Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will probably think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts. That’s if they think of anything at all.
As I write in a new piece for Byline Times, the latest figures from NHS England show that more than 450 people who have died from the Coronavirus since 24 March were recorded as having a learning disability or autism. According to the Care Quality Commission, there has been a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among this group of people compared to last year.
Mainstream media coverage of the Coronavirus reflects a nonchalance. Give or take the odd exception, the reporting has failed to acknowledge the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s 1.5 million learning disabled people like my youngest sister Raana.
Outside of COVID-19, if learning disability issues hit the headlines, they usually reinforce stereotypes about “vulnerable people” unable to fend for themselves. And when a story makes the media, it rarely includes direct words from someone with a learning disability.
Rather than simply accepting people with neurodiverse conditions like autism or dyslexia, what if we recognised their hidden talents?
Positive News has just posted my article about this issue. I heard from four neurodiverse on how the way their brains work has been key to their success.
As Alice, pictured above, says: “I’ve encountered difficulties that other people don’t have to deal with, and that’s made me incredibly caring. I can put myself in someone else’s situation. I respond in a very different way to people who aren’t neurodiverse.”
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.
A new heritage project aims to dispel misconceptions about learning disability and the lives of people who lived in long-stay institutions. The charity CASBA (Citizen Advocacy South Birmingham Area) spent a year collating stories and archive material relating to Birmingham’s Monyhull Hospital. Myth and rumour about the hospital was rife; it was referred to as the local madhouse and the term ‘Mony’ was used as a playground insult at local schools. In what is Birmingham’s first learning disability heritage project, the free event From Institution to Community, runs on Saturday October 6th.
Guest post by Joe Peacock, heritage project coordinator, CASBA
Roland Clewley was 16 when he was first admitted to Monyhull Hospital, a long-stay institution for people with learning disabilities. It was 1966 and before Monyhull, Roland been in a pupil referral unit in North Wales for 18 months and had grown up in a care home in South Birmingham. He quickly grew to hate being locked up.
Roland spent almost 15 years in institutional care.
Roland says: “It was okay at first, but I wanted to get out, you see. I wanted my own place – a flat or something. I said that to them, but they said; ‘They’re all the same, just like you’ so I started running away.”
This was not the easiest thing to do, but he remembers: “I got through the window and then went down the pipes and ran off along the canal. It was dark down there and you couldn’t see what you were doing. We didn’t get very far, then we got picked up by the police. They put us in a van and put us in a cell for a few hours until Monyhull picked us up.”
Such attempts weren’t looked upon kindly by the hospital. Contrary to local myths, there was no alarm that went off when someone ran away, but they were punished on their return. “They put me in a side room. It was like a cell. It was a bare room with just sheets and blankets on the floor to sleep on. The first time, I did a week in there, then the next time two and then three weeks at a time.” He was let out to go to the toilet and to eat, but it was a severe punishment for someone who just wanted his freedom.
He was then sent to a stricter institution called Moss Side: “Terrible, that place was” he recalls; “You were locked in all the time. You could go out in the grounds, but there were walls all the way around – it was like a prison. I was there for nearly eleven years.” In fact, Moss Side was a high security psychiatric hospital and later merged with another similar institution to form Ashworth Hospital. Roland is reluctant to disclose much of his experiences there and it is hard to imagine how tough it would have been for him. Roland was then sent back Monyhull, and it must have been quite a relief in comparison.
“It was a bit better second time – it changed a lot. When we used to be on the ward it was a male ward and you’d have male staff, but the next time I was there it was all mixed – you’d got male and female staff working there.”
He also felt more optimistic that he would be allowed out with the increased emphasis on care in the community and deinstitutionalisation in the 1980s: “What else changed is that they were taking the patients out of there. Before, you don’t know how long you’re there for, or anything like that. I thought I was going to be there until I was about 80.”
He began to be given more responsibilities, helping the physiotherapist to get patients to appointments and was even paid for working with the porters; collecting laundry from the wards. Some of the porters befriended him and they would socialise as well as work together.
He was quite a decent sportsman, too, who won a snooker tournament and has a photograph on his wall of him being presented with the trophy to remember it by. There was a table in his ward and he’d play with anyone who was up for it or just practice on his own. He also played table tennis, football and was keen to try any other activities on offer.
Perhaps, one of the most surprising things he did, due to his close work with the physiotherapist was to go skiing in Italy. “Went for a week. I kept on standing up when I fell over all the time. You want to do it – it’s a laugh.”
Another way in which he’d try to beat the boredom of institutional life was to sneak off to the local pub, the Cartland Arms. More often, though, he remembers that they would smuggle cans of cider in from a nearby shop and sit in bed drinking those after lights out.
In 1980, he was moved out of the hospital into a hostel and then into a flat where he still lives. Ironically, for a man desperate to escape the hospital, his flat overlooks the site of the former institution he was in. Surprisingly, he continued going back to Monyhull to work with the porters them even after he’d moved out and right up until the time it was closed down and demolished. He retained his income, was fed and had a social life.
Now, in his late 60s, Roland seems happy enough with his life, although when I asked when he’d last been on holiday, he replied that it was 25 years ago. With limited mobility, he must be in danger of becoming more and more isolated.
The biggest shame of his life for me, though, is all those wasted years when he was locked away. With the right support and encouragement, he was capable of doing so much more.
• Joe Peacock is heritage project coordinator at learning disability advocacy charity CASBA
• CASBA’s From Institution to Commununity is at Monyhull Church from 1.30pm on Saturday October 6th and you can watch a trailer about the project here
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).
Six weeks ago I launched a crowdfunding campaign for Made Possible, a groundbreaking collection of essays on success by high-achieving people with learning disabilities.
The book is inspired by my sister, who has the learning disability fragile x syndrome, as well as by some of the remarkable, succesful people I’ve met and interviewed over the last few years – all of whom happen to have a learning disability.
I’m delighted to say the book is now 100% funded, such has been the fast pace and mounting enthusiasm for the project. More than 200 diverse people and organisations have got behind the book since its launch on 6 September.
Made Possible presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability in different areas like theatre, music, art and campaigning. And, for the first time, these high achievers tell their own personal stories of success, in their own words.
It is a book to change the current narratives about learning disabled people, narratives that mean they are talked about as somehow less than human.
Thank you to everyone who’s got involved and backed this book. I can’t wait to start working on it. To find out more, follow the book’s progress and to pre-order a copy, see Made Possible on the Unbound website.