People with learning disabilities are pitied or patronised, but rarely heard from in their own words.
Made Possible is an attempt to challenge this and change attitudes – it’s the crowdfunded book I’m editing, featuring essays on success by high achieving people with learning disabilities.
It was very cool to see Made Possible sweep into 2018 with a feature in the January issue of disability lifestyle magazine Enable. In the print edition, Enable used this shot of my baseball-cap loving sister (who has partly inspired the book) looking thoughtful and determined:
The article describes the book’s aim of putting learning disabled people’s personalities and potential before their disability. The editorial also reflects Made Possible’s diverse range of essay contributors, and explains its goal of challenging stereotypes: “Many traditional texts focusing on disability, be it physical, sensory or learning, are factual in a medical or academic context. Made Possible is set to change this narrative by appealing to a wider audience in a bid to open the world of creativity, talent, varied skills and experiences to the general public.”
The book’s contributors have also been busy developing and working on the essays, and we’ve been unpicking the concept of success in the process. As the Enable article says of Made Possible’s theme, “success is different for everyone”, and although we’re at the inital stages, it’s already fascinating (and often surprising) to discover the essayists’ views on achievement – and who defines this.
At a time when disabled people bear the brunt of society’s inequalities, from healthcare to housing and employment, redressing the imbalance and describing how people can fulfil their ambitions is more vital than ever (you can read more about the timely aspects of this book in this recent Guardian piece by scrolling down to “Why do we need this book?”).
It’s also been superb to see new supporters pre-ordering copies of the book – thank you! If you’ve recently joined us, do connect if you’d like to on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #MadePossible.
Also much gratitude to those of you already in touch and mentioning the book on social media, it’s a tip top way to keep #MadePossible on the radar. Do continue to share the Made Possible page with others you think might be interested in what we’re trying to do.
Scrounger or superhero – and little in between. This is how people like my sister, who happens to have a learning disability, are generally seen in society and the media.
The missing part of the equation is what led me to develop the book Made Possible, a crowdfunded collection of essays on success by high-achieving people with learning disabilities. I’m currently working on the anthology with the publisher Unbound and it’s available for pre-order here.
I wanted to support the event because of its aim to bring together a diverse range of people, including campaigners, families, self-advocates and professionals (check out #LeavingNoOneBehind #WHIS to get a feel for the debate).
This post is based on the discussions at the event, and on my views as the sibling of someone with a learning disability and as a social affairs journalist. I’ve focused on print and online media influences perceptions; broadcast media clearly has a major role – but it’s not where my experience over the past 20 years lies.
Firstly, here’s Raana:
Raana’s 28. She loves Chinese food. She adores listening to music (current favourite activity: exploring Queen’s back catalogue – loud). She’s a talented baker and has just started a woodwork course. She has a wicked, dry sense of humour (proof here).
She also also has the moderate learning disability fragile x syndrome. She lives in supported housing and will need lifelong care and support.
The way I describe Raana – with her character, abilities first, diagnosis, label and support needs second, is how I see her. It’s how her family, friends and support staff see her.
But it’s not how she would be portrayed in the mainstream press.
Instead, this comment from the writer and activist Paul Hunt, reflects how she and other learning disabled people are seen:
“We are tired of being statistics, cases, wonderfully courageous examples to the world, pitiable objects to stimulate funding”. Paul Hunt wrote these words in 1966 – his comment is 51 years old, but it’s still relevant (charity fundraising has changed since then, but the rest of the words are spot on – sadly).
Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts.
These reinforce stereotypes of learning disabled as individuals to be pitied or patronised. The middle ground is absent; the gap between Raana’s reality and how she’s represented is huge.
How often, for example, do you read an article about learning disability in the mainstream media which includes a direct quote from someone with a learning disability?
Stories are about people, not with people.
Caveat: as a former national newspaper reporter, I know only too well that the fast-pace of the newsroom and the pressure of deadlines mean it’s not always possible to get all the interviews you’d like. This is harder for general news reporters reacting to breaking stories than it is for specialists or feature writers who have just the right contacts and/or the time to reflect every angle of the story. But there’s still more than can be done – and much of it is very simple.
Take the language used in news and features.
There’s a huge amount of research shows how media influences public attitudes. One focus group project by Glasgow University a few years ago showed people thought up to 70% of disability benefit claims were fraudulent. People said they came to this conclusion based on articles about ‘scroungers’.
The real figure of fraudulent benefit claims? Just 1 per cent.
The language used in mainstream media is often problematic. I wince when I read about people “suffering from autism” – “coping with a learning disability” – or being “vulnerable”.
Images used in stories often don’t help.
As a quick – but very unscientific – litmus test – I typed the words “learning disability” into Google’s image search.
This is a flavor of what I found – the most common pictures that came up were the dreadful “headclutcher” stock image that often accompanies articles about learning disability.
These images say, defeat, frustration, confusion, negativity.
This is not how I see my sister, her friends or the learning disabled campaigners I know.
This is more how I see them:
This shot is from a story I did a few days ago about Martin, Martin’s 22 and works part-time as a DJ at a local radio station (you can read about him here). Martin also happens to have a moderate learning disability and cerebral palsy.
We need more of this.
An obvious – but nonetheless important – point to make here is about the disability and employment gap. A more diverse workforce in the creative sector will impact on representation. Only 6% of people with learning disabilities work, for example, but around 65% want to (I wrote about this issue in the Guardian recently)
But there is cause for optimism. There is a slow but significant shift in the representation of learning disabled people thanks to the rise in grassroots activism, family campaigning, self-advocacy and the growing empowerment agenda.
Social media is helping spread awareness and spread a different narrative.
This rise in self-advocacy is what led me to develop Made Possible. The book’s aim is to challenge stereotypes; it targets a mainstream readership and introduces readers to learning disabled people in areas like arts, politics and campaigning. Their achievements are impressive regardless of their disability.
While I’m researching the book, I’m trying to keep three words in mind – attitude, ability, aspiration:
Am I sharing experiences that help shift public attitudes?
Am I reporting people’s abilities, not just their disabilities?
Am I reflecting people’s potential – what do they aspire to achieve, and how can this happen?
And although I’m focusing on positive representation of learning disability, it’s worth stressing that there’s an equally vital need to highlight the challenges.
The two go hand – a more authentic portrayal of people’s lives (their qualities, hopes and aspirations) and reporting the inequalities they face.
Because readers are more likely to care about the inequality and support the need to solve it if they feel closer to the real people experiencing that inequality – if they stop seeing learning disabled people as “the other”, or as statistics (as Paul Hunt wrote over 50 years ago..) and as people first.
It’s often said that media should reflect, serve and strengthen society. Which means we have to be more accurate and authentic about how we include and portray a huge section of that society – including my sister – which happens to have a disability.
Martin, who has a mild learning disability and cerebral palsy, recently interviewed two engineers from the PWL production company and the experience boosted his confidence. “That was my first interview. I was nervous but I nailed it,” he says. “We recorded it first and then we edited it. I enjoyed coming up with questions.”
He also won the station’s producer of the year award for 2016-17. What would he do if was not at the station? “I wouldn’t know everyone here – they are like my family. I would be at home doing nothing or going out and spending money, but I want to save and become more independent.”
Online station Direction Radio is part of social care provider Surrey Choices’ day service programme. It helps people with physical or learning disabilities to develop skills in broadcast and production.
Some 19 DJs produce and present the shows reflecting all musical genres – from rock to pop, R&B and classical. Station manager Chris Fenn (who does not have a disability) explains that DJs have “a blank canvas” to create their slots, which last between one and three hours, and decide on everything from the jingle to the playlist. “I say to all the guys, ‘You do what you want to do with it’,” says Fenn. “It’s all their choice and that’s why it’s so diverse.”
You can read my report on Martin and his fellow DJs on the Guardian website (all photos from Surrey Choices).
As a qualified nurse I have seen at first hand the impact of bullying on a person’s self esteem and self worth. I have seen people self harm – colleagues and staff – and lost friends through suicide. I never become desensitised to this and hope I never will.
Although as a nurse I have to be dispassionate it is never easy to not ask myself could more have been done? Should more have been done? The nurse has feelings too. My lifetime’s work as a mental nurse has not only been confined to the hospital.
It is with this in mind that I have tried to creatively tackle stigma and discrimination away from the usual clinical set up. To normalise mental health is to eradicate the myths and bring it out from the inner walls of the percieved ‘asylum’ It is all about encouraging people to view mental health as being no different to physical health, both sides of the same coin so to speak. More importantly neither working as effectively without the other, each influencing the other.
This work was well received by the viewers, yet there were still people who criticised me online, so called ‘keyboard warriors’ who challenged my views and questioned my knowledge and nursing experience. I had to quickly develop a thicker skin and told myself that even if people are critical, even if they are dismissive of what I do, at least it is encouraging discussion of mental health. it is bringing the subject into the open which is required to break down the myths and misconceptions. Often the criticism echoes people’s own inner fears about opening up. It is a struggle for them to acknowledge their own mental health immunity, especially in my own profession, particularly amongst men.
In spreading the anti-stigma message I have found myself in a range of diverse places. From the Houses of Parliament, universities and colleges across the country to the social clubs of the industrial north east where I live. The places may be different but the message remains the same. I have worked with scholars and gangsters, actors and musicians, writers and poets. Mental illness does not discriminate and any one of us could be the next victim. It does not respect sexual gender, social class, religion, ethnicity or culture. This is why my work has to reach out to all areas of society if it is to make a difference.
I am now liasing with the former MMA fighter Alex Reid to explore writing a book to reach out to men. Alex has also been on the receiving end of bullying through the media and we both share a passion to positively promote healthy mental and physical health. Maybe combining our life experiences will touch a chord with men? We are poles apart and yet we are so alike. We have both experienced bullying and both share a desire and determination to help others.
Alex’s world of MMA fighting attracts the kind of man I am trying to reach out to with my message. Men who dismiss mental illness or stress as being anathema to them and only affecting women. Physical strength and a ‘macho’ attitude to life is no defence against mental illness. I see a strength in men sharing their emotions and opening up about their feelings.
My own world of mental health nursing includes many men who are in denial of their own feelings and whose ‘big boys don’t cry’ outlook on life serves to perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health even more.
Just 11 days since launch and Made Possible is already more than 40% crowdfunded – that’s down to 100 brilliantly supportive people so far helping to create this groundbreaking book by pledging and pre-ordering it.
I’m working with award-winning publisher Unbound on Made Possible, a collection of essays by successful people with learning disabilities. It’s incredible that it’s almost half way to being published and has hit the 100 supporter landmark, something that is entirely down to a group of diverse individuals united by a common cause.
People with learning disabilities are pitied or patronsised, but this new book challenges the current narratives. It presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability and, for the first time, they tell their own personal success stories in their own words.
You can read more about the book here and check the latest updates here.
Follow me on Twitter @Saba_Salman and #MadePossible to keep up to date with progress.
You can also check out the #UnboundAnthology thread this week (and if you’ve already made a pledge to help create this unique book, then thank you!)
The public is being asked to suggest permanent homes for a trio of murals created to highlight disability issues.
A group of disabled artists, the Vision collective, created the collaborative art boards which have been displayed for a limited time on the Shoreditch Art Wall, east London, to mark the recent World Para Athletics Championships. The collective’s mission is “to inspire artists with disabilities to have an integral voice in their community through their artwork”.
A fourth mural, created with children supported by the Action for Children charity, is earmarked for use by the charity.
The murals are up until this Sunday, and the artists are inviting ideas for their relocation. The Vision group’s facilitator, Sarah Hughes, says: “We feel they are suitable for play areas, shared community space, special schools, hospitals, the Olympic Park- there are lots of possibilities.”
The Vision artists include Michelle Baharier, Dawn Barber, Dwain Bryan, Julie Cordell, David Elton, Lynda Evans, Lorraine Peacock and Sandra Pink.
For more information see the website or to suggest a location, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Conservatives’ manifesto pledges on social care have been both controversial and muddled, but at least the issue of support (and how we pay for it) is finally a subject for mainstream national debate. Campaigners have long argued that plans to fix the broken social care system must be high on the political agenda, but many of the people who rely on it most are rarely wooed by politicians – as the above quote from Gary Bourlet makes clear.
Guides to voting:
Easy read guide to voting in the general election published by the Electoral Commission and Mencap – pdf: “People with a learning disability have as much right to vote as anyone else. Don’t let anyone else tell you different.” (See also this pdf from the Electoral Commission on disabled people’s voting rights).
Easy read summary of social care issues that all parties should consider, from VODG: “Our General Election statement sets out the issues VODG wants all political parties to consider during the General Election 2017 campaign.”
Event at 10.30am Sat 3 June University of East Anglia: “Learning Disability nursing students at the School of Health Sciences have organised an information day for people with learning disabilities so that they can find out more about voting in the upcoming general election…The political parties will be represented at this drop-in session and will provide accessible information and discuss their policies with people with learning disabilities.” Also see the related Facebook group.
On social media:
You can also follow the hashtags #LoveYourVote #EveryVoteCounts #LDvote #EasyReadElection #LDVote2017 on Twitter.
* This post was updated on Mon 22 May with information on the University of East Anglia event, Green Party manifesto and Conservative Party manifesto, on Fri 26 May with RNIB info and Scope’s voting guide and on Fri 2 June with the United Response resource.
While many of the creatives have had solo exhibitions since joining the project, this is the first time they are showing work that outlines how their experiences, including recovery, have influenced their art. The show asks visitors to consider the question “how far can one life-changing incident be seen in the artistic work you create?”.
In a related event this Saturday, the collective, which began 10 years ago, is involved in an free art workshop at London’s Southbank Centre. The event involves the artists encouraging the public to participate in on the theme of “what love means to you” with contributions acting as the basis for a collaborative piece at the Submit to Love studio. The workshop takes place in the Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 11am – 2pm and is recommended for ages six upwards.
According to Headway, survivors of brain injury are often excluded from society, have lost skills, occupations and cannot communicate as they used to; art is an outlet for communication and self-expression. The charity is keen to reposition art from a simple rehabilitation activity to “both a vocation and passion project”.
* The exhibition, sponsored by Hyphen Law, is open 9am-6pm (Mon-Sat) and 09.30am–2pm (Sun) until Tuesday 23 February 2017 and entry is free. Venue: Stratford Circus Arts Centre, Theatre Square, London E15
Responding to a lack of relaxing, interactive spaces for disabled people, Londoner Kay Alston has decided to launch her own campaign for the capital’s first ever sensory bus.
The 32-year-old, who has moderate learning disabilities, is backed in her social enterprise project to create a mobile sensory room by Outward, the care and support charity that runs her supported living in Camden, north London.
Kay needs to raise £28,245 towards creating the project. A sensory room is a relaxing environment designed to focus on specific senses through special objects, and sound and visual effects. It enables people to interact with, and control the environment around them and is particularly beneficial for people with sensory impairments, complex needs and those with autism.
The idea is that people would pay a minimal fee to use the bus, with the money being reinvested into the social enterprise. The accessible vehicle would include elements like interactive carpets, star ceiling and LED Projectors.
Here, Kay explains why her project is so vital:
“Someone once said that sensory rooms have effects of taking medication without taking the medication. The room would be a stimulating place for people, and it could help to reduce anxiety and stress, and help to improve their concentration. People with disabilities should come to sensory rooms because it’s fun and fascinating.
“The sensory room on a bus will be an interactive and a calming environment. It will have an interactive floor, platform swing, bubble tubes and light projectors with music playing in the background too. The bus will be accessible to wheelchair users. It’s purpose would be to calm and stimulate people, by giving them an interactive and visually stimulating environment.
My idea was inspired by the Autism Show. I went to in 2014 where I got a sensory tactile book, and I have been to other sensory rooms and they’re lots of fun. I have been to day centres and nursing homes where people with high needs simply get parked on the side and have nothing to do. Outward was running a Dragon’s Den competition and staff who already knew of my idea encouraged me to enter. Outward invested in my idea and said they will help me set it up. Outward staff spoke to me about the online fundraising campaign, and helped put it online and I handed out over 100 leaflets to places I shop in, people I know and places where I use their services. It’s also nice to be a little famous.
I hope the bus will be a fun and interactive place for people to learn new things. People with high needs find it difficult to get out, and can’t easily go to a place like a sensory room. Everyone can do what they want and behave in a way where they won’t be judged, sometimes I walk along the street and laugh and people look at me funny and it makes me think I want more control. In a sensory bus I could have more control.
I want to run it through a social enterprise to make it bigger and better, to add new inventions and more equipment to use. The bus will drive around to different places to give more people a chance to experience and use it.
There isn’t a sensory bus in London, and there aren’t many sensory rooms in London. The sensory rooms in London aren’t properly maintained, so I have only been to sensory rooms outside of London. But some people can’t travel that far or outside of London, so a sensory bus would make it easier by going to them. People haven’t thought of a sensory room in London to be on a bus, and there isn’t a sensory room with an interactive floor.
The most difficult thing so far has been getting enough people to pledge as I don’t have many connections. But it is a unique idea because there isn’t a sensory bus in London. If we could make this happen it would be a great achievement for me and would help lots of people in London.”
We have just ‘celebrated’ World Mental Health day (10 October). I, and many like me, hope that as each year passes so does the stigma and discrimination of mental health. Stigma impacts like a disease – if left untreated, the result is devastating.
Attitudes are certainly changing around mental health, although slowly. As pointed out by Time to Change, the mental health campaign I’m involved in, perceptions are changing. The National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey shows that since 2011, an estimated two million people – or 4.8% of the population – have improved attitudes towards people with a mental illness.
In addition, the data suggests that more people are acknowledging they know someone with a mental health problem (64% in 2013 compared with 58% in 2009). However nearly half (49%) of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their own mental health.
Anti stigma work has taken up a large part of my life in psychiatric nursing. And, although it sometimes feels like two steps forward and one back (as the research quoted above hints), the long and winding journey is worth the taking and the rewards are for the benefit of everyone.
I have seen the impact of stigma. I have also felt it. I have seen the destruction it causes people who experience mental illness and their loved ones. This is the motivation for my work.
The recent news about the impact of isolation underlines the need for more work along these lines. Both young people and older folk are affected by severe loneliness.
My talk was about the stigma of mental health and aimed to promote Time To Change. I wanted to raise awareness of the insidious impact of stigma and its long-term damage, and explore how we can all make a difference to the lives of others through our daily interactions. I wanted my message to reach across the village and, more personally, make a mark in the place where I spent my childhood years.
For me going back to my former home, which I left almost 40 years ago, was quite an emotional occasion. It had been the culmination of a life long ambition, a seed borne in childhood that had finally flowered. In the dark corners of my mind has sat the repressed thoughts from childhood of my father’s mental health issues, and the attitudes of others at the time to this.
Assembled in the room of around 50 people were faces from my childhood, alongside faces of the present. An eclectic range of people and experiences, young and old. Friends and family sat beside strangers. I will always be very grateful for the efforts they made to attend and help me to achieve my ambition.
Social contact and interaction is a powerful weapon in challenging ignorance and the myths surrounding mental health. Breaking down the invisible barriers we put up and accepting people as people, rather than defining them by their mental health condition is critical. The two-hour event was informal and interactive thereby providing the ‘safe’ space for those who wished to be open and share their personal experiences, or the experiences of others they hold close.
I started with a mythbusting quiz about mental health to highlight the misconceptions that exist, then spoke about my work in mental health nursing, my anti-stigma initiatives, and also my own experience of depression. I covered my work in the media with the TV soap Emmerdale, advising on the award winning depression storyline of one of the main characters, Zak Dingle.
I stressed it was my hope to encourage the viewers to empathise with Zak’s plight, to see him as being vulnerable and a victim of his circumstances rather than a danger to others, and criminalized
It was a success. I was at pains to ensure it went well because it meant so much to me. I have delivered many talks and presentations previously to large and small audiences but this one was more personal.
Since that summer’s evening I have spoken to people to gauge how things went. Did it make a difference? Has it changed their views? Inspired them? Where do we go from here? The responses have enthused me.
I intend to arrange a follow up event to build on this and plant another seed for the future. A seed for the young people, some who, sadly, will inevitably grow up with the same experiences I had.
Hopefully there will be some changes in attitudes resulting from that evening. It might seem to many just a single, small event, but if it can change just a handful of attitudes and encourage people to talk about mental health, it will be a success. Change drips slowly, but it will come all the same. One day.