Society is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic. Headlines regularly warn about the scale of this modern scourge, from describing how social isolation increases our risk of death, to lamenting Britain’s status as one of the most age-segregated countries in the world.
What command less column inches are the small-scale solutions. There is little consideration of how hyper-local schemes – when funded, publicised and replicated nationally – could tackle loneliness and shift perceptions about the most isolated people in the country.
Not only are the singers at opposing ends of the age spectrum (the youngest is five, the oldest is 90), they are from two of society’s most excluded groups: the adults have dementia or a disability or depression; the pupils have severe learning difficulties, complex needs or autism.
Uniting two such disparate groups for an hour a week at the care home has had astonishing results.
It’s a small, simple yet strong solution to the society’s most pressing issue – division. You can read the whole piece here.
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.”
Isn’t it about time that learning disabled people enjoyed the same access to cultural lives and work as everyone else?
This is one question that Venture Arts (VA) and our speakers will be asking the heritage and cultural sectors at our symposium, Making the Case, at the Grand Hall, Whitworth Art gallery on the 25th May. VA is an organisation that specialises in visual arts in the North West.
“People with autism can do things like other people that don’t have autism in society. Society should be more accepting of people and not assume people can’t do things.” This is what Amber Opka Stother says – Amber (pictured above) chairs the VA steering group, has worked at Manchester Museum and arts centre HOME Manchester and is an ambassador for learning disabled people in the heritage and culture sector.
Our symposium will showcase the experiences of learning disabled people who have formed VA’s Cultural Enrichment Programme, funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The programme has seen over 20 people undertake 16 week work placements in some of Manchester’s best known cultural and heritage venues.
On the day we will also be seeing and hearing about other projects from across the country and highlighting areas of best practice.
“Unfortunately, our experience shows that people often don’t feel that big cultural institutions are for them or know how best to welcome people into their buildings. In my view we need to see more learning disabled people working within culture to be able to start to overcome this and make real change happen”, says Amanda Sutton, VA director.
This kind of inclusion makes sense, adds Amanda: “You are going to feel much more comfortable about going into a building, that can otherwise feel quite austere and foreboding, if you can relate to and identify with the people welcoming you and working within the venue.”
In 2015, researchers Lemos and Crane looked at learning disabled people’s access to museums and galleries (pdf). It stated: “Despite longstanding commitments to access, participation, learning, equality and diversity, museums, galleries and arts venues are not currently required by funders or policy makers specifically to promote access for people with intellectual disabilities as they are in relation to other groups…Mainstream arts organisations did not seem always to have a clear framework of good practice for improving access for people with a learning disability. This was perhaps the consequence of widespread uncertainty and anxiety among those with little personal or professional experience of people with learning disabilities.”
So Venture Arts aims to rectify this through working with cultural institutions to introduce learning disabled people to every aspect of their working operations. We reckon that if we can get people in “through the back door”, they will gradually change attitudes and integrate into institutions. Through our work so far, this has indeed happened. People have been back stage, in the conservation rooms, behind the scenes, delivering tours, in museum shops, in the staff room and are now well known by all the staff and visitors alike.
Here’s what Amber thinks about her experiences with VA so far:
At Manchester Museum, I volunteered and worked in the shop and in the postroom and in the vivarium as well. I ended up doing a tour for my friends and family which they really, really enjoyed, it boosted my confidence about speaking to people. It was really nice meeting lots of new people I did things that most people don’t . It’s nice to see the different parts of the museum.
People were, very welcoming and I think I am helping them to learn more about working with people with autism too, maybe like how people communicate or something.
Now I’ve started a new placement at HOME, an arts centre, which I’m really enjoying. We get to go behind the scenes and see how the cinema works which is really interesting and we have worked at the front of house and we get to see some free shows as well and that’s really, really good.
I think it’s important to have people with autism working in these places to see what great skills people have and how it makes a difference to volunteering. They will be more interested in employing people with autism, it will make a big difference.
On a personal level, it has helped me to be more confident and it’s helped me to become more confident in doing other jobs and things. I also work in a school and this experience has influenced how I am with the children, I feel more confident because I had to speak to people and that has lifted my confidence.
Last year I also delivered a workshop about making galleries accessible at a conference called Creative Minds and I loved every minute of it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t worked at the Manchester Museum beforehand. There were a lot of people there too so I was really happy with myself.
I’m really looking forward to the symposium at the Whitworth as well and to interviewing people from museums and galleries. I’m going to interview them about the job and what we do. It will be really important to come to the symposium because you will get to hear about the great work that museums do with people with disabilities.
Even though I’ve got autism I try and do things that people without autism think that people can’t do like drive, I’ve passed my driving test that was a big achievement for me because I’ve always loved cars. People with autism can do things like other people that don’t have autism in society. We need to celebrate difference and make sure that people recognise what great things people with disabilities can do. I get upset sometimes if people don’t understand me, like my driving instructor who didn’t think I could pass my test. It’s important to listen so people can know what message people are trying to get across.
My advice for other museums? People have really great skills and they should give people the chance. People with disabilities can be really good at doing lots of great things and have skills that other people without a disability might not have, which can be valuable in a workplace. For example, people can be more understanding of other people.
It would make me happy to see people with disabilities working in museums because it’s good to see people with great skills doing a good job. If people give them a chance it would be a great place to start when people don’t feel comfortable about going into a museum.
Barriers for learning disabled people in going into a museum can be the staff of a museum because they might be a bit rude towards them or can’t understand if someone has no speech or something. It might not have a ramp or the lift might not be working or someone might be deaf as well so that could be a barrier. Museums should be more accessible to people with disabilities and people should make sure they don’t put jargon and put language that people understand on their walls.
I’m looking forward to the 25th to hear about what people are going to say. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone and to what people have to say about their experiences at the museums and it should be a great day.
After seeing the dance company’s showcase at Sadlers Wells last night, I’d add that everyone should see its artists perform.
The one off event, called Fusion, was the UK’s first inclusive Latin and ballroom-inspired showcase, partly inspired by Rashmi’s experience of growing up with an autistic sibling.
Rashmi says: “Dance and music played an important role in our interaction, communication and creativity. As an adult, my passion for dance, particularly ballroom dance, continued, but I found limited inclusive opportunities. Step Change Studios is my response.”
Supported by Sadler’s Wells, Arts Council England and the Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund, yesterday’s programme included a free wheelchair ballroom masterclass with world champion Pawel Karpinski. The post show discussion focused on the need for more genre-busting inclusive events like Fusion. As well as “showing what’s possible”, as one audience member said, it challenges people’s perceptions of disability.
But this wasn’t some worthy event with the creative bar suddenly lowered because its A Good Thing To Do. This was in turn innovative, expressive, playful, sassy, beautiful and infectious and a reminder of what can be achieved with ambition, forward-thinking arts programming and commissioning and reasonable adjustments (to method – not to quality).
Launched in 2017, Step Change Studios enables disabled and non-disabled people to dance and in the last 12 months has held events for more than 900 disabled people including sessions in schools and arts venues.