Tag Archives: learning disability

How the law stops young people using advanced wheelchairs

Like most 13-year-olds, Jenny Wilson likes to go shopping with friends. Her athetoid cerebral palsy means that she has used a wheelchair for almost a decade, but she is capable of negotiating busy high streets. Yet Jenny’s independence is under threat – not from her disability per se, but by a legal anomaly that means she breaks the law if she uses the wheelchair that best meets her needs. Read my piece in Society Guardian here.

Art for autism’s sake

Tim, 17, had not uttered a word for five years when he arrived at Beechwood College. Two years into his time at the specialist residential college in Cardiff, Wales, the teenager with Asperger’s syndrome started speaking. Two years after that, at 21, he passed his GCSE Art and Design with a grade B, had a work placement at Tesco under his belt and has since left the college and got a job.

Beechwood, a further education college for students aged 16 and over with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), uses art and creativity programmes as the backbone of its personalised education programme. Students study music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media and horticulture and learn to articulate themseleves through these activities.

Batik Tiger created by a student at Beechwood College
Beechwood College student draws pebbles after visiting the beach in a project led by University of Glamorgan lecturers working at the college

Earlier this month, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, the college launched a national art competition to showcase the creativity of young people with autism and related conditions. The competition project, Create! Art for Autism, is open to those aged 11 to 25 who are formally diagnosed with an ASD, with the aim of showing that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but, as Tim’s case shows, also boost quality of life and future prospects. Shortlisted entries to the Beechwood-led scheme will be exhibited in a national art tour, starting at The Old Library in Cardiff and moving to London galleries from the summer.

I know my sister has developed a newfound independence and confidence thanks to activities from painting to pottery, bakery, art and horticulture during her time with the Camphill movement. The Beechwood competition gets my vote not only because it encourages young people with special needs to find their own voice through creativity and practical action, but because it aims to bring the artistic talents of the learning disabled to a wider, more mainstream audience.

Darren Jackson, principal of Beechwood College, explains: “It’s my belief that creativity is essential to those with an autistic spectrum disorder on more than just a therapeutic or enjoyment level. We have seen how engaging in such programmes can transform young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard.”

Jackson says stop motion animation is a particularly effective way of encouraging confidence and self esteem: “The use of this creative multimedia tool has enabled many of our students to gain greater confidence and self esteem which, indirectly has resulted in them demonstrating a greater willingness to share their thoughts and ideas within their peer group. Many students who in the past have displayed high levels of anxiety are now willing to record voiceovers for their animated characters and use them as a vehicle for communication.”

Competition entries in categories including 2D, 3D and digital media art, can be submitted until June 10. The judging panel includes Brendan Stuart Burns, artist lecturer at The University of Glamorgan, Lucinda Bredin, editor at Bonhams Magazine, Hugh Morgan, chief executive of Autism Cymru and Beechwood’s Jackson. Finalists will be announced on June 24 and the awards ceremony will take place in Cardiff on July 24.

The cuts: the worst is yet to come

An authoritative analysis in today’s Society Guardian of the deepest spending cuts in a generation, which start from Friday. The special issue inludes some sector by sector breakdowns of savings and job losses, including pieces I contributed to the in-depth coverage.

The cuts – an alternative

For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.

It Cuts Both Ways…The Alternatives from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.

Fiction based on fact; theatre explores the threat to special needs provision

Art mirrors life for those of us with an interest in learning disability issues as a London play explores the threat to special needs schools. The play coincides with the government’s plans to overhaul special educational provision and comes at a time when learning disablility support is in jeopardy thanks to public spending cuts.

Actors in Alan Share's Death of a Nightingale

Death of a Nightingale runs at Hampstead’s New End Theatre until Sunday 3 April and focuses on the inclusion agenda which can shoehorn children with special needs into mainstream schools that offer inadequate support.

The play, written by Alan Share, a former chair of governors at a special school, also addresses the problems when a special school is threatened with closure. Since 1997, more than 100 special schools have closed, resulting in the loss of about 9,000 places for children.

Professional actors are joined on stage with learning disabled young people from the Oak Lodge School in East Finchley. The cast includes 18-year-old Max Lewis, an actor with Downs syndrome who appeared in Notes on a Scandal. Lewis plays a pupil who truants from schools that fail to meet his needs.

Written in 2009, the play is being resurrected to coincide with the government’s green paper on special educational needs. Share describes the green paper as “yet another missed opportunity for the government”. He adds: “It wants to find a quick fix for children with moderate learning difficulties and avoid the challenge of meeting more complex and varied needs.”

For more on the green paper and special educational needs provision, check out the very good Guerrillamum blog.

Brighton Marathon’s first wheelchair-using participant

Award-winning sports enthusiast Adam Hayes has already won medals at boccia events, a target ball sport similar to petanque and bowls. As a keen footie fan and Chelsea supporter, the 20-year-old also enjoys a bit of hockey and football too. So it’s no surprise to his mates that he’s participating in the second ever Brighton Marathon next month.

Not only is Adam adding another string to his sporting bow, but he’s making history – Adam will be the first participant in a wheelchair to complete the 26-mile course.

I heard about about Adam after I wrote about the bureaucratic wrangle involving a housemate of his at Fethneys, the Leonard Cheshire Disability home he lives in Worthing, West Sussex.

Joining Adam on the start line on April 10th and pushing him along the course will be three Fethneys care staff, Gavin Parrish, Ollie Orchard and Lucie Hammond.


Adam Hayes, seated, the first wheelchair participant in the Brighton Marathon , pictured with (l-r) marathon teammates Ollie, Lucie and Gavin

The foursome is aiming to raise a target of £2,000 for Fethneys, which accommodates 10 young disabled people at a time, teaching them life skills like cooking, managing bills or cleaning and supporting them towards independent living.

“I feel very honoured to be the first wheelchair user in the whole of the country to take part in the Brighton Marathon,” says Adam. He adds of his boccia playing, “I competed in the GB championships and have won medals in regional and national athletics competitions. I also take part in wheelchair hockey and wheelchair football as a hobby.”

Moving into Fethneys five months ago from a local specialist college for disabled people, Adam says he loves his new home: “The staff here are teaching me the skills I need to live totally independently. Thanks to Fethneys I am really looking forward to living in my own flat in the near future – they are helping me to make my dream become a reality.”

To sponsor Adam, Lucie, Gavin, and Ollie visit their fundraising page.
Leonard Cheshire Disability has places on the 10 mile Great South Run on 30 October 2011. Contact the events team at events@LCDisability.org,

Learning disability: real freedom means freedom of movement

Real freedom, as Mary Pearson, mother to a learning disabled young person, says in the short film below, requires freedom of movement.

The film, by David Herman of the learning disability charity Camphill communities , is part of the ongoing campaign to help disabled people in care who want to live more independently but who are being prevented from doing so by funding wrangles between local authorities.

The cuts agenda combined with local government red tape means forcing vulnerable people (and their families and carers) through hoops if they want to move from one council area to another – and there’s no guarantee of success if you attempt this. But learning disablity campaigners are calling for funding to follow individuals. A sort of portable personalised budget and assessment system is what’s needed.

The film is part of the charity’s submission to the government-appointed Commission on the Funding of Care and Support which is due to report back in July. The scenes here offer a snapshot of the sort of rich community life that my sister is thriving in at The Lantern Camphill community.

Disco dreams: dance nights with a difference

Liz Astor, mother to 18-year-old Olivia, who has autism, realised how desperate her daughter was to socialize on nights out with her peers when, in response to being offered a packet of dates to snack on, the teenager blurted out (entirely seriously and with great indignation): “I want to go on a date! I don’t want to eat one!”

Many similarly amusing moments tinged with a serious edge have been enjoyed in my family thanks to my youngest sister’s grappling with the vagaries of the English language and her inability to take words anything other than literally.

There was the time she stormed home from school, complaining that she had been told to “puck off!” in the playground. My mother was caught between the pedant’s reaction of correcting my sister for mishearing the word (“Actually darling, it’s not ‘puck off’ it’s…”) and an anger-fuelled desire to advise her to tell her potty-mouthed peers to puck right off back (coining a new breed of Shakespearean insult in the process perhaps?). Instead, we checked there was no bullying involved and told my sister to maintain a dignified silence.

The silent treatment shut those stupid playground puckers right up, I can tell you.

I digress. Thanks to her daughter’s literal take on the date conversation, Liz Astor realized how much Olivia wanted to enjoy the sort of nights out her mainstream peers take for granted.

Spotting a gap in provision for young autistic adults in her local area on the Surrey-Kent borders, she launched a not-for-profit group, Disco Dreams, late last year. The specialist nights in a community hall in Oxted, Surrey, are aimed at 18-30-year-olds with autism or moderate learning difficulties. “Why shouldn’t young people with autism have the same opportunities as others their age?” asks Liz.

Autism charities offer vital support for the autistic and their families, and there’s some great work being done by inclusive arts charities, but even without taking into account the fact their future is under threat in the funding cuts, opportunities for young adults with autism to socialise is patchy around the country.

The Disco Dreams nights are tailored specifically for those with autism; the DJ is aware of when noise levels overwhelm the young people, a chill-out zone provides a quiet space and entry is £10 but free to carers.

Aside from the social benefits, the positive impact of music, exercise and dance in relation to a host of health-related conditions is well-documented. For example, there was a great BBC documentary last year, Autism, Disco and Me, which showed how disco dancing transformed a young autistic boy’s life

Back on the Kent-Surrey borders, the next Disco Dreams night is scheduled for tomorrow night, Friday 21, if there is enough interest (email discodreamsdance@gmail.com for more information). The whole project is funded entirely by Liz, Lady Astor of Hever. Plugging a gap in provision in this way is very big society, but not every community is lucky enough to have such philanthropic verve in its midst. Let’s hope the venture is successful and inspires similar events elsewhere, so Olivia gets to eat her date and have one too.

Autism lifelines at risk of unravelling

It is Saturday morning and 13-year-old James Hope is desperate to get to his activity club. His dad, Jim, reaches for his coat, but James is frustrated at having to wait. He stomps off to the car and waits silently, brows furrowed.

This scene takes place most Saturdays but rather than tiring of what other parents might regard as a mild teenage strop, Jim and his wife, Alison, celebrate it. James has autism and they are grateful that their son not only has a regular weekend activity but that he is keen to get to it.

But the kind of lifeline the Hope family relies on is under threat thanks to funding cuts. Click here to read my Society Guardian piece on how progress on autism is at risk.