to before with a whole new bunch of people she’d never met.

Raana didn’t fancy making a speech or taking questions, hence the film with captions.

We hope it makes you smile.

‘It’s like the light’s come back on’: connecting people in care homes with their communities

Paul Williams, former champion runner, is now a fledgling public speaker thanks to a new project connecting people who use support services with their local communities (pic: NDTi)

Paul Williams has a learning disability and was once an athlete. Years in institutional care meant he didn’t mention his talent. With the Time to Connect project, which I wrote about in the Guardian today, he dug out his medals, has done a local talk and is now writing his life story.

Williams, his care organisation and volunteer are part of the Time to Connect community inclusion project. This encourages stronger links between people using care services and their neighbourhoods, and ensures they become more active citizens. Time To Connect is a partnership between social inclusion charity NDTi(National Development Team for Inclusion) and Timebanking UK, the national charity that helps people to share time and skills.

So far, Time to Connect has involved 265 people: 92 care staff, 102 older people, 39 learning disabled people, 10 people with mental health support needs and 22 time bank members. An interim reportdescribes positive outcomes for all participants: “The evaluation found numerous examples of increased confidence and motivation among care staff as well as changes to attitudes and behaviour. This is in turn leading to increased opportunities for people to connect with their communities.”

Time to Connect adds value to care work because support staff get a greater glimpse into people’s lives and characters, rather than focusing simply on their physical needs. Clive Brown, Paul’s support worker, says: “It makes the job more rewarding and it improves my relationship with the people I’m working with. It just makes me smile a little more.”

Read the full piece on the Guardian website