Yesterday was the last day of the Together! 2015 Disability History Month Festival, and our final guest artist was Sean Burn, who joined us to deliver a workshop in the afternoon before performing his poetry for us at our closing party. Sean is a Newcastle-based writer, performance poet and filmmaker, who situates his work around his lived experience of mental health difficulties. Within the festival, we aim to showcase work by artists from across impairment groups, increasing all of our understanding and awareness at the same time as enjoying their art.
However, mental wellbeing – or lack of it – affects a wide range of disabled people (and carers), not just mental health system ‘users/survivors’. This is not primarily because of restrictions caused by impairment, but because of the daily barriers we face, together with the stresses and strains of dealing with service providers and benefit authorities. Unfortunately, though, the ‘Administrative Model of Disability’, where disabled people are labeled according to what is regarded as being our primary impairment, means that disabled people who are defined as having physical or sensory impairments or learning difficulties can rarely gain access to mental health services. Often mental health problems are just seen as being an inevitable consequence of physical impairment, while people with learning difficulties who experience mental distress are labelled instead as having ‘challenging behaviour’, and are frequently institutionalised away from their home communities.
I am pleased to say that this is an issue which national Mind, the mental wellbeing charity, is currently discussing, after a legacy from the late Nasa Begum. Nasa was a locally based activist and art/film lover, who in her day job led on national work around the social care needs of BAME disabled people. Nasa was also a long-term mental health service user, but frequently found that services were not set up to meet the needs of wheelchair users. Nasa was found dead at her home in Forest Gate one morning in 2013, shortly after being forced to leave a nursing home following surgery and to return to her home before building work was completed to improve the access, and before her night care package had been reinstated by the local authority. We all miss Nasa, and are glad that her name as well as her memory lives on in the work to raise awareness of the mental health needs of all disabled people.
Nasa would certainly have enjoyed Sean’s work as much as we all did. A gently spoken, unassuming man and thoughtful, thought-provoking poet, within the workshop Sean taught a variety of techniques that emerging poets might find useful, as well as advising on publication routes and formats. Sean also took the time to talk to participants and audience members individually before and after his performance. We had previously enjoyed Sean’s ‘7 Short Films on Madness’ without our Artists’ Films & Videos programme last Sunday: these can be viewed free online here: https://vimeo.com/140976547 We very much hope to welcome Sean back to East London again in the future.