Season’s greetings to everyone – this is me with my sister Raana, thanking everyone who’s collaborated on stories, projects and posts this past year – here’s to more of the same in 2019.
Big thanks also to all of you who’ve supported or helped publicise the crowdfunded book I’m editing, Made Possible, about the talents of people with learning disabilities. It’s
partly inspired by my sister, who has the learning disability fragile X syndrome, and aims to shatter the lazy stereotypes we have about learning disability.
Here’s hoping 2019 will bring more action, instead of just more rhetoric, as I’ve written before, and the people who have to spend the festive break in inpatient care are reunited with their families soon.
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.
When Parmi Dheensa’s son Callum kissed a classmate on the cheek not long after starting at a special needs primary school, a teacher asked his mother if this was “culturally appropriate”. Dheensa said that as long as the classmate was happy, nothing in her son’s Punjabi heritage forbade such displays of affection.
It is just one example over many years of professionals leaping to incorrect conclusions based on the ethnicity of her severely learning disabled son, who is now 19, says Dheensa. They also assume she does not work and is supported by an extended family when in fact she is a lone parent who works full-time. Dheensa, 43, was once told that her son’s support – he lives at home and is at a special school – was “better than it would be in India”. Fair point maybe, she says, but irrelevant to a British-born, Midlands-based family.
My Guardian article focuses on Parmi’s charity, Include Me Too, which works with 1,500 families a year. It has launched a campaign for the government to review its equality duties in relation to special needs education and support for BAME communities.
The charity has now launched a campaign asking the government to review BAME representation in government decision-making (existing involvement is, says Dheensa, “tokenistic”) and a new disability and equality strategy to ensure families get better support. The criticism is that professionals do not fully involve parents in reviews of the support they require, or in drawing up education, health and care plans, and parents or carer forums are predominately white British.
Step Into Dance is a partnership between grant-making organisation the Jack Petchey Foundation and the Royal Academy of Dance. The scheme runs extra-curricular classes and performance opportunities across London and Essex, enabling young dancers to develop their talent and mix with a diverse range of people.
The project reaches 200 mainstream and special needs schools a year and since its launch 10 years ago, has worked with hover 50,000 young people.
The gallery of images here show the project’s regional performance events and last year’s live festival.
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.
There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.
The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).
As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”
More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.
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.
Across the country, there are a dozen government-funded centres for advanced training, providing specialist education for young musicians. But there is no such equivalent for their young disabled counterparts.
However, it is hoped that an arts festival, which opens next Friday, will strengthen a campaign for the first ever such facility for musicians with special education needs and disabilities.
The return of the festival, which was launched last year, reflects the venue’s aim to champion arts accessibility and to contribute to a shift in perceptions of disability. As part of next week’s event, Colston Hall, run by Bristol Music Trust, is holding an exhibition involving the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust (the trust’s aim is to remove the barriers to music-making faced by disabled people).
Ruth Gould, artistic director of Liverpool based disability arts organisation DaDaFest, summed up the situation when I interviewed her recently, highlighting how negative assumptions about disability linger on in popular culture (“Lack of training, lack of educational opportunities, lack of work, lack of media and arts representation, demise of independent support, cuts in mobility allowance and personal assistance”.)
Colston Hall, run by independent charity Bristol Music Trust, wants to be home to the UK’s first centre for advanced training for disabled young musicians, both to encourage more opportunities for them to get qualifications and pursue a career in music, or just to be able to enjoy music. The aim of the campaign for a new centre, launched at the House of Commons earlier this year, is for the centre to train 2,500 young people from across England, and set a national benchmark for music accessibility.
The centre would form part of a £45m revamp of Colston Hall – Bristol council, the government and Arts Council have committed a total £25m so far – with new classrooms, state-of-the-art technology lab. The technology would include cutting edge instruments, such as those played by the flicker of an eye, or software that uses facial movements to control music.
Bristol Music Trust currently trains young disabled and special needs musicians, but the redevelopment would add new classrooms and a state-of-the-art technology lab will set new national accessibility standards. The venue, currently not accessible to disabled people, is due to close next summer for redevelopment; the plan is for it to reopen in 2019, fully accessible and home to the UK’s first specialist centre for the training of young disabled musicians.
The area is already home to the South-West Open Youth Orchestra which is the UK’s only disabled-led regional youth orchestra. The Paraorchestra also recently relocated to Bristol. The addition of a centre for advanced training at Colson Hall, supporters hope, would turn the region into a beacon for accessibility and equal opportunity.
* On the same topic of accessible arts, integration and young people, I recently came across an innovative music project that aims to raise awareness about visual impairment and sight loss. Musician Marie Naffah, a 23-year-old singer/songwriter, was inspired to explore blindness after her grandmother developed age-related macular degeneration. Marie wrote, recorded and performed a song while blindfolded and then collaborated with a group of six blind and visually impaired musicians to record the track, ‘Blindfold‘. Disability is not an obstacle to creativity or talent, as Marie says in a TEDx Talk at the Courtauld Institute that went live this week.
Ports of entry like Kent and Croydon look after a disproportionate number of child asylum seekers, and government funding doesn’t cover all the costs, as I explain in a piece on the Guardian’s social care pages.
Many concerns were raised at the National Children’s and Adults Services Conference in Bournemouth in October, and are reflected in recent research from Brighton University. This describes “an extremely uneven distribution” of unaccompanied minors. A Freedom of Information request reveals that seven out of 150 English councils look after 43% of all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
In Kent, there are 1,384 unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people, including 982 under-18s; more than a third of all looked-after children.
Peter Oakford, cabinet member for specialist children’s services says: “It’s been the most difficult year Kent county council has ever experienced regarding unaccompanied asylum seeking children … This places enormous pressures on staff in services within the council, foster carers and education services as well as all our partner agencies like the police and health.”
Amid the debate about dispersal schemes and funding shortfalls, Kent’s latest figures reveal the human cost; 180 children do not have an allocated social worker and are still waiting for a full assessment.
Guest blogger Lesley Rogers is chairing the charity Sense’s inquiry, The Case for Play into the lack of access to play opportunities for under-fives with multiple needs. Lesley is involved alongside co chair David Blunkett, the former education secretary, and Julie Jennings from RNIB as an expert advisor.
Play is an important part of childhood, it’s where children learn about the world around them, build relationships and friendships. But I know from experience with my eight-year-old Ruby that children with multiple needs often don’t get the same opportunities to play as other children.
Ruby was born with a rare condition called CHARGE syndrome and is consequently deafblind, she also has a heart condition and feeding problems.
We struggled from the very beginning to find appropriate play opportunities for Ruby. From finding accessible play groups to swimming pools and play parks. Every activity and opportunity for play has to be checked it’s accessible and appropriate beforehand, if it’s not, I have to ask for adaptations – and if those can’t be made, we can’t go and Ruby misses out.
But for children like Ruby, play is even more important. It was through play that we learnt to communicate with each other through basic sign language, through play Ruby is developing her muscle tone and through play she’s learning to connect with others around her.
We initially struggled to find appropriate play and activity groups. When Ruby was younger I wouldn’t take her to regular toddler groups, I felt vulnerable and isolated. I didn’t want to explain Ruby’s condition to other parents, and I wanted to go to places where I could meet people who would understand.
When Ruby was 18 months we were introduced to the deafblind charity Sense, it was a lifeline. We started going to the Sense play group, Sparkles, in Barnet. It used to take me 40 minutes to get there, but it was worth it. You didn’t need to explain to anybody what was wrong; if you came along with a feeding pump and a suction machine, it was accepted. I found everything I needed there, support from other parents and expert knowledge from staff.
Over the years I have spent so much time researching activities and play opportunities on the internet. I don’t want Ruby to miss out so I have thoroughly explored my borough but nowhere fully meets her needs. I’ve learnt that you have to be very proactive; I approach establishments, tell them about Ruby and ask if they are willing to make adjustments.
I hope that the inquiry will raise awareness of the challenges families like ours face every day. I hope that the government listens to the evidence and the recommendations that Sense presents and that appropriate changes are made following this. I hope that families get more support, particularly in the early years when parents could be feeling overwhelmed and confused. The earlier they receive help, the sooner they can provide the right support to their children.
With the right support, Ruby has the chance to enjoy play and leisure activities. She loves swimming. She goes once a week with school. It’s a great achievement that Ruby is able to attend the sessions. Ruby doesn’t like cold water so together with the school we contacted the leisure centre to see if they would be willing to open the jacuzzi and smaller warmer pool for us, we also needed an extra life guard and extra time in the changing rooms which they agreed to.
Ruby goes to the pool with her intervenor, her intervenor is basically her eyes and ears, she shows Ruby how to do things in a way that she understands. The intervenor will take toys into the pool, she’ll flick a ball to Ruby and Ruby will flick it back. Through swimming Ruby is strengthening her muscle tone, she’s also learning to socialise with her classmates which is great to see.
The most common barriers in terms of access to play settings for children with multiple needs is that there just aren’t enough places that are accommodating to children with multiple needs so accessibility is a big one.
There is a lack of information about play groups and activities that are suitable. For example we got introduced to Sense when Ruby was 18 months, it was a lifeline for us and I wish we knew about them earlier. Quite often you find out about things through word of mouth, this shouldn’t be the way. Parents need support as much as the children. It’s vital, particularly in the beginning.
Also I don’t often have confidence in the staff to leave Ruby with them. For example, I need to know that the staff can feed her and that they can sign. The reality is these places are few and far between, I have fully explored my borough and there is nowhere that fully meets her needs, this means I have to go with her all the time. Or use an intervenor.
What more can be done to boost such opportunities? Parents should have better access to information and advice on how to play with their child. Disabled children and their families should be involved in the design of play spaces and sessions to ensure they meet their needs.
There should be better training of staff and management at play groups etc. Often parents of children with complex needs have to come in and train staff how to care for their child’s medical needs. Every local authority should provide accessible play opportunities that meet a range of needs, in both specialist and mainstream settings.
All children and their families should have early access to support from specialist workers. Local authorities should make early intervention through play a funding priority.
A focus on play just isn’t seen as a big priority in the current financial climate. It’s turned into a kind of post code lottery for families, local authorities can now make their own choices about whether to prioritise play – some local authorities still have a local play strategy and continue to invest in play whilst others do not. This is despite the fact that funding early intervention and development is the best way to make a saving in the long term.
* Sense is calling for evidence from parents of children with multiple needs, specialists from the disability sector and practitioners. Visit the Sense website to get involved. For more information about the inquiry, email email@example.com