Category Archives: Women

The good, the bad and the ah here we go again

You can’t rehabilitate someone when they’re locked away” Campaigner Julie Newcombe and her son Jamie, who I worked with on a story in January. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian.

I’m ending 2019 by looking back at some of the issues I’ve written about this year.

Generally, I’ve covered the good stuff we need more of and the bad stuff we definitely need less of.

Thanks to everyone I’ve worked with (quoted and not) about human rights, disability, learning disability, social care, equality, diversity and campaigning.

So here’s what we need more of and less of in 2020 and beyond, based on what I’ve written about:

1. More human rights and a proper community life for people with autism and/or a learning disability.

2. More of an ‘ordinary life’ for people like my sister, Raana.

3. More professionals putting people – like Nigel Hollins – 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

4. …on a practical level this means more professionals truly understanding that people and their families are usually the real experts in their own care. No lip service thanks.

5. More authentic representation of disability on stage, screen, in front of and behind the camera and in the audience.

The Peanut Butter Falcon’s sentimental approach could be construed as reinforcing stereotypes about ‘vulnerable’ people triumphing over tragedy.’ Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Photograph: Seth Johnson/Signature/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

6. More support and social care funding for autistic people and real, honest involvement of people and families in research.

7. Less social isolation so older and learning-disabled people really know their neighbours.

8. Less (or rather zero) health inequalities for people with learning disabilities, special educational needs and profound and multiple learning disabilities.

 Erica Carlin, a woman with multiple learning difficulties, who doctors had written off. Photograph: Andy Lord

9. Less cultural and social prejudice towards BME and Asian disabled women.

10. Less assumptions that people like my sister aren’t interested in or capable of forming relationships of different kinds.

11. Less official reports that bang on about the same stuff we’ve known for years and that fail to actually make any difference.

12. Finally, ending on a positive note – here’s my awesome sister, Raana offering a glimpse into her idea of community with a short film she made with her support worker (spoiler alert: it’s not that different to anyone else’s).

  • This post is based on a Twitter thread and reflects some of the issues that feature in my book, Made Possible, which is being published on 28 May 2020.

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

A stepping stone to success: new mental health support for women

Being able to do her own washing and having responsibility for her personal possessions symbolised the freedom Michelle Stevens* wanted but was denied in institutional care. Stevens features in my latest Guardian article (screenshot above). Her severe mental health problems meant she was in and out of residential care and mental health wards for a decade. She recalls staff shouting at her and living circumstances that were “very closed up and not nice at all”.

Today, however, Stevens says she is “much happier and freer”. She has a bedroom in a large double-fronted Victorian house – and she loves the garden at her supported living home in West Norwood, south London, which is run by social care provider Certitude. “[It] is cleaner than other places I have been, and has nicer facilities,” says Stevens.

She enjoys socialising – with the 11 other residents and locally – and for the first time in three years, she does her own washing and is trusted with her belongings.

The women-only housing is designed for those with enduring and complex mental health issues who may be stuck in restrictive environments. Certitude provides support while First Priority, a housing association, manages the tenancy agreements. The home opened in September 2016 and residents, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s, benefit from individualised support that is rarely offered in residential or inpatient care.

I’m really grateful to all the women who shared their experiences for the story and talked about the “good road ahead”, as Michelle put it, which now seems to be ahead of them. Read the rest of the article here.

*Not her real name

Sexism, stereotypes – and getting sanitary bins on site

Recent graduates talk about candidly women in construction (photo: Leon Csernohlavek)

Do women get a good deal in construction?

This was the question debated by a group of young women in diverse roles in the construction industry for an article I’ve just done for Construction Manager magazine.

According the Office of National Statistics, women account for just 12.8% of the workforce. Then there is the gender pay gap – the construction and building trades’ supervisors have the highest in the sector, with men paid 45.4% more than women. Little wonder then that the number of women in construction has dropped by 17% in the last 10 years, compared to a 6.5% drop for all workers in the industry.

You can read the full piece to see why it makes economic as well as ethical sense to increase the numbers of women in the industry. Among the topics debated were the fact that more action is needed to break the stereotype that construction is a man’s industry.

The roundtable heard that issues such as a lack of female toilets or sanitary bins are common. As one participant said, if a woman working on site has to leave the project several times a day to find a public lavatory, there is a strong productivity case – as well as a human rights case – for installing facilities.

Thanks to all who took part in what was a fascinating and determined debate – and all power to these strong young women and their efforts to shake up a male-dominated sector.

The hidden victims of domestic violence

Beverley Lewis House is the only refuge in the UK that caters for women who have learning disabilities. Photograph: Beverley Lewis House
Beverley Lewis House is the only refuge in the UK that caters for women who have learning disabilities. Photograph: Beverley Lewis House

Barbara Davis’s abusive boyfriend burned her fingers on the stove when he discovered her packed suitcase under the bed and realised she was trying to leave. He had controlled Davis, 36, who has a mild learning disability, for years. He isolated her from family and friends, verbally abusing her parents until they stopped visiting. He locked her in the privately rented London flat they shared, goading her to kill herself. She recalls: “He told me to strangle myself with a wire … he wanted me to die.”

Davis (who eventually escaped) told her story to researchers from the Tizard Centre as part of a project to explores the experiences women with learning disabilities who suffer domestic violence. The work, which also looks at the attitudes and practices of professionals who support such women, is featured in my Guardian piece.

There are some shocking – although perhaps not surprising (given the low profile of learning disability as an issue) – facts included in the piece. Among them, that the UK has just one specialist domestic violence refuge for women with learning disabilities. What’s more, most police officers (often the first point of contact in a domestic abuse incident) do not believe that a learning disability makes women more vulnerable to domestic violence.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

The Tizard Centre project can be accessed here and information on Beverley Lewis House here.

Groundbreaking digital project to tackle domestic violence

With today the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I was interested to hear of a scheme from the States that aims to help abused women find support online within seconds.

The web is full of information about domestic violence, but searching for local, reliable and relevant services often means trawling through and weeding out old information and advert-laden sites.

The recently launched American resource Domestic Shelters seeks to put that right. “Aggregating an ocean of information into a single place” is how project leaders refer to the scheme.

The newly launched project, a partnership between the American National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and charity Theresa’s Fund, says it is the first and largest fully searchable directory of domestic violence projects in the US, and includes around 3,000 places for women to find help quickly and easily.

Users enter their location, language and service preferences (emergency shelter, for example, or advice), and at a click, can find the nearest, most appropriate support. Recognising the fact that people increasingly use phones and tablets to conduct searches website is optimised for such devices.

I don’t know enough about the American support system to comment on the quality of resources people find via the new website, nor their accessibility, but the project got my interest as it comes at a time when domestic violence refuges in the UK are at crisis point.

One in four women (and one in six men) in the UK will be a victim of domestic violence during their lifetime, according to research. Two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

This is what one domestic violence campaigner and writer, Sarafina Bianco, has said about the project: “If this site had been around while I was searching for help, I probably could have started my healing journey much sooner.”

She adds: “When I was preparing to leave my abuser, I did not know there were non-profits working to support survivors of domestic abuse, so I secretly planned by myself, hoping my logic would surface at a time when I was truly panicking and in a traumatic state. That was five years ago. Even after leaving and finding out there were resources, it took several Google searches to find the local non-profits in my area.

“Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, if it was difficult for me to find them after leaving, how someone still in their abusive relationship could find them without getting caught…Domesticshelters.org streamlines a very important process for any person, at any point in their recovery, to find the nearest service providers who will help them begin thriving in society once more.”

While the project only launched a couple of months ago, you can see how its benefit may go beyond the immediate goal of signposting to the right support; in time, depending on how its search terms and traffic are analysed and the results shared, it might shed some light on the kinds of services the country needs more of.

Why did the Salvation Army fail to act on my claims of sexual abuse?

A woman who complained 16 years ago of being abused by charity personnel in the 1970s now wants an inquiry:

The Salvation Army failed to investigate allegations of historical child abuse, according to a woman who told the charity 16 years ago that four of its members had sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.

In 1998, Lucy Taylor (not her real name) told the Salvation Army that four men at her local branch of the charity in the north of England had abused her. Her story suggests she was groomed from the age of 10, assaulted from 12 years old and the abuse continued for eight years until she left the organisation.

Taylor says her complaints were not handled seriously either at the local branch, known as a “citadel”, which was at the centre of her allegations, or at the national headquarters in London. When she later approached police, an investigation resulted in two of the four men being arrested on suspicion of indecent assault. They were later released without charge. For legal reasons the Guardian cannot name the alleged victim, now in her 50s, or the men.

Taylor says: “I want somebody to take me seriously – listen to my problem and help me sort this out”. She adds of her alleged abusers: “I just want them to realise what they’ve done to me [but] part of me doesn’t, part of me doesn’t want them to know how it’s upset me and ruined my life.” Read the rest of my interview and report on the Guardian website.

Telling the untold stories of austerity


Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites

Do you know what austerity really means?

Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”

But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.

Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.

Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.

O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.

While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.

Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.

People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.

As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”

Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.

In style and inclusive

Natalie Birch, left, and Jazz Nightingale at a Find My Style session (pic: Flamingo Foundation)
Natalie Birch, left, and Jazz Nightingale at a Find My Style session (pic: Flamingo Foundation)

Disability and dress sense aren’t mutually exclusive. Take the first-ever New York fashion week model to work the runway in a wheelchair. It’s an obvious (and frequently made) point but, as wheelchair-using model Danielle Sheypuk said during her first New York Fashion week, people with disabilities are consumers of fashion.

There’s already plenty of good debate out there about the fashion industry’s attitudes to disability (see also the BBC’s Britain’s Missing Top Model) but alongside the more high profile attempts at awareness, it’s important to see some smaller, community-based projects aiming for change from the ground up.

A charity-led project recently launched in Hertfordshire, hoping to change preconceptions about fashion and disability and encourage young adults with physical and/or learning disabilities to be more confident with their style.

The Flamingo Foundation charity has launched Find My Style with Hannah Jean, a fashion stylist and image consultant.

Stevenage teenager Jazz Nightingale took part in the first fashion styling session recently. Jazz, who tried a session at Oaklands College in St Albans. The 19-year-old says “I was interested in the session because I like to follow fashion just like other young people. It helps me express myself and my favourites are patterns, sparkly clothes and scarves….The session with Hannah helped me think about what sort of styles are on trend at the moment and what would suit me. Learning how you could alter your clothes to suit your own needs was great too. It really helped boost my self-confidence.”

Natalie Birch, also 19, has a learning disability and while she admits she is “happiest in hoodies, t-shirts, trainers and joggers”, she says the styling session gave her fresh ideas about style. She ends, “The fashion industry could do more to support disabled people by using more disabled models in magazines.”

The project was funded by London bar Embargo 59 with proceeds from a fundraising cocktail evening during London Fashion Week in February.

* Read more about the sessions here or contact info@flamingofoundation.org to run a session for a group of young adults

Breaking taboos about birth

Helen Knowles, "Birth with Orgasm" (image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery)
Helen Knowles, “Birth with Orgasm” (image courtesy of the artist and GV Art gallery)

Hyper-real images that question cultural attitudes towards women and childbirth form part of a new exhibition opening today.

The show at the GV Art gallery by Helen Knowles, Private View: Public Birth, features both figurative and abstract images of women “in the transcendental state of birth”; Knowles founded the Birth Rites Collection in 2008, the first collection of contemporary art dedicated to the subject.

Knowles has used screen grabs from YouTube videos to show women at the crowning stage of birth, when the baby’s head beings to emerge. By using footage from social media platforms – films usually reserved for private viewing – Knowles hopes to question the discomfort some audiences have with certain images.

The Birthing of Azheyo Aeoro (Image courtesy of artist and GV Art)
The Birthing of Azheyo Aeoro (Image courtesy of artist and GV Art)

The concept is a refreshing and thought-provoking one. Most public perceptions of new mothers involve images of immaculately groomed famous women whose bodies magically snap back into place and while “beautiful” is a word often used to describe babies, it’s rarely associated with birth itself (and certainly not linked to images of the birth process).

Yet the pieces of work on display in today’s exhibition are intriguing and often ethereal, reflecting notions of female strength.

Knowles has also recently been researching Native American and British contemporary perspectives on public birth. The Birth Rites Collection itself is on permanent public display in the midwifery department, University of Salford and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

* Private View: Public Birth, a curatorial collaboration between Poppy Bowers and Helen Knowles, runs from 16-22 September at the
 GV Art gallery, Marylebone, London.