The media has a staggering influence on society and it fills me with hope that when it comes to those with intellectual disabilities (ID) – it is increasingly being used to challenge old beliefs, educate people and showcase the importance of inclusion and acceptance.
I am optimistic this will lead to a better future for everyone. We must ensure shocking statistics, such as that 8 in 10 people with ID experience bullying, are banished to the past. People without disabilities can learn so much from people with disabilities, just as people with disabilities can learn from those without – ID is no different.
The current mass of information available to people through multiple channels – TV, magazines, the internet and social media - does pose challenges, especially with the rise of ‘fake news’. However, it is important to acknowledge positive stories too!
Take the example of The A Word, which has just finished its second series on Tuesday nights on BBC One. This is a brilliant and entertaining drama with an incredibly important message.
It outlines the challenges that a family with an autistic child can face in everyday situations, not usually a subject which is candidly discussed. The first series resonated with me in a deeply personal way because my brother Will lives with Down syndrome. The programme gives the mainstream public an insight into the life of a family with a child who has an ID and helps create a sense of empathy. Moreover, it shows families with a child who has a disability that they are not alone in their experiences and highlights the importance of humour. It was great to see fans of the show commending its star Joe on social media for his excellent taste in music – proving they could look beyond his disability.
The title of this programme aptly highlights the hidden and unspoken nature of disabilities, but the content counteracts this by sending out a strong message about overcoming preconceived ideas. The drama is accurate, factual and the characters and scenarios are effectively portrayed - providing context to the behaviour of someone with an ID. This equips the public with more skills and understanding in everyday life which is so important and can be comforting for people who know someone with a disability. It breaks down stigma and fills gaps in knowledge present in the mainstream. I hope this is the starting point for TV dramas showcasing the potential in those with ID.
I know many people without ID do not know how to speak to or treat people with ID – often due to a lack of experience. The truth is you simply treat people how you wish to be treated, with kindness and patience, respect and dignity.
It’s not just TV that is embracing those with ID, River Island has also recently chosen a young model with Down’s Syndrome – I think this is amazing and shows that, really, people with disabilities are no different to those without. It highlights the equality that should exist in every walk of life and that looking ‘different’ can be just as beautiful as what is often perceived as the ‘desirable look’. It challenges society to rethink our values and the pursuit of ‘perfection’ – about time too! It is fantastic that River Island, a global business, is demonstrating the importance of inclusion and acceptance. This will show people that by being bold, inclusion is easy to achieve. Again, I hope this is the starting point for many brands to follow suit.
The recent Channel 4 documentary ‘Joy’ was a prime example of promoting inclusion and not discriminating. Joy was a play which ran at Theatre Royal Stratford East in October and November and had young people with Down syndrome and autism playing the leading roles. The documentary demonstrated that people with ID are capable of anything they set their minds to. You witness the true Joy both in those with ID and those without. This is due to everyone being included and accepted. The play highlights the capabilities of every individual with a disability and what they can achieve when given the platform. Director Melanie Fullbrook and lead actor Imogen Roberts – who has Down syndrome - have called for Imogen to play Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and I agree that this would be yet more welcome progress in the right direction.
I have similarly been part of a project using the stage to promote inclusion. The Play Unified campaign, a Special Olympics GB campaign delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, has been putting on an ‘It’s Our School Too!’ play across the UK which has been developed to share examples of real life scenarios in schools and highlight ways of better promoting inclusion. I have been participating in the play in my local area, Tadcaster in North Yorkshire, in order to shine a light on these important issues.
I also run a local swimming club called Stingrays which is going from strength to strength. We have 11 swimmers with ID and physical disabilities who are all rapidly improving their skills both in and out of the pool. We plan on attending our first Special Olympics gala in March. Giving the swimmers and parents this news was extremely heart-warming. Our swimmers have developed drive and ambition, something they have never had the opportunity to express before.
They also have the opportunity to achieve and show others their potential. Every swimmer has addressed their own personal challenges and is helping to break barriers in the understanding of others. It has been extraordinary to experience first-hand the positive effects that partaking in sport alongside other likeminded young people can have.
To this end I would urge people to get involved with the Play Unified campaign. It is the best initiative I have ever been involved with. It teaches students with and without ID the importance of friendship and acceptance. This is so important and equips young people with skills for life which will mean – although we have a way to go - a unified generation will eventually be created where everyone is accepted and valued equally.
Two years in, it has impacted more than 30,000 young people in the UK already and continues to make great strides towards acceptance and inclusion in schools and communities.
As a nation, we are moving in the right direction, but hope 2018 will be the year we see real, significant and meaningful change for those with ID.
For more information on the Play Unified campaign, click here