Tag Archives: learning disability

Challenging perceptions about learning disability: a personal piece

My sister Raana (left) and me (photo: Rob Gould)
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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.

To read more, see the blog in Learning Disability Today.
To help the crowdfunding effort, see Made Possible on the Unbound website, follow #MadePossible on social media and @Saba_Salman on Twitter

Made Possible: diverse individuals united by a common cause

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!)

How to get more learning disabled people into paid work

When I recently met Anthony Knight, an arboretum horticulturalist at Kew Gardens, his enthusiasm for work was infectious. Anthony’s knowledge about plants and trees is impressive – as is the determination with which he’s pursued his passion for gardening.

It took him nine attempts over five years before finally landing the job in November, despite having done work experience and an apprenticeship at the world-renowned botanical gardens in south-west London.

While in theory Knight, 38, was a strong contender for the job – having previously worked at Kew, at a local nursery and in garden maintenance – he has a moderate learning disability that affects how he communicates, so job interviews were a barrier. “I was not able to portray myself in the best possible light,” he says.

Knight was only successful once Kew adjusted the application process, giving him more information about the general subjects to be covered so he could better prepare for the interview. He also had support from learning disability charity Mencap.

As someone who has a learning disability and is in paid employment, Knight is rare. In the UK, just 5.8% of people with a learning disability who are known to social care services are in paid work, compared with 74% of non-disabled people. But the most up-to-date figures from a 2009 government report show that 65% of learning disabled people want paid work but have been unable to get a job.

There’s also a growing call for more people with learning disabilities to have a paid role at and a stronger influence on the kind of organisations that support them.

For more, read the full piece here.

Prejudice and inadequate support: the situation for minority ethnic children with learning disabilities

Callum and Parmi Dheensa (photo: Parmi Dheensa)

When Parmi Dheensa’s son Callum kissed a classmate on the cheek not long after starting at a special needs primary school, a teacher asked his mother if this was “culturally appropriate”. Dheensa said that as long as the classmate was happy, nothing in her son’s Punjabi heritage forbade such displays of affection.

It is just one example over many years of professionals leaping to incorrect conclusions based on the ethnicity of her severely learning disabled son, who is now 19, says Dheensa. They also assume she does not work and is supported by an extended family when in fact she is a lone parent who works full-time. Dheensa, 43, was once told that her son’s support – he lives at home and is at a special school – was “better than it would be in India”. Fair point maybe, she says, but irrelevant to a British-born, Midlands-based family.

My Guardian article focuses on Parmi’s charity, Include Me Too, which works with 1,500 families a year. It has launched a campaign for the government to review its equality duties in relation to special needs education and support for BAME communities.

The charity has now launched a campaign asking the government to review BAME representation in government decision-making (existing involvement is, says Dheensa, “tokenistic”) and a new disability and equality strategy to ensure families get better support. The criticism is that professionals do not fully involve parents in reviews of the support they require, or in drawing up education, health and care plans, and parents or carer forums are predominately white British.

Read the article on the Guardian website.

Breaking barriers: new event in UK festival calendar

2Decks, who will be on stage at the Rock House Festival (photo by Paul Mansfield)
A new festival opens this weekend, featuring some of the biggest names in the integrated music scene, uniting learning disabled and non-learning disabled musicians.

The Rock House Festival in Brighton, promoted by learning disability-led arts charity Carousel, is expected to attract a crowd of 150-200 people.

The line-up includes Zombie Crash – the groundbreaking metal band that I’ve written about in the past (I was impressed back then by their “shouty, sweary, noisy chaos, big stage personas, a self-proclaimed kick-ass attitude, loud drums, screeching guitars and songs about fighting and sex”…who wouldn’t be?).

Zombie Crash, who will perform at Saturday’s Rock House Festival (photo by Paul Mansfield)

Other names at the new festival, which takes place at music venue The Green Door Store, include 2Decks, The Daniel Wakeford Experience,(who some might recognise from the Channel 4 show The Undateables). Fellow performers include prince vaseline and Sauna Youth. The festival’s wide ranging musical genres include rock, punk, blues, soul, jazz and rock/rap crossover.

Daniel Wakeford, performing at Saturday’s Rock House Festival (photo: Carousel Arts)
The band prince vaseline (photo Carousel Arts)

The inaugural event has been sparked by the successful monthly Rock House nights at music venue The Green Door Store.

For the last eight years, the accessible Rock House nights have attracted crowds of up to 100 and feature one non-learning disabled band, alongside up to five learning disabled bands.

Musician Tom Cook and promoter Richard Phoenix, who runs community interest company Constant Flux, launched the monthly band nights eight years as a showcase for the learning disabled musicians they worked with.

It’s hoped the new festival will become an annual fixture in the UK summer festival scene.

* Festival venue The Green Door Store has wheelchair access and wheelchair accessible toilets. For ticket information, see the festival website.

Pioneering performers: festival season for inclusive dance studio

Adrienne Armorer at a Step Change Studios session (photo: Step Change Studios)

Step Change Studios is the first dedicated pan-disability inclusive Latin and Ballroom dance class in London.

On Saturday, the Westminster-based school kicks off one of many summer season showcases at the Liberty festival at the Olympic Park .

Forthcoming summer appearances include performances and workshops at the Together Fest at the Arts Depot in North London on July 22. The school will also put on an inclusive dance demo at the Disability Sports Coach Summer Festival in West London on July 28.

The pioneering project’s last class before the summer break is on Saturday, and founder Rashmi Becker stresses there are no restrictions on ability, in terms of who can join in.

Step Change, which is based at the Abbey Centre and launched earlier this, is open to all. As Rashmi, a disability advocate as well as a dance specialist, explains: “We have people with learning disabilities, autism, wheelchair users with different physical and neurological conditions such as MS and cerebral palsy, people with visual impairments, young and older people…There are simple things I do to enable people to join in – for example I meet people with visual impairments at the station and support them to the dance space”.

Adrienne Armorer, for example, gave up her beloved salsa 10 years ago after developing the physically debilitating condition multiple sclerosis (MS). But she has taken up dancing again through Step Change, after hearing about the project through her local MS society.

Here’s how Adrienne, who details her experience in full on this blog, described her first Step Change class: “Wow – a 50:50 mix of wheelchair dancers and those without. Cool! A little warm-up and then we were off. I’m not a regular wheelchair user and get fatigued quite easily, so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. It was fine. Nuno and Rashmi [the instructors] are on hand to help and answer any questions. I also needed to ask one of the other wheelchair dancers how he was managing to turn his chair using just one hand. The hour flew by. What a great afternoon. We left on a high.”

For more information contact Step Change Studios Founder Rashmi Becker on 07976 363861, or email contact@stepchangestudios.com

Growth of inclusive project to break barriers to ballet

The UK’s Flamingo Chicks also delivers inclusive dance workshops overseas, this is a session at the Multikids Academy school in Accra, Ghana (photograph: Flamingo Chicks)

 

“It is the one place she can be herself” is how one parent described the inclusive dance school I wrote about for the Guardian last year.

I’ve been following the progress of the Bristol-based Flamingo Chicks, which has just published its latest impact report and is now preparing for its spring show tomorrow, Saturday (you can read more about the background to the organisation in this original piece).

An inclusive dance session run by Flamingo Chicks (photograph: Flamingo Chicks)
The three-year-old community interest company, which has English National Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo as a patron, brings disabled and non-disabled children together to do ballet.

Over 2000 children and young people aged 2 to 25 attended the classes and workshops in 2016-17 through workshops across the UK and regular classes in Bradford, York, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and London. The campaigning slogan is “ballet not barriers” and while the majority of young participants have a range of physical disabilities, learning disabilities and autism, 22% are not disabled.

The need for more more inclusive arts groups is reflected in a recent survey by charity Scope and parenting website Mumsnet. It showed that four in 10 parents of disabled children say their child rarely or never has the opportunity to play with non-disabled children.

Josie and her helper Joe at an inclusive dance session (photograph: Flamingo Chicks)

Josie Wilkins, who has a learning disability, attended mainstream dance classes with the help of her older sister, but as she got older the “gap” between her and the other pupils became wider and she had to leave. The family found Flamingo Chicks, where Josie, 10, who is also visually impaired, is a regular. She recently had major surgery but returned to class as soon as she was out of hospital, wearing, Ingrid adds “a pink tutu, and dancing in her wheelchair using just one arm!”

Recognising that preconceptions about ballet may put off boys, Flamingo Chicks launched boys only groups and introduced more male teachers and volunteers (in the last year, 38% of participants were boys). The company’s recent Dad & Me campaign also focused on the challenges fathers face when caring for a disabled child. Of 250 fathers who participated in a survey as part of the campaign, only 10% had told their boss they had a disabled child, mostly due to fear that it affect their career.

Alfie Pearson, who attends the inclusive dance sessions, with his dad and sister (photograph: Flamingo Kids)

The organisation has also delivered training and workshops overseas (I’ve blogged about this before), so its model can be emulated elsewhere. The overseas work includes collaborations with the special school in Ghana (pictured at the top of this post), a country once described as “the worst place in the world to be disabled”.

Find out more about Flamingo Chicks and its #balletnotbarriers campaign on the website, Facebook or Twitter

Social work: the next generation

Rashmi Becker, disability advocate and founder of inclusive dance project Step Change
A guest post by Rashmi Becker

Against a backdrop of funding cuts, headlines about poor practice and high staff turnover in the sector, it is easy to see how the personal aspect of ‘care’ can become lost. The increased focus on efficiencies, paperwork and risk avoidance can often shift the focus from people to process.

These were among the issues discussed when I recently spoke to BA and MA students at Coventry University as a visiting lecturer. I was interested in what expectations and views people preparing to enter the world of social work had of the sector, and what had motivated their choice of career.

I have spent two decades working for central government, social care providers and now, as a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge examining what quality of life means to people with learning disabilities in residential care. An advocate for disability sport, I also recently co-founded an inclusive dance company that provides disabled and non-disabled people with the chance to learn in an inclusive environment. In addition, I am guardian to my older brother who has autism. So I started by asking the student-filled lecture theatre to indicate if they had a relative with a disability. Almost everyone raised their hand.

I was struck by the maturity, insight, and engagement of the students I met. They wanted to work in social care because they see themselves as caring. But already so early into their careers, many had met with challenges and wanted guidance and support but were not sure how to access this.

I spoke about the duty of every individual to take ownership of better practice, and not to allow poor practice to happen around them by saying nothing. A student approached me during the break. She said she had witnessed physical abuse in a care home during her placement but she was so junior she felt unable to do anything. I advised her of the regulatory authority and how to report abuse confidentially but there was wider concern among students that in a tight-knit environment where staff know each other well and there is a culture of solidarity, it would be difficult to report poor practice without being identified and singled-out. There was an echo of support for one student’s view that one can feel disempowered to make a difference when the scale of the challenge seems so vast or as she put it: ‘what difference can I make when the system is so broken’.

Hearing comments like this, I was heartened by the students’ willingness to self-reflect on how they can make a personal impact on people’s lives in spite of the wider challenges. We discussed what quality of life and identity means for people with disabilities. I shared case studies of support workers and how they had enabled people to achieve their potential by making efforts to engage on a personal, individual level and thinking about what someone can do not what they can’t.

I spoke about my work around inclusive dance through Step Change Studios, which provides disabled and non-disabled people with the chance to learn in an inclusive environment, and the feedback from disabled people on what being active and participating in society on an equal platform means to them. I was really pleased to receive feedback which showed that students understood that inclusion was not simply about taking part in an activity but goes much deeper. As one student said: ‘The description of the woman with a disability who said as a dancer she could feel like a beautiful woman was powerful and made me realise that people with disabilities often don’t ever get to see themselves in this way’.

As another student commented after the lecture: ‘I was really struck by the way Rashmi spoke about social work becoming ‘transactional’ – this is my experience of how a lot of learning disabilities services are. Relationships happen, but the emphasis that managers have is ticking boxes.’

The students also asked for advice on how to cope with challenging situations and people, I reflected on what I have learned during difficult times: identify good people who can inspire you and don’t be distracted by negative people; focus on potential not obstacles; making a small difference is better than doing nothing; and look after your wellbeing because you cannot be of value to someone else if you do not value yourself.

* Rashmi Becker’s Step Change Studios is holding a ‘Strictly’ style competition at Stratford Circus, East London, today (Monday 24th April) with care provider East Thames involving people with learning disabilities. The event is being held in advance of the UNESCO International Day of Dance next Saturday, 29 April. Contact Step Change for more information.

* A previous post on wheelchair dance can be read here.

The disability and employment gap: interview


Around 49% of disabled people in the UK aged 16–64 are in work, compared with 81% of non-disabled people, according to government figures.

The government has said it wants to narrow this gap (the figure has remained the same for decades) but at the same time its various policies and cuts relating to disabled people undermine this aim. A recent government green paper on work, health and employment, proposes to help at least 1 million disabled people into work, but has met with a lukewarm response from campaigners.

This was the context to a recent interview with Gareth Parry, the chief executive of employment organisation Remploy, which has £50m of contracts from central and local government to help disabled people get jobs or support them back into work.

Parry, who worked his way up Remploy after starting as a trainee almost 30 years ago, has depression, something that he says gives him a more personal insight into his job running employment support organisation (“It reinforced the importance of organisations like Remploy; work gave me routine, structure, focus, when everything else in my life was in chaos”).

He is a forthright speaker about how his personal experience influences his role at the helm of an organisation aiming to support people with mental health issues; he wants more senior executives to be open about mental ill-health, for example.

The organisation, however, has its critics. While Remploy was launched by the postwar government in 1945 to give disabled second world war veterans sheltered employment, the last factories closed in 2013 in line with the idea that mainstream employment was preferable to segregated jobs. Yet many felt the closures abandoned disadvantaged people.

More recently, in April 2015, Remploy was outsourced to a joint venture between US-born international outsourcing giant Maximus – which has come under fire as the provider of the Department for Work and Pensions’ controversial “fit for work” tests – and Remploy’s employees, who have a 30% stake in the business. Critics say that being owned by Maximus undermines Remploy’s status as a champion of disabled people.

Parry rejects such suggestions: “I can understand why people would see it that way, but we have a strong social conscience, the employee ownership keeps us focused on that, the profits don’t go overseas to America, they go back into the [Remploy] business.”

Longer term, Parry believes Remploy could take on international work, like advising other countries on closing sheltered factories. He adds: “Our mission around equality in the workplace has always been and is within the confines of the UK, but if we want to make a real difference in society in the UK, the opportunity we have now is to say ‘why stop there?’” Future issues in employment support, he adds, include sustaining an ageing workforce, with help for issues like dementia in the workplace and other age-related conditions.

In terms of other changes, Parry’s words on the rise of online support (as opposed to face to face advice) reflect a general trend towards more online and digital support: “I’m not suggesting online will replace face-to-face services, but the idea of giving the power of choice to the individual as to how they access services is meaningful”.

Remploy is almost unrecognisable in terms of its remit, ownership structure and operations since its inception more than 70 years ago; as the government and local government contracts on which it once relied are dwindling, it will be interesting to see where the next few years take Remploy – and, most importantly, those it helps.

The full interview is here.

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews