Learning to see

A woman with bobbed blonde hair wearing a red and blue patterned dress sits by a table and plays a Spanish guitar. On the table next to her are a Russian doll, a Tibetan singing bowl and a kaleidoscope.

Liz Porter performs Learning to See at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton.

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: This afternoon Liz Porter presented her one-woman show, Learning to See, at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton. Liz’s story of being forced to attend a special school from the age of nine will resonate with many disabled people. Her powerful descriptions of the bullying and abuse that took place, and the impact on her happiness and well-being of being segregated from the rest of society, will remain with me.

It is testimony such as this that has led disabled people to campaign, along with parents of disabled children, for inclusive education. (That is, truly inclusive education, not ‘special units’ within mainstream schools and colleges, nor students being stranded in mainstream classes without the support they need to survive, let alone thrive.)

Learning to See underlined the importance of this year’s Disability History Month theme: “Celebrating our Struggle for Independent Living: No Return to Institutions or Isolation.” There is no better way of communicating history than through art, and Liz’s silvery voice, often raised in song, was spell-bindingly effective.

It was therefore a great pity that, although the show had been programmed in a building used by more disabled residents than any other in Newham, not a single disabled building user was in the audience. The reason: the performance began at 2.30pm, to take account of all those disabled people who need to eat lunch, take medication and rest afterwards before traveling to the venue.

By then, however, disabled building users were getting ready for their transport home at 3pm. By 4pm, when the show ended, our potential audience members were back in their homes, many without any hope of seeing another human being until the next morning.

Disabled people undoubtedly face many barriers in accessing ‘mainstream’ arts that could be dismantled by arts providers. But there are other barriers that are solely due to local authorities, and only they have the power to achieve change.

Not so long ago, disabled people used to complain we were prisoners in our homes after 9pm, due to lack of the support we need to leave after that time. For many of us, the curfew is now 6pm, since the shrinking funds provided for us to employ personal assistants do not stretch to evening — or weekend — working.

But for those people with learning difficulties, and/or high support needs, the curfew is just 3pm. Although their support is provided by ‘Adult’ Services, disabled service users are effectively being treated as children. They are forced to adhere to a strict weekly time-table, and are only able to access activities and support — as well as so-called ‘work experience’ — during school hours.

This may not be ‘institutionalisation’ in the strictest sense of the word, but it is certainly institutionalized thinking; it is certainly isolating; and it most certainly has no place in the 21st century. We all need to learn to see the people who are missing after 3pm, and demand change.