In a piece for the Byline Times, I call for a more accurate reflection the lives of those with learning disabilities in society and the media, and explains how my new book of essays, written by learning disabled people, aims to change the narrative.
Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will probably think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts. That’s if they think of anything at all.
The latest figures from NHS England show that 451 people who have died from the Coronavirus since 24 March were recorded as having a learning disability or autism. According to the Care Quality Commission, there has been a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among this group of people compared to last year.
Mainstream media coverage of the Coronavirus reflects a nonchalance. Give or take the odd exception, the reporting has failed to acknowledge the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s 1.5 million learning disabled people like my youngest sister Raana.
Outside of COVID-19, if learning disability issues hit the headlines, they usually reinforce stereotypes about “vulnerable people” unable to fend for themselves. And when a story makes the media, it rarely includes direct words from someone with a learning disability.
This is the reason for the book Made Possible: Stories of Success by People with Learning Disabilities. The anthology, which I edited, challenges stereotypes through the stories of people whose achievements are awe-inspiring – regardless of their disability. They describe, in their own words, what needs to happen for learning disabled people to reach their potential. The powerful first-person experiences are from a human rights campaigner, a critically acclaimed actor, a civil rights activist, a singer-songwriter, an elite swimmer, a fine artist, an award-wining filmmaker and an elected mayor.
Read the rest of the article, first published in June, here
Regularly writing for The Guardian on issues relating to social affairs, public and third sectors, and welfare and disability issues, Saba aims to inform on the impact long-term austerity continues to have on those with learning disabilities as well as concerns for the long-term effects of lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis.
While imbibing a cup of coffee at the computer, my Twitter feed led me to an article in the Daily Mail with the strapline, ‘Babies with Down’s syndrome who are given green-tea supplements are less likely to develop facial disorders.’
Well, you could have knocked me over with a tea leaf. This was something. We always knew there was more that we could and should have done for our daughter 26 years ago when she was born with Down’s syndrome.
We had clearly missed a trick. The answer to stigmatisation, exclusion and discrimination lay in a tea bag. If only we had supplemented her diet with green tea, it all could have been so very different. Apparently, new research in Spain suggested: ‘Six out of seven Down’s syndrome sufferers … developed facial dimensions would have matched her healthy peers.’
Where to begin?
Sarah does not suffer from Down’s syndrome. She has the genetic condition, which affects her life in many ways, but if anyone has met Sarah and other children and adults with Down’s syndrome, ‘suffering’ would not be the word that comes to mind. Sarah’s oft repeated phrase, ‘I love my life’ would easily dispel that myth.
I’m also intrigued by the comparison with ‘healthy peers’. Does that make her unhealthy because of a genetic condition? Sarah does not have a disease. The article continued, ‘Researchers hope that normalising the facial features of Down’s syndrome may help to reduce the stigma patients experience.’
‘Patients’? ‘Stigma’? People with Down’s syndrome are not ill and the only stigma that they might experience is the publication of such articles, which perpetuates the stereotypical view of my daughter and others. Increasing the awareness and understanding of Down’s syndrome and the opportunities for people with the condition will do much more to reduce any stigma.
Sarah has facial features and physical characteristics that are more common in people with Down’s syndrome, but she looks more like us, her parents, than others with the condition. Her physiognomy remains unmistakably that of a young woman with Down’s syndrome and that’s who she is. Her Down’s syndrome is a part of her very being so we do not wish to take that away from her. We would only be changing the way she looks to make her features more acceptable to other people. In any case, her unique character is so prominent that her features become irrelevant.
Of course, supplementing diets is not a new idea; over 20 years ago parents were experimenting with TNI (Targeted Nutritional Intervention) whereby supplements of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and digestive enzymes were given to children with Down’s syndrome. The programme was supposed to help cognitive development, clarity of speech and it was even claimed that there was an improvement of facial features. Even then, the term ‘improvement’ made me me somewhat nervous, as the term can only be subjective and dictated by society’s desire to make everyone appear ‘normal’.
Are we now still are trying to eradicate the physical characteristics as a way of denying the diagnosis? Everybody has his or her own individual personality and physical make-up. People with Down’s syndrome are all unique individuals with their own personalities, family backgrounds and aspirations that make them who they are. Every individual person should be valued for who they are, not what they look like.
Anyway, I had pondered too long over this preposterous article and so by now my coffee had gone cold. Maybe for my next beverage, I should forget the caffeine and imbibe some green tea. I had, after all, always wanted to look like George Clooney. Apparently, a nightly cup of Earl Grey can create a noble look, a steaming demitasse of Darjeeling before bed might turn me into a Kit Harrington doppelgänger and who knows the effect of a pint of Lapsang Souchong a day might achieve?
No…on second thoughts I think I’ll stick to the java and remain just who I am.
As a qualified nurse I have seen at first hand the impact of bullying on a person’s self esteem and self worth. I have seen people self harm – colleagues and staff – and lost friends through suicide. I never become desensitised to this and hope I never will.
Although as a nurse I have to be dispassionate it is never easy to not ask myself could more have been done? Should more have been done? The nurse has feelings too. My lifetime’s work as a mental nurse has not only been confined to the hospital.
It is with this in mind that I have tried to creatively tackle stigma and discrimination away from the usual clinical set up. To normalise mental health is to eradicate the myths and bring it out from the inner walls of the percieved ‘asylum’ It is all about encouraging people to view mental health as being no different to physical health, both sides of the same coin so to speak. More importantly neither working as effectively without the other, each influencing the other.
This work was well received by the viewers, yet there were still people who criticised me online, so called ‘keyboard warriors’ who challenged my views and questioned my knowledge and nursing experience. I had to quickly develop a thicker skin and told myself that even if people are critical, even if they are dismissive of what I do, at least it is encouraging discussion of mental health. it is bringing the subject into the open which is required to break down the myths and misconceptions. Often the criticism echoes people’s own inner fears about opening up. It is a struggle for them to acknowledge their own mental health immunity, especially in my own profession, particularly amongst men.
In spreading the anti-stigma message I have found myself in a range of diverse places. From the Houses of Parliament, universities and colleges across the country to the social clubs of the industrial north east where I live. The places may be different but the message remains the same. I have worked with scholars and gangsters, actors and musicians, writers and poets. Mental illness does not discriminate and any one of us could be the next victim. It does not respect sexual gender, social class, religion, ethnicity or culture. This is why my work has to reach out to all areas of society if it is to make a difference.
I am now liasing with the former MMA fighter Alex Reid to explore writing a book to reach out to men. Alex has also been on the receiving end of bullying through the media and we both share a passion to positively promote healthy mental and physical health. Maybe combining our life experiences will touch a chord with men? We are poles apart and yet we are so alike. We have both experienced bullying and both share a desire and determination to help others.
Alex’s world of MMA fighting attracts the kind of man I am trying to reach out to with my message. Men who dismiss mental illness or stress as being anathema to them and only affecting women. Physical strength and a ‘macho’ attitude to life is no defence against mental illness. I see a strength in men sharing their emotions and opening up about their feelings.
My own world of mental health nursing includes many men who are in denial of their own feelings and whose ‘big boys don’t cry’ outlook on life serves to perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health even more.
There has been surge of support for Made Possible, the non-fiction book challenging learning disability stereotypes I’m crowdfunding with the award-winning publisher Unbound. The crowdfunding campaign has been so popular that the anthology is more than halfway to being published – just three weeks after launch. Wow (the background to the book is in this previous post).
I’m so grateful to everyone who’s pre-ordering Made Possible (all supporters get their name printed in the book), as well as sharing its aims and inviting others to get involved. As I write this update, there are 127 people in our Made Possible community, and I’m absolutely delighted that the book’s incredible range of supporters includes learning disability self-advocates, family members, campaigners, professionals, support organisations and people interested in human rights.
If you’re on social media, do follow #MadePossible and connect on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram – I’d welcome the chance to hear from you if you fancy saying hello.
During Unbound’s recent Anthology Week, which offered a social media focus on the publisher’s essay or story collections, some Made Possible makers tweeted about why they decided to help publish Made Possible:,
Thanks so much to everyone for joining the growing campaign to publish this book; I’m looking forward to seeing what the next week brings.
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.
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!)
So, it was only a matter of time before The Social Issue went into social media stereo with its very own (and very new) Facebook page , another place to comment, suggest blogpost ideas or make contact. Or just give us a little thumbs up, for example…
Here’s an unforgettable question that I was once asked, ridiculous and thought-provoking in equal measure: “So tell me, what made you want to be an Asian journalist?”
Tempted to claim that my options were limited by the fact that the corner shop didn’t have any vacancies, instead I told my newspaper executive interrogator that I became an Asian journalist because being a Swedish one would have been, well, a bit tricky.
He looked confused, then chastened and the subject wasn’t mentioned again. More than a decade on, the question still resonates.
Most obviously, it reveals the preconceptions, based on differences – be that difference in health, gender, colour, class, income or age – that one person can have about another.
Secondly – and this brings me to launching this blog – the question is a reminder about what journalism and writing can do; inform, provoke debate and offer something new to the reader. Not only will The Social Issue be a platform for stories, projects and ideas that inform and spark discussion, but it should challenge preconceptions. That might be because it features a project that’s solved a seemingly insurmountable problem, or because it features someone doing something extraordinary.
To return to that initial question, I thank my parents for the fact that I became an Asian journalist. They are Asian. Therefore I am Asian. Half my career goal was met by virtue of my being born. In my bid to be an Asian journalist, I only had a 50% chance of failure.
More seriously, my parents lived in an area with good state schools. I had access to higher education and post-graduate training before the crippling student fees system came in, and I began my job hunt at the tail end of the last recession in the 1990s.
Today’s young person is looking for training and qualifications when providers are oversubscribed and seeking work in an economically hostile environment. There are 562,000 young people unemployed, according to the Office for National Statistics. And the situation can be worse if you happen to be black or from an ethnic minority. Analysis from the IPPR earlier this year shows that 48% of black 16-24-year-olds are now unemployed along with 31% of young Asian people. The rate of unemployment among white young people stands at 20%.
To compound the problem, what will become of community-based projects to raise aspirations through positive role models for black and Asian young people when funding is so squeezed?
The Black Training and Enterprise Group recently launched a small grant programme to help local voluntary and community groups working with black boys and young men across England. The REACH Programme: Community Engagement Project is laudable but small scale, offering £500 grants to local groups that can host events which encourage and inspire young black males to succeed in education and work.
There are many innovative community-based training projects out there that inspire and encourage young people in their chosen careers – but how many of them are self-sustaining enough to survive in the funding desert?
One organisation that I’m a fan of and that I’m involved with as a trainer is Poached Creative. The east London social enterprise is a writing and design company, training the young and long-term unemployed in media and communication skills.
If you know of other successful projects along these lines – better still if you’re a young person who’s benefitted from them – drop me a line. Alternatively, if you want any tips on how to be an Asian journalist, I’m your woman.