'We love good stories. We need good stories'. I am in a kitchen with two young mothers, swiping through pictures of my brother Tommy on my phone. I'm there to demo a new iPad game my studio Enabling Play has developed, and we are chatting while waiting for the kids to finish their Saturday morning activities. This is one of my favourite parts of what I do - sharing stories with mums and dads about our loved ones with Down's Syndrome. In a room across the hallway their small children are practicing what seems to be animal inspired yoga, and every now and then the tiny roars of a make-believe lion float through the door.
'He's beautiful', one of the mums says taking my phone to peer closer. I love showing Tommy off, I really do. I am so proud of him I feel it physically, my heart swells and I often blush with happiness when talking about him. Not just because he is a popular actor (we are actually looking at images of him on Google!) but because he is utterly lovely - an impish, inquisitive, sweet hearted person that anyone would be proud to have as a brother. I want everyone to know this, because (as actor Sally Phillips lamented on Radio 4 recently) the narrative of Down's Syndrome can focus too much on the negative, and the more we do to right this the better.
I founded Enabling Play with my brother Will last year. It is an accessible game design studio making learning games for children with Down's Syndrome. Our inspiration for making these games is of course our brother Tommy. He was always a pretty good learner, with a fantastic mind for curious facts and ludicrous jokes, but maths was one of the last things to click and we noticed how this impacted on his independence right up to his late twenties. Coins would build up on his window shelf because their different values, obliquely coded by shape and size, were a little too fiddly to add up. Recognising that this was quite a common story among his peers, Will and I set about designing our first iOS game, Millie Moreorless, with the idea of helping children with Down's Syndrome work on the basic maths skills that are so vital for everyday life. Tommy strongly approved of the project!
When we set up Enabling Play, Will and I had both been making films exploring social issues for a few years, and were interested in how we could put other cultural forms to work to engage hearts and minds. We were excited by the creative challenge of using games, and by the potential for social impact. Thanks to early support from the REACT Play Sandbox, and an amazing partnership with our funders Nominet Trust, we have been able to explore this in a dedicated way. There is a very real need for resources that help children with Down's Syndrome work on essential life skills, and mobile phones and tablets are very powerful tools for this. They contain vast amounts of information which can be shared widely but also customised to respond uniquely to the needs of each user, which is brilliant for accessibility. Children instinctively love them, which is not to be underestimated!
I am fascinated by the potential of digital games to accelerate learning, by embracing the strengths of each player, and maximizing the rewards for trying and mastering new skills. Throughout our development on new games we hold co-design sessions to try out our evolving ideas with children with Down's Syndrome, their families and teachers. This is how we learn what is most needed, most enjoyable and most effective for them. It is especially important to me that these young people have a hand in creating our games - the whole process is a vehicle for exploring and shaping and sharing positive stories around Down's Syndrome, so of course they should be intrinsically involved.
I was told that to run a start up you really have to know why you are getting out of bed in the morning. For me, I want to do my bit to help children with Down's Syndrome grow up to live independent and happy lives. Second, I want there to be greater inclusion and more positive representation of people with learning difficulties within major cultural spaces. In my visits to numerous support groups this year, I have discovered that more often than not there is a determined mum or dad at the heart of each community, helping their children and others become more independent, more a part of society, and more in control of their own narrative. It is seeing again and again the amazing support that families provide which makes me believe that Will and I are starting from a very good place to help bring about this same end.
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