A million learning disabled people are eligible to vote in the election on December 12, including my youngest sister, Raana.
But despite better awareness in recent years about accessible polling stations, easy read information and the universal right to vote, the Electoral Commission estimates that one in four learning disabled people aren’t registered to vote.
I’ve been gathering some information for my sister which I thought I’d share on this page (and I’ll update it where relevant):
Granted, this is a crude litmus test because other policy areas (like health, social care, education and human rights) clearly impact on the lives of autistic and learning disabled people. Still, I can’t help but hear the words of campaigner Gary Bourlet, from a few years ago, ringing in my ears: “Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?”
This post was updated on Tuesday 3 December to include Labour’s disability manifesto and a new link to request the Conservatives’ accessible manifestos
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.”
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.”
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
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”.
It’s not all about Boris Johnson – the UK’s first doctor specialising in profound and multiple learning disabilities will start work in a groundbreaking pilot later this year, as I report in today’s Guardian.
I spoke to Erica’s family, who told me her life was saved after a chance intervention from a specialist “intellectual disability” doctor who had trained abroad.
Erica’s experience has led to a pioneering project in her hometown of Hull in which a new specialist will be recruited by the local clinical commissioning group later this year. And campaigners say Erica’s story proves the need for a national network of similar specialists to help reduce the health inequalities experienced by learning disabled people.
An expert group, convened by former health minister and Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, is researching this idea right now.
The group’s work is timely because of a growing focus on the entrenched health inequalities faced by learning disabled people. Autism and learning disability are priorities in the NHS long-term plan, and a recent NHS-commissioned review of mortality rates shows learning disabled people die earlier and are more likely to die in hospital than the general population. Recent inquests into the deaths of people including Richard Handley, Joe Ulleri and Oliver McGowan reflect the inequality.
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.”
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.
Rewind to 2011, and Winterbourne View seemed like a watershed moment. The promise that lessons would be learned was reflected in the government’s official report [pdf], and in its commitment to transfer the 3,500 people in similar institutions across England to community-based care by June 2014. Yet the deadline was missed, and the programme described by the then care minister Norman Lamb, as an “abject failure”.
Yet despite welcome intentions, government figures [pdf] for the end of April 2018 reveal that 2,370 learning disabled or autistic people are still in such hospitals. While 130 people were discharged in April, 105 people were admitted.
This month, an NHS investigation reflected how poor care contributes to the deaths of learning disabled people. It found that 28% die before they reach 50, compared to 5% of the general population.
Unusually, this “world first” report commissioned by NHS England and carried out by Bristol University came without a launch, advance briefing or official comment. It was released on local election results day ahead of a bank holiday. Just before shadow social care minister Barbara Keeley asked in the Commons for a government statement about the report, health secretary Jeremy Hunt left the chamber.
The most recent report was partly a response to the preventable death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk at a Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust ATU. The Justice for LB (“Laughing Boy” was a nickname) campaign fought relentlessly for accountability, sparking an inquiry into how Southern Health failed to properly investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 patients with learning disabilities or mental health problems. The trust was eventually fined a record £2m following the deaths of Sparrowhawk and another patient, Teresa Colvin.
Recently, other families whose learning disabled relatives have died in state-funded care have launched campaigns, the families of Richard Handley, Danny Tozer and Oliver McGowan to name just three. Andy McCulloch, whose autistic daughter Colette McCulloch died in an NHS-funded private care home in 2016, has said of the Justice for Col campaign: “This is not just for Colette… we’ve come across so many other cases, so many people who’ve lost children, lost relatives”. Typically, the McCullochs are simultaneously fighting and grieving, and forced to crowdfund for legal representation (families do not get legal aid for inquests).
To understand the rinse and repeat cycle means looking further back than 2011’s Winterbourne View. Next year will be 50 years since the 1969 Ely Hospital scandal. In 1981, the documentary Silent Minority exposed the inhumane treatment of people at long-stay hospitals, prompting the then government to, “move many of the residents into group homes”. Sound familiar? These are just two historic examples.
If there is a tipping point, it is thanks to learning disabled campaigners, families, and a handful of supportive human rights lawyers, MPs and social care providers. Grassroots campaigns such as I Am Challenging Behaviour and Rightful Lives are among those shining a light on injustice. Care provider-led campaigns include Certitude’s Treat Me Right, Dimensions’ My GP and Me, Mencap’s Treat Me Well.
Pause for a moment to acknowledge our modern world’s ageing population and rising life expectancy. Now consider the parallel universe of learning disabled people. Here, people get poorer care. Consequently, some die earlier than they should. And their preventable deaths aren’t properly investigated.
You can read the full article here.
Barriers for physically disabled people range from blocked wheelchair ramps to buildings without lifts. The cluttered metropolitan environment, meanwhile, can be a sensory minefield for learning disabled or autistic people.
My Guardian report today looks at some of the most innovative city-based developments in the UK, Europe, Asia, America and Australia. These include skyscrapers built using universal design principles to the retrofitting of rails, ramps and lifts in transport services or digital trailblazers that help disabled people navigate their city.
For example, mapping apps make navigating cities a doddle for most people – but their lack of detail on ramps and dropped kerbs mean they don’t always work well for people with a physical disability. The University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology has a solution: map-based app AccessMap, allowing pedestrians with limited mobility to plan accessible routes.
Wheelchair user John Morris, who runs advice site Wheelchair Travel, says: “Seattle’s geography, with changes in elevation, sidewalk and street grade on a block-by-block basis, often make it difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. AccessMap combines grade measurements with information on construction-related street closures and the condition of sidewalks to plot the most accessible course, pursuant to the user’s needs. I would like to see AccessMap included as part of a holistic accessible route planner that includes the city’s public transportation services in building the most effective journey. Pairing AccessMap with the city’s route planner tool or with transit directions from Google Maps would make getting around Seattle easier for people with disabilities.”
Steve Lewis, a 69-year-old manual wheelchair-user who has helped co-design the Seattle technology, adds: “I spend a lot of time in downtown Seattle and am well aware of what a barrier the hills are to wheelchair travel. I have learned from experience how to navigate the downtown corridor. The best routes for someone in a wheelchair will take advantage of elevators in buildings entering on one street and exiting several stories higher on the adjacent street. AccessMap is an effort to automate and make accessible the knowledge I have acquired through experience. It currently shows graphically the steepness of the terrain. The Taskar Centre is involved in a major effort to automatically display the best routes for wheelchair users with knowledge of elevators and mass transit including the hours they are available.”
Through its related OpenSidewalks project, the Taskar Centre is developing a system to crowdsource extra information like pavement width, or the location of handrails. Nick Bolten, AccessMap and OpenSidewalks project technical lead, says: “AccessMap tackles a neglected problem: how can you get around our pedestrian spaces, especially if you’re in a wheelchair? AccessMap lets users answer this question for themselves, and OpenSidewalks will help add the information they need.”
In another US-based project, this time in Sonoma, California, a $6.8m supported-housing project, Sweetwater Spectrum, is a pioneering example of autism-friendly design. Autistic people can be hypersensitive to sound, light and movement, and become overwhelmed by noisy, cluttered or crowded spaces. However, the scheme is designed according to autism-specific principles recommended by Arizona State University. The complex, which opened in 2013, includes four 4-bed homes for 16 young adults, a community centre, therapy pools and an urban farm – all designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.
Noise is minimum thanks to quiet heating and ventilation systems and thoughtful design – like locating the laundry room away from the bedrooms. Fittings and décor reduce sensory stimulation and clutter, with muted colours, neutral tones and recessed or natural light used rather than bright lighting. Marsha Maytum, a founding principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy, says the design “integrates autism-specific design, universal design and sustainable design strategies to create an environment of calm and clarity that connects to nature and welcomes people of all abilities”.
And there’s another great project from Leddy Maytum Stacy in nearby Berkeley, the Ed Roberts Campus, “a national and international model dedicated to disability rights and universal access”. The fully accessible building, named after the pioneering disability rights activist Ed Roberts, is home to seven disability charities, a conference, exhibition and fitness spaces, plus a creche and cafe. Features include a central ramp winding up to the second floor, wide corridors and hands–free sensors and timers to control lighting.
No city is wholly accessible and inclusive, but there are groundbreaking examples leading the way – and we just need more of them.
The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.
He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”
An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”
What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.
He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”
He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”
In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.
“Please be friendly and non judgemental. Don’t be shocked if I’m noisy and unpredictable. Smile, and please be nice to my mum, going out can be stressful for us all!”
“This is the way I am and sometimes I find it difficult not to talk to myself in the library so please be patient with me. Don’t keep staring at me. Please be kind to me.”
“Sometimes I can be noisy but I don’t like noise. Please don’t shush me or ask me to leave. These things hurt my feelings and can make me noisier. Be patient. Maybe even provide a small sensory room with soundproofing so I can calm down safely without causing problems with noise in your quiet library.”
As I explain in a piece for the Guardian, a survey of 460 people with autism and their families by social care provider Dimensions suggests that 90% of people with autism would use their library more if adjustments were made.
Responding to concerns, Dimensions and the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL) are collaborating to develop a network of autism-friendly libraries. The aim of the initiative – which is launching at the annual seminar of the Society of Chief Librarians – is to turn England’s 3,000 or so public libraries into more welcoming venues for people who have autism.
The drive, backed by £7,000 from the Arts Council, includes free resources for staff such as training videos, fact sheets, posters and social stories (short, informative descriptions of situations, so people know what to expect when they visit). The work in libraries builds on the model already developed by Dimensions with cinemas,
Being judged, being stared at or told to be quiet are among the main reasons people with autism and their families avoid going to their local library. “Libraries are quiet places so my son could make a noise and I would know others weren’t judging me as a parent,” as one parent told researchers developing the campaign.
In the current funding climate, with cutbacks to services and a downturn in borrowing, it makes financial sense to cater to more people, as well as creating a wider social benefit and encouraging inclusion and equality.
Libraries should be open to all sections of our communities, or as one person with autism explained about the experience of visiting the library: “Don’t tell me to shh! Or look at me like I am a criminal”.
* For more information about autism-friendly libraries follow #autismlibraries on Twitter or check the ASCEL or Dimensions websites