A million learning disabled people are eligible to vote in the election on December 12, including my youngest sister, Raana.
But despite better awareness in recent years about accessible polling stations, easy read information and the universal right to vote, the Electoral Commission estimates that one in four learning disabled people aren’t registered to vote.
I’ve been gathering some information for my sister which I thought I’d share on this page (and I’ll update it where relevant):
Granted, this is a crude litmus test because other policy areas (like health, social care, education and human rights) clearly impact on the lives of autistic and learning disabled people. Still, I can’t help but hear the words of campaigner Gary Bourlet, from a few years ago, ringing in my ears: “Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?”
This post was updated on Tuesday 3 December to include Labour’s disability manifesto and a new link to request the Conservatives’ accessible manifestos
I just wrote a column about a critically acclaimed movie opening in UK cinemas this week, one that shines a much-needed spotlight on how learning disability is represented in film.
The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen, an actor who has Down’s syndrome. He plays a man who escapes his care home to follow his ambition of becoming a professional wrestler. The film has won universal plaudits for its feelgood factor and optimistic messages about fulfilling your dreams and not judging a book by its cover.
My own take on the film, as a sibling, is that it’s a welcome move to right some wrongs about Hollywood’s representation of disabled people. Given Hollywood’s previous offerings, such as Rain Man and Forrest Gump, featuring non-disabled actors as disabled characters, having a learning disabled actor playing a learning disabled character seems like a significant step forward. The directors, who met Gottsagen at an acting camp, were offered money to replace the actor they had shaped their film around. They refused.
There is also authenticity in scenes reflecting the restrictive nature of institutions and in the portrayal of risk-averse, overprotective carers infantalising a grown man. You can read more in my column.
The movie opens just days before Brighton’s Oska Bright, billed as “the world’s biggest learning disability film festival”. The biennial event, founded 15 years ago by learning disabled film-makers and supported by disability arts charity Carousel, has a reputation for showing radical work (it hosted the UK premiere for Sanctuary in 2017). This year, for the first time, the short films being screened will be eligible for a Bafta. Timings meant that The Peanut Butter Falcon didn’t make it into the festival, but its themes align very much with the films being shown next week.
I asked two of the festival’s leading lights – committee member Sarah Watson and programme director Matthew Hellett – their thoughts on how learning disability is portrayed on film. Here’s what they said.
Sarah Watson: “I really loved The Peanut Butter Falcon! It was so cool because even though I don’t like Shia Lebouf, he really showed he can act! I thought it was funny and heart-warming but not too heart-warming. The story was really good. I liked how the actor with Learning Disabilities shone out as a proper actor. I thought it was perfect. The music was good. The film was true quality.I wish it was longer! I would like to see what happens to them at the end, what happens to the horrible wrestler – I wanted more bad things to happen to him.
All of these films are trying to break the barriers, trying to make sure that people with Down’s syndrome and learning disabilities are treated equal – which is quite rebellious and rare.
I hope we at Oska Bright kick some ass, be quite revolutionary, show brilliant work and show that we can be as good as any film festival. We want to show more Down’s syndrome and learning disabled actors to show what we can do! We can do as good as non-learning disabled actors. We are the filmmakers and the people in the films! We actually have people with autism and learning disabilities in our films! We know what the daily challenges are of these roles in the real world!
This is my message to the film industry: loosen up and trust people. Give them support and skills and a chance! If it goes wrong, so what, at least we’re trying! Give us access! Stop sitting on the fence! Some films we’ve seen lately have challenged this, so more films like The Peanut Butter Falcon and Sanctuary please!
Also there should be more female led, more disabled led films. Give us a chance! You know you want to! We’re different and have different ideas that you might never think of! “
Matthew Hellett: “I think it’s really good that films like this are being made. Of course I think there should be more of them. It’s what I hope will happen in the future. It’s exciting that more of these films are being made, I mean it’s more than exciting. It should be happening more often. And we hope it will.
Oska Bright is bigger than ever before this year, with a bigger range of films from all over the world. Hopefully when people walk away from the festival, they’ll talk about the films and have a positive outlook. We want people to recognise the films and what they’re doing. These are big bold stories from learning disabled people.
We’re pleased to have
a third of our programme as F-rated this year. We really wanted to make sure
we’re giving female learning disabled filmmakers a platform to share their
work. These films should be more out there. Women in film are already a
minority and it’s an even smaller minority for learning disabled women.
Queer Freedom is back for a second year, which is good and exciting. I want it to get stronger. It was quite difficult to find the films, even though the screening from 2017 was our most popular screening on tour this year.
There shouldn’t be an
imbalance, more films need to get made. Clearly these films are popular, so I
hope they inspire people commission more work made by or featuring people with
learning disabilties. I really hope that
the festival can make this happen. We are very serious about what we do, we’re
not going away and we’re committed to making change.
Films like Rain Man or Forrest Gump are completely, completely wrong, they are not learning disabled people in those roles. They don’t represent the stories and the lives of learning disabled people. They shouldn’t be made at all.
Oska Bright offers real representation and a platform for people to show their work. These stories are important. We’re offering support and creative opportunities for learning disabled people to share their work. Without people that look like you on the screen, you don’t know that it’s possible for you to be there yourself. You need to be able to see yourself on the big screen. It’s starting to happen more which is great to see, films like The Peanut Butter Falcon and Sanctuary are so important.”
Gazala Iqbal, now 46, was overprotected at home and her sense of dependency was reinforced by patronising attitudes from health and social care professionals. One district nurse told Bradford born and bred Iqbal that she spoke really good English “for an Asian woman”.
Iqbal’s story is echoed in a story I’ve just written. The article is also based on new research by user-led charity Asian People’s Disability Alliance (APDA) into the barriers to independence for disabled Asian women. The report, Humare Avaaz (“our voice” in Urdu), follows 18 months of community research involving 90 women with a physical or learning disability, mental health issues, long-term condition or caring responsibility.
Ignorance of health and social care among families, APDA’s findings suggest, is compounded by professional assumptions. While the authorities are aware of the low or late uptake of services, the report states, they “appear content to presume that this is a choice made by ethnic minority communities”.
There are solutions. Bradford council is embedding a human rights approach into its social work. Over the last two years, the learning disability team has made support more accessible, encouraging engagement with the Asian community.
I just did a Guardian interview with Sheila Hollins. The crossbench peer is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on learning disability and mental health but the says her greatest achievement is founding Beyond Words, a pioneering not-for-profit organisation that produces picture books to help people with communication issues. “Beyond Words is what I feel most passionate about because it’s about transforming people’s lives,” she says.
Its origins lie in Hollins’ use of pictures to interact with her son, Nigel, who has a learning disability. “He would roar with laughter at Laurel and Hardy [silent] films but didn’t put a word together till he was eight.” When Nigel was nervous about an adventure holiday, his parents drew pictures depicting activities like abseiling: “When we put things into pictures, he felt more in control.”
Thirty years on, Beyond Words has distributed or sold 100,000 copies of its 57 titles, which cover everything from relationships to surviving abuse. Each title involves 100 learning disabled people as advisers or authors. There are 60 associated book clubs with 350-400 members.
Nigel Hollins, now 47, is a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. He lives independently in a flat near his family with support from a personal assistant. His mother says: “People see Nigel in the shops, cafe or train station. He has a life in the community.”
My sister Raana made this film on the theme of community – helped by her brilliant support worker Indra – for sharing at this week’s (Un)Ordinary Conference in London.
The event, held by the campaigning learning disability charity Stay Up Late, was billed as “a learning disabilities conference with a difference” because professionals from the social care sector made up much of the audience and those on the platform had a learning disability and/or autism.
The event explored learning disabled people’s views on community, relationships and employment.
I’ll write about my own thoughts later, but right now I don’t want to put my own filter on what Raana wanted to share – not least because if I did, that filter would spontaneously combust into a zillion radiant pieces of joy.
I am so incredibly proud of my creative, determined sister, a fact that will be obvious to those who’ve supported and been following the progress of the book Raana’s inspired, Made Possible.
What I will add though, for context, is that Raana has fragile x syndrome and in the past she’s found it tricky to do some of the things she does now. And while she’s done public speaking in familiar places with friends and her trusted support staff, it was a huge deal for her to travel up to London for the day and be in a place she’d never been to before with a whole new bunch of people she’d never met.
Raana didn’t fancy making a speech or taking questions, hence the film with captions.
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.
Just over a year ago I launched the crowdfunding campaign for Made Possible – and now I’m delighted to say that I’ve just delivered the manuscript to the publisher, Unbound.
And I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t stress it enough – I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has backed Made Possible, or who has shared news about its progress to ensure it gets made.
It still amazes me to think that this project – a collection of essays on success by people with learning disabilities – was fully funded within just six weeks. The speed with which the book hit its funding target proves how much this stereotype-shattering title is needed.
There are 1.5m people with learning disabilities in the UK today but people with learning disabilities aren’t asked to talk about their talent, or share the secret of their success – that’s why I wanted to create this book.
Society barely gives them lip service; they are pitied or patronsised, and rarely heard from in their own words.
Now that the manuscript’s done, I’ll be working with Unbound’s editorial team over the coming months and I’m looking forward to seeing the title take shape. People with learning disabilities face huge inequalities in everything from healthcare to education and employment (not to mention barbaric treatment, locked away in ‘care’ institutions, as reflected in recent media coverage). This book of powerful and entertaining essays by learning disabled high achievers will show an alternative approach to treating and supporting people, and the benefits of that approach.
You can find out more about the book in this Guardian piece.
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