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.
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.
It’s taken less than four weeks for the book I’m editing, Made Possible, to become more than 50% crowdfunded – and this is all down to the project’s incredible and growing band of supporters.
The anthology includes the experiences of people with learning disabilities in their own words – it challenges the current narratives on learning disability which dictate that people are pitied, patronised, and not heard from directly. It presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability; these high achievers tell their own personal stories of success.
Attitudes must change – and that’s why we need this book, which is already halfway to being published (click here to make a pledge to help publish the book and join its community of supporters).
To hit such a milestone so soon reflects a determination of so many people to shift negative attitudes towards learning disabled people.
Made Possible also considers the wider context that undermines people’s talents and aspirations. For example, we’re in party conference season and the Conservatives are gathering in Manchester as I write. Yet most politicians (with a few rare exceptions) overlook learning disabled people – despite the fact that more than a million people with learning disabilites are entitled to vote. This is not only an equality issue – why does the political world seem to bypass people who have both a right and a desire to go to the polls? – but vote-needy politicians could do with wooing this signifcant chunk of the electorate.
Many of this book’s supporters (scroll down on this page to “Supporters”) including campaigners, activists, self-advocates and support providers – are among a strong and growing lobby working hard (all year round – not just during conference season) to change this. I’m looking forward to reflecting the vital growth in this kind of activism and awareness-raising in Made Possible.
* This post is based on an update originally published on the Unbound website
There has been surge of support for Made Possible, the non-fiction book challenging learning disability stereotypes I’m crowdfunding with the award-winning publisher Unbound. The crowdfunding campaign has been so popular that the anthology is more than halfway to being published – just three weeks after launch. Wow (the background to the book is in this previous post).
I’m so grateful to everyone who’s pre-ordering Made Possible (all supporters get their name printed in the book), as well as sharing its aims and inviting others to get involved. As I write this update, there are 127 people in our Made Possible community, and I’m absolutely delighted that the book’s incredible range of supporters includes learning disability self-advocates, family members, campaigners, professionals, support organisations and people interested in human rights.
If you’re on social media, do follow #MadePossible and connect on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram – I’d welcome the chance to hear from you if you fancy saying hello.
During Unbound’s recent Anthology Week, which offered a social media focus on the publisher’s essay or story collections, some Made Possible makers tweeted about why they decided to help publish Made Possible:,
Thanks so much to everyone for joining the growing campaign to publish this book; I’m looking forward to seeing what the next week brings.
When I tell people that my youngest sister has the learning disability fragile x syndrome, there are usually two common responses. People either ask what fragile x is, or they want to know kind of support she needs.
Not many people ask my sister’s name (Raana) or how old she is (28). They do not ask about her skills (baking, ceramics), what she likes doing in her free time (zumba, movie nights), or her achievements (so many to choose from – her artwork, her college course, her public speaking, how she looks after her nephews and niece).
In a piece today for Learning Disability Today, I explain how the focus on my sister’s disability, rather than her ability, is a symptom of wider negative public perceptions about learning disability. Such perceptions mean that people with learning disabilities are regarded as devoid of personality, passive recipients of care or deserving of pity.
Overturning these attitudes and challenging stereotypes about people like my sister is the aim of the new book I have just launched, Made Possible. Made Possible is a crowdfunded collection of essays by high-achieving people with learning disabilities. The book, with the award-winning publisher Unbound, features the experiences of talented professionals in different areas like film, theatre, music, art and campaigning.
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!)
This year’s campaign week celebrates people overcoming adversity, prejudice and ignorance and it’s a welcome moment to focus on the positive amid the social and political inequity faced by people with learning disabilities (you can follow events and issues on Twitter using the hashtag #LDWeek14).
Obvious bias and sibling pride aside, so many friends and family have been genuinely surprised and impressed – and no, not in a patronising way – when I’ve revealed the creation they’re admiring has been crafted by my sister. Seriously – why would I hang crap on my walls (unless from an elephant and painted by Chris Ofili)?
She may not be a conversationalist or a writer, but pictures speak a thousand words and what she’s made is bold and beautiful. That said, Raana still produces her signature lozenge-shaped bullet cars and blobby, squat people (the hair is always spiky – a hangover from her boyband-loving days…these pieces are most definitely not on my walls), but here’s a taster of why I love what she does:
Secondly, while thinking about an art-related post, I came across some powerful pieces of work produced by members of Outside In. Based at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the project is a platform for artists “who find it difficult to access the art world either because of mental health issues, disability, health, social circumstance or because their work does not conform to what is normally consider as art”.
The pieces here are by artists who happen to have learning disabilities.
The works should trigger some questions about “outsider art” and the gap between the treatment of and attitudes towards people who have learning disabilities and those who do not. What the Outside In project calls “the idea of there being an ‘us’ and ‘them’”. As one of the project’s award-winning artists, Carlo Keshishian, believes that “Outside In can function as a mouthpiece to project the voices of quieter people.”
That’s what we need – more people listening to and acting on the wishes of those whose voices (and by voice I mean profile, choice, representation, status) are not as loud as those in the “mainstream”.
And finally, take another look at the photographs of the artwork on this page. Ask yourself this, if you didn’t know, how many of the pieces would you genuinely have thought were produced by people with learning disabilities?
* I can’t end this post without signposting you to the colourful creations here by “industrious artist” Connor Sparrowhawk, aka LB, currently being sold in postcard and print form to raise funds for legal representation at the inquest. Connor died in a specialist NHS unit last year and the #JusticeforLB campaign is pushing for answers about his death and raising awareness about learning disability – this letter signed by more than 500 people, explains the issues and necessary action.
Today is the last day of Real Bread Maker Week, not too high profile as far as awareness weeks go, but it seemed an opportune moment to share a one minute video of the best real bread maker I know – my sister Raana.
Spliced together with not much time (but a lot of warmth and a fair sprinkling of my sister’s sense of humour), we hope it leaves you with at least one of four things:
1. A clear impression that my talents do not lie in shooting video
2. An understanding that my sister – and her fellow bakers – are damn good at what they do (and why shouldn’t they be?)
3. A smile
4. A hunger for (organic, wholesome, additive-free, made with skill) freshly baked bread
The bread maker week that ends today, run by the food and farming charity Sustain, champions “real” bakers’ “rightful place at the hearts of our local communities” and encourages people bake or buy real bread from local, independent bakeries. Just like my sister’s (she bakes a mean chocolate brownie too; if you’re passing by Ringwood, go taste…).
As the piece yesterday stated, an independent report found 18-year-old Connor’s death at a Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust assessment and treatment unit was avoidable – reigniting criticism of care for people with learning disabilities.
But for more than 20 years – from 1993’s influential Mansell Report to its 2007 revised version, to the 2001 report Valuing People and the 2006 Our Health, Our Care, Our Say white paper, it’s been clear what “good looks like”.
I started this blog specifically to look at good projects, people and places, mostly related to social care. I spend some of my time finding out and writing about the good stuff that goes on – it was what I was doing before I turned to “the Connor Report“. It was a cataclysmic shift from one extreme of care to another (that brilliant, easy read version of the report is from Change Peopleby the way).
I know some brilliant folk who support people with learning disabilities and complex needs. I’ve seen first hand some of the excellent and groundbreaking support that exists for autism, learning disability and for people with challenging needs. My sister’s benefitted from the right support (albeit after a bit of a fight).
Yet despite the good practice, great intentions, campaigns, official frameworks and guidelines and reams of evidence, the pace of change for people with complex needs is slow. And poor practice remains.
When you find out about the experience of Connor’s family – his mother Sara Ryan and stepfather Richard Huggins – it is impossible not to compare it with what’s meant to happen.
Below, are just three areas I very quickly plucked from some of the papers I’ve been revisiting:
– commissioning of care services
– the concept of personalisation (tailoring care to the individual rather than a “one size fits all” approach)
– the wider issue of the status of people with learning disabilities in society (something that angers me enormously).
The gap between the rhetoric and the reality – most notably when it comes to people with “challenging behaviour” and complex needs – is clear. Cast your eyes over these “then” and “now” juxtaposed extracts and comments.
Then – commissioning of care services: Mansell Report 2007 :
“Combining the different elements of services to ensure that people with learning disabilities whose behaviour presents a challenge are served well is the job of commissioning. Models of good practice have been demonstrated and service providing organisations committed to good practice exist. However, in the period since 1993 development has not kept pace with need. Placement breakdown continues to be a widespread problem in community services; people are excluded from services; assessment and treatment facilities cannot move people back to their own home; some of the placements eventually found are low value and high cost. What is it that commissioners need to do to tackle these problems? …Failure to develop local services threatens the policy of community care. Doing nothing locally is not an option. Out-of-area placements will `silt up’ and reinstitutionalisation (through emergency admissions to psychiatric hospitals or via the prisons) will occur. Special institutions and residential homes for people whose behaviour presents a challenge will be expensive but of poor quality and will attract public criticism. Overall, the efficiency of services will decrease because of the widespread lack of competence in working with people who have challenging behaviour. Commissioners will have less control over and choice of services. Individuals, carers and staff will be hurt and some individuals whose behaviour presents a challenge will be at increased risk of abuse. Staff will be at increased risk from the consequences of developing their own strategies and responses and managers will be held accountable where well-intentioned staff operate illegal, dangerous or inappropriate procedures.”
Now – commissioning of care services 2014: Sara Ryan: “How can the commissioners not do anything [with reference to why assessment and treatment units are still commissioned]…If you commission a young person to staying in a £3,500 a week unit, then it is your duty to go and make sure that is worth it.” Richard Huggins: “Commissioners commission public services on our behalf..Clinical commissioning group decide between competing NHS provision, so you can’t have model like that [where you buy a service and then when it goes wrong] say ‘well it’s not our fault’.”
Then – being ‘person-centred’ Valuing People, A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century (2001) :
“A person-centred approach will be essential to deliver real change in the lives of people with learning disabilities. Person-centred planning provides a single, multi-agency mechanism for achieving this. The Government will issue new guidance on person-centred planning, and provide resources for implementation through the Learning Disability Development Fund.”
Now – being ‘person-centred’ 2014 Sara Ryan: “There is no personalisation in these units…” Richard Huggins: “We thought they’d say ‘this is what Connor needs this is what we should do’. How that would be achieved, we had no preconception. But we thought he’d come back with a better plan, we wanted an outcome that would suit Connor.”
Then – the status of people with learning disabilities in society Valuing People (2001) :
“People with learning disabilities are amongst the most vulnerable and socially excluded in our society. Very few have jobs, live in their own homes or have choice over who cares for them. This needs to change: people with learning disabilities must no longer be marginalised or excluded. Valuing People sets out how the Government will provide new opportunities for children and adults with learning disabilities and their families to live full and independent lives as part of their local communities.”
Now – the status of people with learning disabilities in society 2014 Sara Ryan: “There is a prevailing attitude about learning disability that somehow, if you’re born ‘faulty’ you cannot expect to lead a full life. What is really upsetting is fact that Connor and most young people I know are learning disabled have so much to contribute, and so much people can learn from them, but people can’t see any value in them and don’t see them as human beings, I find that really distressing.” Richard Huggins: “There are three issues here. What happened to Connor – the care he received and how he was treated, which is still not accounted for – the way Southern Health Trust behaved as an organisation, and then there is a more general issues about the status of learning disabled people in British society.”
I could add more examples, but I think the contrast is clear.
There is a strong and growing momentum for action following Connor’s death. There is also anger but, as someone wisely told me yesterday, the anger can be channelled into action. There is also, as one chief executive of a care organisation tweeted about Connor earlier today “an onus on all of us who care to stand together alongside families seeking justice”.