Tag Archives: learning disability

Chaos and capability

It was the sort of toxic mixture of elements and multiple assault on the senses that would until recently have triggered some challenging behaviour in my sister; a bustling crowd, loud music, the company of strangers and – to add insult to injury – an extraordinary day with no familiar routine.

But not only was 22-year-old Raana Salman at the very heart of the carnival throng in my parents’ Sussex hometown during the recent Bank Holiday weekend, she was loving every noisy, overcrowded minute.

Wearing a pink fairy costume and a wide, joyous grin, she was a proud participant in the Ferring Country Centre carnival entry as part of the learning disability charity’s float in the Worthing carnival. She even featured in a photograph in the local newspaper.

My sister, Raana, in her Ferring Country Centre tee-shirt
Raana Salman - carnival queen

The hand elegantly pointing at onlookers with a homemade wand (beautifully fashioned from a battered old Christmas tree star and a cardboard wrapping paper roll) was the same one that would flap incessantly or claw at my mother on fractious days out when something was unfamiliar or overwhelming.

It was the same hand that several years ago would frantically gouge out the skin on her other arm during an anxiety attack. This is what happened the time I mistakenly thought she’d be pleased with a trip to my new place in London; her worry and tears escalated the closer we got to my front door, and failing to placate her, I just drove her back to Sussex.

My extremely biased, unfettered pride at my learning disabled sister’s achievements will be obvious to some regular readers – from her first few faltering steps towards finding her own identity at The Mount, the first Camphill community in East Sussex she joined at 16, to her recent progress at Camphill’s Lantern Community in Ringwood, Hampshire. And the only major problems so far have been other people’s narrow minds.

And I’m delighted to say my shameless promotion of her progress continues apace. This summer, she spent a few days at the Ferring Country Centre, learning social and life skills through activities and enjoying day trips that boosted her independence and widened her horizons enough for her to join in the carnival parade.

The centre has grown since its launch in 1986 by a group of like-minded parents who recognised the need for a workplace-based setting for vulnerable adults. The aim is to boost social inclusion for the learning disabled, supporting them to play a valued role in society through training and work experience.

The scheme’s garden centre grows plants and vegetables for sale to the public with the project’s participants helping in every aspect of production. The riding therapy lessons are taken up by 600 learning and physically disabled adults and children every month. People with disabilities also work in the café and the scheme’s small animals farm while off-site, they get involved in community projects, including newspaper collection and gardening.

When I asked Raana if she’d mind me writing about her latest experience, she nodded: “I loved it. I want to do it again next year.” And when I asked what the best thing about the Ferring centre was, she said proudly “my top”. Her answer didn’t really surprise me; the logoed tee-shirt and matching fleece are badges of honour for my sister as they demonstrate that she belongs to a community and they make her feel – very officially – valued. Do check out the Ferring project’s gallery to see more pictures of what this excellent centre does and to the team there – thank you, you’ve made our summer.

However, as grateful as I am for my sister’s progress, I never take it for granted. While she is currently so well-supported, others are in unhappier situations and the funding future is less than rosy for disability services. As campaigning organisations like the Learning Disability Coalition (LDC) and Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG – note of transparency here as I also manage the group’s blog) have made clear, government cuts are a massive threat to disabled people while current funding rules are in desperate need of an overhaul.

Next week, 13 September, the Welfare Reform Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords and there is a very real fear that people with disabilities will lose out in the changes. Disability Living Allowance (DLA), for example, is used by the disabled for daily living costs but the government plans to replace it with Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which will save it money. But a recent survey of 2,200 people by charity the Papworth Trust, shows that the changes under PIP would mean 86% of disabled people would be forced to cut back on food or transport. There is a growing fear – and now growing evidence to suggest – that cuts are unfairly falling on the disabled.

For how long will young disabled adults be able to access the same activities and support as my sister in such a climate?

This week, Raana is back in Hampshire, getting stuck back into living, learning, socialising and working. Her work in the Lantern Community’s amazing shop, for example, now includes more responsibility for stock pricing, something of which she is very proud. Raana has so far not only achieved more any of us can have hoped for, but there’s a very real sense that there’s much more to come.

And I think for my parents, who know they shouldn’t but can’t help but compare Raana’s development with that of her two older siblings, it’s worth noting that I’ve certainly never been in a carnival parade and now I’m not the only one in my family to make the front page (note the tiny pink and white wand-holding figure in the centre of the throng). The only difference is that while I can write the news, I’ve never actually made it.

Creativity in a good cause

A mini-post to bring you something I wish I could say I’d made earlier (given it’s the summer holidays and my kids are off school…). I mentioned this campaign on Twitter a few weeks ago, but liked the idea enough to share a couple of images of the creations already made:

The images here are from the Make With Me campaign, learning disability charity Mencap’s new make and bake appeal. The campaign encourages people to get creative with fundraising parties to show their support and raise money for the UK’s 1.5m learning disabled people.

For more inspiring pics and creative ideas check the campaign’s Facebook page along with some images on the online gallery, including a Bob the Builder in gingerbread..(this might have to become something of a pictorial theme for The Social Issue).

Breaking stigmas about learning disabled teens

Hardly earth shattering news that teenagers like playing music, chatting at coffee shops, learning to cook (if their parents are lucky) and hanging out with their mates – but how often do you see learning disabled teens doing the same things?

Young people with learning disabilities can face massive barriers when it comes to enjoying the same things as their mainstream peers – often because of prejudice rather than because of a physically inability to cope with the task involved.

I’ve had the misfortune to experience this prejudice with my sister, as have the family of 12-year-old Gregor Morris – forced to leave a West End show for laughing too loudly (it was Wicked for crying out loud – not Chekov).

Which is why we need more of the kind of ad campaign that Mencap’s just launched. The learning disability charity filmed Ellen Goodey, Ben Morse, Kirstie Andrews, Matthew McCarthy and Dharmesh Ladd carrying out everyday tasks like any other young people.

Now I can’t stand reality TV, but frankly, I’ve never been more pleased to watch a bunch of young unknowns doing extremely ordinary things.

Ben Morse at the keyboards in the Mencap ad

Mencap’s new ad, says Mark Goldring, the charity’s chief executive, is a step towards a more inclusive society: “We need to see more positive role models of people like Ellen, Ben, Kirstie, Matthew and Dharmesh on our TVs and in public life to help remove the stigmas associated with disability.”

Matthew McCarthy cooks in the Mencap film

The national TV, radio and print advertising campaign aims to raise £300,000 – the short film explains that if you buy any Procter and Gamble products available at Co-operative Food and Co-operative Pharmacy stores, you help raise funds for Mencap and sister charity ENABLE Scotland as part of The Co-operative’s Charity of the Year Partnership. The promotion will run for six weeks nationwide, with Procter and Gamble donating 3p on each product sold from over 20 of their brands. So now (can’t resist this…) you can wash, and go raise awareness.

Mencap's Ellen Goodey stars in the new ad

Money raised will go towards launching a programme called Inspire Me, aimed at working with young people with a learning disability aged 16-25, their parents, carers, and local communities, to overcome the exclusion and prejudice by providing activities and training, together with volunteering and employment opportunities.

You can watch the ad here:

Ben, one of the stars of the new ad campaign, also features in this previous Mencap film where he and his mother explain how he’s been verbally abused, spat on, pelted with stones and “too scared to leave the house” because of bullying. As his mother, Charlotte says, you can’t wrap a child with learning disabilities in cotton wool “because they’re not learning any of those things they need to learn to be indepdendent”. No better words to show why the campaign is worth supporting.

Haunting, detailed and complex: winning work by autistic young artists

I recently blogged about Create! Art for Autism, a national art competition run by Beechwood College, a specialist residential college in Wales. The aim of the project was to show that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but boost quality of life and future prospects.

The awards ceremony took place at the weekend – more than 350 entries were received from 52 different schools from all over the UK, and as far away as India and Croatia – and a couple of the very worthy winners are here:

Angel, by Sam Fitzgerlad, Create! Art for Autism winner (pic credit: Huw Evans Agency)

The Digital Category was won by Sam Fitzgerald, above. Angel, the work by the 18-year-old from St Cenydd School in Caerphilly, was praised by judges as having a haunting and metaphysical quality.

Esther Whitney, Aged 24 from Birmingham City University won the 3D Category prize for her sculpture, A Thimble Full. Esther’s work was inspired by her difficulties with social interaction, with the thimbles representing that a thimble full of relationships can be enough for young people with an autistic spectrum disorder. The award was presented by Lucinda Bredin, Editor at Bonhams Magazine and member of the judging panel, who complimented Esther and the other finalists on the “detail, depth and complexity of their work.”

A Thimble Full by Esther Whitney, winner, Create Art for Autism

The prize for the Teacher’s Choice Award was presented by Darren Jackson, Principal of Beechwood College to Alexander Fox-Robinson, aged 15 from Pembroke School, Pembroke for his pencil drawing, The Blitz, which featured in my previous blogpost on the competition.

The Blitz, by Alex Fox-Robinson

The finalists’ work is on display at The Old Library, Cardiff until Sunday August 7 and will move to London early in the autumn. For more information contact Create! Art for Autism. The amazing amount of entries to the competition shows the vital nature of platforms to showcase the talent of young people like Sam and Esther and the organisers say that next year’s competition will include even more categories.

Art competition gives voice to youngsters struggling to be heard

Painting, by Jake Rose

Bold, intricate, colourful and thought-provoking – some of the artworks here wouldn’t look out of place in a city art gallery, but in fact these pieces are among the powerful creations produced by young people with autism and related conditions.

Earlier this month, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, a specialist residential college in Wales launched a national art competition (the works here are from the shortlisted finalists), Create! Art for Autism, open to those aged 11 to 25 who are formally diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The aim of Beechwood College is to show that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but boost quality of life and future prospects.

The college cares for students aged 16 and over with ASD and teaches students to articulate themselves through creative programmes including music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media and horticulture. As Beechwood principal Darren Jackson says, “art and creativity programmes can transform the lives of young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard”.

Drawing by Alex Fox-Robinson

There were more than 350 entries from 52 different schools from all over the UK with entries also sent from as far afield as India and Croatia. The judges have chosen six finalists in each category of 2D art, 3D art and digital media art, who will attend an awards ceremony at Beechwood College on July 24th. To support and recognise the work that schools undertake, both the winners and their schools will receive prizes and there is also a “teacher’s choice” allowing teachers to choose the winners.

Ceramic work by Nicola O'Leary

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 principal Darren Jackson.

Painting by Evan Findlay

The finalists’ work will be rolled out into a national art tour open to the public, first at The Old Library in Cardiff and then in London in September. Finalists and other artwork can be viewed here.

Dilnot: reaction round up

Today the Dilnot commission on social care published its conclusions in its Fairer Care Funding report. Among its findings are that care costs should be capped and the means-tested threshold increased under major changes to the funding of adult social care in England.

The report is a chance to finally fix a shattered system, there will be widespready reaction and analysis later today and beyond to what Dilnot himself calls a once-in-a-lifetime chance to overhaul social care but for now, here’s a selection of today’s responses which I’ll try and update throughout the day.

Sue Brown, Head of Public Policy at the national deafblind charity Sense: “Sense welcomes the Dilnot report, and in particular the key finding that additional public funding for adult social care is urgently required. But we are concerned that the media focus is only on older people which obscures some critical aspects. We believe the report clearly shows that not only can the Government afford to support disabled people of all ages, but crucially as a society we can’t afford not to. It is now up to the Government to fund adult social care so that it gives disabled people of all ages quality of life. For deafblind people social care means communication and mobility support, not just personal care.”

Julia Unwin, the Chief Executive of JRF and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (a non-for-profit provider of housing and care services): “Today marks the most concrete and credible step for years. I believe that the proposed reforms have the potential to bring about a radical step-change in how we value social care, how we think about disability, and how we all – as individuals and as a society – plan and prepare for longer lives.
It is positive to hear commitments from all the main parties to set aside party differences and consider the Dilnot report with the consideration it clearly warrants.
The JRF now urges the Coalition Government to abide by its promises to deliver a White Paper in the next six to nine months. It would be a tragedy for this, one of the most pressing and defining issues of our age, to be kicked, yet again, into the long grass.”

Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive, Alzheimer’s Society: “Today’s welcome report could bring to an end the scandal of the colossal Dementia Tax where every year tens of thousands of families are left to pay all their care costs whilst other diseases are paid for by the NHS. The government mustn’t miss this opportunity to right a wrong that is destroying lives. In a new system we must end the postcode lottery that gives different support depending on local authority. The Dilnot Commission has given the coalition government the opportunity to show that it is a caring government. Pending implementation they must also show they care, protecting social care spending in the way they are doing for health.”

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber: “The TUC welcomes the increase in funding for the care of the elderly over the next few years, and the news that social care will be free for those who become disabled before the age of 40.
“The introduction of a national eligibility assessment should avoid a ‘postcode lottery’ and make it possible for those receiving social care to move around the country without losing their care provision.
“The TUC believes that social care should be provided free for those who need it, and funded from general taxation. The Dilnot Commission’s proposals could, however, be transformed into this NHS model by continually reducing the level of the cap on care costs. The government must not set too high a cap – a level above £50,000 per person would mean that families could still face losing their homes to pay for the vital care they need.”

Gordon Morris, managing director of Age UK Enterprises: “The Dilnot commission report delivers a clear call to action to the financial services industry to work with government to develop the innovative products needed to fund long-term care. Existing products, such as equity release and annuities, could present a solution, but far more has to be done to build flexibility into these products to increase access and ensure these products evolve to meet changing financial needs.”

Stephen Burke, founder of social enterprise United for All Ages: “Under the commission’s regressive proposals, the winners would be richer families whose inheritance will be relatively protected, while most families will face a more confusing and potentially costly care system. The proposed cap on care costs will still result in some older people being forced to sell their homes to pay for care and related costs.
“The proposals aim to reform the current inadequate system for funding care. But they would lead to a more complex, fragmented and confusing care system … This could be seen as a care ‘poll tax’ for the so-called squeezed middle.”

An interesting reaction from by social workerSarah Smith“: “It is local authorities that take the hit from policies devised by central government, and we can only hope that all parties are brave enough to act together for the country’s interests rather than consider of their own chances at the ballot box. We deserve much better than that.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband: “The last thing Britain needs is for Andrew Dilnot’s proposals to be put into the long grass. We three party leaders are of similar age and the same ­generation. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity which our generation must address.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd: “Consumers tell us that long-term care is their top health care priority* so we welcome these recommendations and urge the Government to act sooner rather than later. If private insurance is to play a part in funding long-term care, then we need to learn lessons from the past, where products have either failed to meet people’s needs or have been mis-sold. This will be a new market with a clean slate so it’s important that strong consumer protection is in place from the start.”

Michelle Mitchell, charity director at Age UK, tells the Guardian that the report set out “a clear blueprint” for sustainable reform. Production of a white paper by next spring was ambitious but achievable, Mitchell said. But she warned: “Delay beyond Easter would be indefensible.”

Mark Goldring, chief executive of learning disability charity Mencap, said: “Now is the time for monumental change and it is vital that the government does not bury social care reform.”

John Adams, Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) general secretary: “Today is about more simply demanding more money – vital though additional funding is – it is about urgent reform of a broken system. The Dilnot commission has taken great pains to build cross-party consensus; ministers now need to match the warm rhetoric with which they greeted today’s report with swift action. The government must find the courage to put its money where its mouth is, succeed where previous administrations have failed and exploit what Dilnot himself describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a fair and sustainable system of social care.”

Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund, Richard Humphries: “The budget deficit should not be used as a reason for inaction. This is a long-term issue and questions of affordability go beyond the current economic situation. The additional public expenditure needed to fund these proposals is less than 0.25 per cent of gross domestic product – this should not be too high a price to pay for providing a care system fit for the 21st century….Where they have failed in the past, politicians from all parties must now seize the best opportunity in a generation to ensure that people can access the care and support they deserve in later life.”

Su Sayer, learning disability charity United Response’s chief executive: “The report’s recommendations are the first step towards creating a better system which ensures that people in need of care receive it, funded in a way that is not only fair, but seen to be fair….Whether viewing this economically or morally, we cannot afford to ignore these recommendations, which is why we urge all political parties to work together towards a better social care system for all.”

Guy Parckar, acting director of policy, campaigns and communications at Leonard Cheshire Disability: “The system as it stands is creaking at the seams, with more and more people missing out on the care that they need. This report must be seen as a clear call for action. All of the political parties must come together with one agenda and that is to agree a fairer settlement for social care. We cannot go on with disabled and older people missing out on care because of a system that simply cannot cope with the demands placed upon it…Too often disabled people with significant social care needs can be charged into poverty by our social care system. People are unable to work, unable to save, unable to buy a home as any income or assets will simply be taken to cover the costs of care. This is a critically important recommendation that could make an immense difference, and it is absolutely imperative that the Government acts on it.”

Domini Gunn, Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) Director of Public Health and Vulnerable Communities: “In reforming the funding of social care, we urge the government to follow Dilnot’s recommendation to review the scope for improving the integration of adult social care with wider care and support system. This must include housing, and housing support, providers and could help drive a more preventative approach, incentivised through funding arrangements.”

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO: “This review makes major strides towards identifying how we can achieve an affordable, sustainable and fair funding system for all adults in the UK. The challenge now falls to all parties to resist turning the review into a political football and to prioritise responding swiftly and decisively. It is the most vulnerable who will suffer if we cannot seize this golden opportunity to improve the funding of adult social care.”

“I feel privileged to be different; I wouldn’t want to be the same as everyone else.”


Above, a film about the making of a play about Down’s Syndrome at a Camphill Village Trust community, The Grange in Gloucestershire.

Today’s the start of Learning Disability Week. What’s it like living with a learning disability? A few years ago, my sister, who has Fragile X syndrome, spotted the teenager next door embark on her first driving lesson. “I’ll never do that,” she quietly remarked. Quick as a flash, my mother replied: “You might not, but there’s plenty of other things you do brilliantly.”

Another time she asked why she had Fragile X syndrome. A plain, simple question and one that the rest of us asked for some time after her diagnosis (the answer: the genetic lottery). That was a tricky moment – it wasn’t that she required a literal explanation of the genetic make up that set her apart, but she was struggling to make sense of why there were certain things she found difficult to do and certain situations she felt uneasy in.

Unable to avoid some cliches, we explained that everyone’s different – wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we were all the same? – and talked about her amazing achievements which regularly leave us awe-struck, biodynamic farming among them.

If you’ve no experience of learning disability, you might assume that people like my sister potter along aimiably, existing in a smiley, hand-flapping, blissful state of ignorance, unable to articulate or appreciate the extent of their special needs.

The illuminating and moving film, above, about the making of a play about Down’s Syndrome at a Camphill Village Trust community, The Grange in Gloucestershire, lets the actors speak for themselves:

“I can’t be like Robin or Claire; I’m different.”

“It feels weird being with Down’s Syndrome.”

“To be honest, I feel quite privileged to be different; I wouldn’t want to be the same as everyone else really.”

The playwright, whose brother has a learning disability, recalls the days when those with learning disabilities were ushered away from mainstream society: “I was seven and he was nine when we were separated…my brother was tucked away in a sheltered workshop.. he would be a footnote..something to be forgotten.”

While grim institutional care is no longer the only option for people with learning disabilities, the horrific goings-on at the Winterbourne View care home and new Mencap research on disability hate crime are just two reminders of the massive problems that remain.

For me and my family, the awareness week that starts today means not only appreciating the scale of the challenge when it comes to creating a fairer society for the learning disabled – and demanding action – but celebrating the achievements of those we feel proud to call “different”.

“Sometimes I get cross with my parents because we don’t have a normal life.”


Above, young carers talk about their role in a Carers Week film.

Next time you feel fed up with doing the household chores, think about Ryan. At 13, he cooks, cleans, does the laundry and helps both his disabled parents get around the house. His father has Crohn’s disease and his mother is disabled.

Aside from the physical requirements of his role as a young carer, Ryan shoulders a huge amount of emotional stress; life is unpredictable because his parents’ health varies from day to day. Getting ready for school in the morning, for example, is hard because he worries about leaving his parents alone and fears his dad will be in hospital when he gets home. The teenager gets frequent headaches, stomach aches and suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, all of which his GP says is stress-related. It is easy to see how being a young carer can adversely affect education, health and wellbeing and lead to isolation and anxiety.

Ryan, who is lucky enough to be supported by a young carers project run by the charity Action for Children, is one of an estimated 700,000 children and young people who have caring responsibilities. Young carers represent over 10% of the UK’s 6m carers, the group of people highlighted in Carers Week this week.

Action for Children is using Carers Week to demand that the government and councils do not ignore the plight of young carers. The charity has released new figures today which show that, in a survey of 23 Action for Children young carers projects, services supporting 1,192 young carers have had their budgets cut by up to 30%. A further 192 young carers are supported by services that have suffered budget cuts of 40% or more.

As Ryan says, he would be lost without support from his young carers project. “I really rely on that time with my support worker to express my worries. It’s amazing to share my experiences with other young carers who understand what it is like to be me. I love my parents but sometimes I get cross with them because we don’t have a normal life and I can’t do the same things as my friends. I used to feel guilty and bad about those feelings but after talking to other young carers I know that we all have feelings like that sometimes and its okay. The young carers project arranges all sorts of activities for us to help us relax and enjoy our time off from looking after our parents. It’s like having a little holiday away from all the worry.”

Budget cuts to support services for young carers save money now but run the risk of undermining young carers’ futures. As Hugh Thornbery, director of children’s services at Action for Children, says, there is already a huge danger that those who need care start relying on children and young people to support them even more as statutory service provision is decimated. This situation, as the charity stresses, effectively means young carers – many of whom spend up to 50 hours a week looking after a relative – bear the brunt of the country’s deficit and might end up paying for it with their futures.

* To find out more the impact of caring resonsibilities on the young, try also checking out the very good Victoria Cares site, a week-long campaign by children’s charity Spurgeons revealing a week in the life of young carer Victoria.

No voice for the vulnerable

Can you imagine being so desperate for affordable legal advice that you go on an eight-hour, 300-mile bus trip just to get help? I came across such a case seven years ago; a Welsh man facing eviction from his council-owned cottage when the area was being redeveloped found that the only housing legal aid lawyer willing to take on his case was in West London. So desperate was the man to stay in the cottage he had been born in and so great was his fear of homelessness, he made the trip.

Although this tale is from 2004, it highlights the vital safety net legal aid (when the state pays all or part of the legal costs for those who cannot afford them) provides to society’s most vulnerable. The number of solicitors who carry out legal aid work have been falling in recent years (hence the Welsh man’s 300-mile journey) thanks to uncompetitive pay rates, hours of unpaid work and red tape. But now, under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by £350m, the situation could get worse for those wanting to access affordable legal help. It is estimated that around 500,000 people could lose out on legal advice amid the planned cuts as the government wants to remove clinical negligence, family law, education, non-asylum immigration and housing cases from legal aid’s scope.

Today is Justice for All day, with marches and petitions planned by a coalition of 3,000 charities campaigning against the cuts and you can also oppose the cuts at social action campaign site 38 Degrees.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has also launched Sound Off For Justice, a campaign for alternative reforms that it says will save more than the government’s own proposals and protect legal aid funding. The campaign encourages the public to demand the government reconsider its plans and look at the alternative measures which it says would save £384m in the next 12 months. You can record a voicemail for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke against the cuts here. The campaign is supported by, amongst others, housing charity Shelter, the Refugee Council, lone parent charity Gingerbread and housing association Eaves.

Here’s the campaign’s latest video:

There’s something rotten going on when an endless glut of super-injunctions protect the privacy, reputations and careers of the super-rich but a lone parent, for example, is denied basic access to his children because he simply can’t get the afford the advice.

Midlands movers shaking up the arts scene

A scence from Visitor, by Movers theatre company

It’s not unusual to view art as an escape from daily life. It’s more rare for the audience to be transformed from observer to participant and to feel so immersed in a theatrical event that they feel like the only world they inhabit is the one on the stage.

I’ve just come across what promises to be a uniquely interactive drama experience, Visitor, by the East Midlands-based theatre company Movers. The installation-style performance, designed with disabled children and their families in mind, takes place in a dream-like, enchanted forest with “hidden activities” for the audience to participate in, a multi-sensory environment and the intriguing promise of some “interactive pods”. Audience members sit in a clearing in the “magical forest world” for the performance and, if they feel like it, interact with the characters, technology, materials and colours.

For some reason, I’m imagining A Midsummer Night’s Dream minus the foliage-related trip hazards and The Bard’s English…but the performance promises much more than this.

An actor performs with Movers theatre company

Movers, a company of learning disabled actors, is part of the 15-year-old Speakeasy participatory arts company based on the Saffron Lane Estate in Leicester. Speakeasy works in schools and youth theatres to create an accessible environment, which can be safely and freely explored. The group has developed a non-verbal, movement-based style, which audience-goers report to be quite mesmerising.

Movers performed in front of an audience of 25,000 at the opening ceremony of the 2009 Special Olympics hosted in Leicester (check out the amazing costumes). Formed by Speakeasy in 2004, the theatre company’s aim is to create professional quality touring performances which are inspired and created by the learning disabled adults involved. The company, which includes 11 adults aged 19 to 60, creates at least one new performance a year, and its recent work has included commissions for the Leicester City NHS Primary Care Trust – Make my stay, about experiences of healthcare from a learning disabled point of view – and an educational play about personalisation and the changes to the benefit system.

Speakeasy, which costs about £30,000 a year to run, relies on commissioned projects to make its work possible and, through Movers, has worked with roughly 20 learning disabled artists since 2004.

Speakeasy artistic director Andy Reeves says of Visitor: “We’re trying to make a piece of theatre which, though it’s imagined, devised and performed by learning disabled artists, will be a great audience experience for everyone. Visitor gives the audience the chance to get closer to the action, interact with characters and technology in a dream-like, woodland setting. Our goal is for everyone- disabled, non-disabled, young, old- to come out with a smile on the outside and a warm feeling inside.”

Movers actor James Langley adds: “It’s not going to be your average performance,it’s going to be completely different to what you’ve seen before, because it’s going to be by Movers, who do things differently to everyone else.”

Langley’s fellow actor Emma Shuttlewood says she wants to provoke an amazing response in the audience: “I want them to say ‘wow’!” Based on Movers’ previous successes, I’m sure they will.

Visitor premieres on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd June at Embrace Arts, Leicester, as part of the Spark Children’s Arts Festival.