The art of friendship

A man is standing behind a long white table in front of a screen, and speaking holding a microphone while four seated women listen to him with enjoyment.

Speakers at the Local History Day

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: Today was the third annual Local History Day to be held by Newham Disabled Reps Forum, and the second to take place as part of the Together! festival. This year’s event focused on the history of local institutions for disabled people, linking in with the national Disability History Month theme of “Celebrating our Struggle for Independent Living: No Return to Institutions or Isolation.”

However, one thing that rapidly became clear is that the closure of institutions in itself creates isolation if these are not replaced by more appropriate provision. Angus McKenzie-Davie presented a moving film about the history of the Greenhill Day Centre, which closed its doors three years ago despite the protests of staff and service users and carers. (The Equality Act states that disabled people should be included in the decision-making processes, and not simply ‘consulted’.)

Angus now runs an informal group, monitoring where possible what has happened to the service users, and attempting to ensure that their voices are heard within future decision-making processes. Other former service users who were present today echoed his findings that the majority are now isolated, lonely and housebound, still grieving for their lost community, and often without any idea of what has happened to their former friends.

According to Reps Forum Co-Chair Sarifa Patel, when former service users are asked what they miss most apart from the social contact, then access to hot food, being in a safe environment and day trips out of the area – together with the arts – are the most frequently mentioned benefits. That these simple pleasures can be life-enhancing is reflected in the fact that, so far as can be ascertained, the mortality rate among former service users has risen rapidly since the Greenhill Centre closed.

Of course, disabled people do not want a return to the old, charitable model of ‘helping the handicapped’. As Reps Forum Co-Chair Christine Dolyak said during her presentation about her grandfather’s experiences at Newham’s Blind Workshop: “We are not ‘handicapped’, we are the same as everyone else. We can do everything for ourselves; we will do everything for ourselves.”

The aim instead is to establish a ‘Centre for Independent Living’, where disabled people and carers can run their own services and support each other towards achieving inclusion and equality. Inspired by the Paralympics, the Reps Forum and Greenhill Group want to make this the best facility of its kind in the world, creating a real and meaningful Legacy. Together! has already begun to assist them in this endeavour by administrating the paperwork to form the Newham Association of Disabled People and Allies, a fellow Community Interest Company, and will continue to help them to capacity build.

We are also, of course, providing an alternative to the arts provision previously offered at Greenhill and at the also now defunct Day Opportunities service. However, with the need to raise every penny we spend ourselves, we have a long way to go before we can provide a similar range of facilities. What we can and do provide already, though, are activities and events where disabled people and carers can extend their social networks, and thus their self-confidence and self-esteem. We are extremely proud of the fact that last year we were labeled ‘the friendly festival’, and that people tell us we have continued to live up to the name in 2013.

The late David Morris, who inspired us to launch Together! with the UK Disabled People’s Council, recognised the important role that networking opportunities play within arts events. Just as sport creates opportunities to bring a wide range of people together to compete in peace, cultural events create opportunities to bring people together to relax, exchange ideas and understand each other better, and thus to make friends too.

We were also very proud earlier this year when Newham Clinical Commissioning Group presented us with the ‘Communities of Health’ award for “outstanding services in improving the health and wellbeing of local people”. We know that the arts are important in every area of life, not a ‘luxury’ nor an ‘extra’, and we value this recognition.

One practical thing you can do is to donate to our appeal to buy 2500 high-visibility armbands and 500 personal alarms to support disabled people to access activities independently. Our ‘Stay safe, stay creative’ appeal can be found on Crowdfunder here: Or donate to support our work more generally via the link at the bottom of this page. Or visit our Volunteer or Partners pages to offer more practical support for disabled people’s art, culture and human rights.