In a piece for the Byline Times, I call for a more accurate reflection the lives of those with learning disabilities in society and the media, and explains how my new book of essays, written by learning disabled people, aims to change the narrative.
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.
The latest figures from NHS England show that 451 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.
This is the reason for the book Made Possible: Stories of Success by People with Learning Disabilities. The anthology, which I edited, challenges stereotypes through the stories of people whose achievements are awe-inspiring – regardless of their disability. They describe, in their own words, what needs to happen for learning disabled people to reach their potential. The powerful first-person experiences are from a human rights campaigner, a critically acclaimed actor, a civil rights activist, a singer-songwriter, an elite swimmer, a fine artist, an award-wining filmmaker and an elected mayor.
Read the rest of the article, first published in June, here
Regularly writing for The Guardian on issues relating to social affairs, public and third sectors, and welfare and disability issues, Saba aims to inform on the impact long-term austerity continues to have on those with learning disabilities as well as concerns for the long-term effects of lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s not all about Boris Johnson – the UK’s first doctor specialising in profound and multiple learning disabilities will start work in a groundbreaking pilot later this year, as I report in today’s Guardian.
I spoke to Erica’s family, who told me her life was saved after a chance intervention from a specialist “intellectual disability” doctor who had trained abroad.
Erica’s experience has led to a pioneering project in her hometown of Hull in which a new specialist will be recruited by the local clinical commissioning group later this year. And campaigners say Erica’s story proves the need for a national network of similar specialists to help reduce the health inequalities experienced by learning disabled people.
An expert group, convened by former health minister and Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, is researching this idea right now.
The group’s work is timely because of a growing focus on the entrenched health inequalities faced by learning disabled people. Autism and learning disability are priorities in the NHS long-term plan, and a recent NHS-commissioned review of mortality rates shows learning disabled people die earlier and are more likely to die in hospital than the general population. Recent inquests into the deaths of people including Richard Handley, Joe Ulleri and Oliver McGowan reflect the inequality.
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.
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.
If it is rare to see learning disabled people interviewed or mentioned in the mainstream media (unless they’re involved in a care scandal), then it is completely unheard of to see someone with a learning disability conducting an interview.
Which is why I’m posting these images of Shanna Lau and Jermaine Williams who visited Channel 4 last month (to coincide with the local and European elections) to interview Jon Snow. The news anchor talked about accessibility in the news and voting and their interview is published today in the bi-monthly Easy News, the first accessible news magazine for people with learning disabilities which is supported by United Response.
Shanna and Jermaine are part of the team that produces the magazine; launched last year, it uses simple words and images to create easy to explain big news stories and help people engage with current affairs and politics.Stories include the death of Nelson Mandela, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics and the 2014 Budget. By the sixth edition, 3,272 people had downloaded it – 250 per cent over target. According to United Response, 90 per cent of readers say it is easier to understand than other news sources while 78 per cent feel politics is now relevant to their lives, compared to 31 per cent a year previously.
Jon Snow told Easy News: “I think sometimes [news is] happening in places in the world that [people] have never heard of…And it’s very difficult to explain to people in a short space of time – because you only have a very short time in the news – it’s very difficult to give them all the facts. And sometimes you need a lot of facts to understand what a story is all about.
“I certainly think that [news can help people to vote]. If you are able to simplify it, which we very often do not, we assume a level of understanding which often isn’t out there. But I think if you can simplify it, it will make it very much easier for people to vote.”
An easy read version of the full interview, which was set up by United Response with help from disability campaigner, Kaliya Franklin, is in the ninth edition of Easy News published today. To download the latest edition of Easy News and to sign up for future editions, go to the United Response website.
Good to see a nod to the blog on the Guardian Select pages this morning, especially when the page featured is from the Bound exhibition about disability issues. A reminder of the point of this site: “It champions the good stuff going on in terms of support, much of it small unsung hero-type projects, which is important at a time that so many charities and support schemes are losing funding.” Read more here.