‘She used big words and just expected me to understand them’

I was recently invited by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, to give a presentation to the 47 member states on ‘Access to Justice’. It was an enlightening experience in many ways not least because in preparing for the presentation it struck me how little seems to have changed for prisoners with learning disabilities in the UK since Jenny Talbot’s brilliant report in 2008, No One Knows – Prisoners Voices.

At the end of the panel presentations and questions to the panel at the Council of Europe, the panel were asked to present one way forward that we felt would make the biggest difference for prisoners with learning disabilities.

I come from an organisation rooted in inclusion, equality, rights and access. 69% of people in prison said they had difficulty reading prison information, while 20-30% of offenders in the UK have a learning disability that interferes with their ability to cope within the Criminal Justice System. It seemed to me that without a system change to embed easy read into the justice system, across the UK and Europe,  prisoners with learning disabilities will continue to be disempowered, excluded and disadvantaged.

Here are some quotes from prisoners with learning disabilities themselves from the No One Knows Report.

‘She must have thought I was really bright, she used big words and just expected me to understand them’.

‘I don’t understand really. I pleaded guilty straight away. I didn’t know what he meant when he said custodial.’

‘They got me to sign something the other day. I didn’t know what it was, I just signed it.’

‘That’s my sort of hell, filling in forms. It sends my temper through the roof. If I can’t fill it in it does my head in’.

‘I haven’t been feeling well for the past couple of days but I haven’t done anything about it because it means filling in another form’.

A while ago, Frances and I, were invited to co deliver training to diversity and equality leads across the prison service in London. Frances was a member of staff with a learning disability working at CHANGE. As part of our preparation to deliver this training we were invited to visit a large male prison. We were taken through the process that every new prisoner goes through when they arrive in the prison. It felt very frightening and isolating and difficult to understand, even though we were not actual prisoners. However, two things struck us;  the first was that in one of the rooms new prisoners wait in, there was a very small written sign high up on a wall, near the ceiling that said:

‘Let us know if you have a learning disability’

The other thing that struck my colleague and myself was that at the end of the training Frances said that she herself was autistic and has a learning disability. The room fell into shocked silence. One by one the participants in the room said that they really had no idea that Frances was Disabled.

I was really curious about this because if you are someone who knows and works alongside people with learning disabilities and autistic people, I think that it wouldn’t  be long before you would realise that Frances is herself a Disabled woman.

Creating easy read letters, menus, forms, activity information and sentence plans is fundamentally what is needed within the prison service and would be very easy to create although it seems very problematic to put in place. The system itself is a barrier for people with learning disabilities and autistic people to access the information they need in the right format.

There also needs to be work alongside providing accessible information to support people with learning disabilities to usefully make use of the information in order to build their confidence and to support people to make informed decisions about their lives. Prison staff need to know who has a learning disability. They should have a good knowledge of the Disability Discrimination Act and an understanding of human rights abuses. There needs to be a needs led approach and collaborative multi agency working to prevent offending and reoffending.

In our experience easy read information would not only support prisoners with learning disabilities, if the easy read is inclusive it will support prisoners whose first language isn’t English and prisoners who struggle with literacy.

‘ A fifth of prisoners with learning disabilities didn’t understand what was going on in court. Most prisoners said that simpler language would help.’ No One Knows – Prisoners Voices.

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Using Political Theatre Internationally to Challenge the Status Quo

For the last 5 days Shaun, Rachel, Ilinca and I, from CHANGE, have been living and working with our 5 European partners from Spain, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Prague. We have been delivering training on co creating easy read and co training. Part of what has also been important this week is building an inclusive and respectful community.

It has been a very emotional and inspiring week. Our shared values are of collaboration, inclusion, respect and equality. In practise this means that the majority of the partners are themselves people with learning disabilities, empowered amazing, awe inspiring self advocates.

Most of the people with learning disabilities we meet from Europe are rebuilding their lives having been locked in institutions, hidden from the world literally for years. The directors of the institutions are still and have been their legal guardians. This means that if it is considered a person lacks capacity, which is why they are put into the institution in the first place, it is the directors of the institution who have guardianship and therefore complete control over their lives. The people who we met who were seen as lacking capacity would in no way be seen in this country as lacking capacity. They were fully able to lead independent fulfilling lives. However in many European countries, not only are self advocates fighting for a better world for their friends and peers with learning disabilities but also for themselves to regain their freedom, their identity, their citizenship and control over their lives.

As well as the self advocates in Prague, there were wonderful, respectful, open hearted paid staff, some working around legal capacity, others running and working in NGO’s.

Ilinca and Rachel were delivering training around co creating easy read as each of our partners wants to develop easy read in their own country.

Shaun and I were co delivering training on how to use Forum Theatre to co train and co deliver training on Supported Decision Making and Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. Each partner country is going to use CHANGE’s model of employing people with learning disabilities to co deliver training.

Forum Theatre is a tool that we use in CHANGE. It is a way of opening up new conversations and creating inclusion within the room. It is an effective tool that is used globally for creating social change and supporting both people experiencing oppression and those with power to find their voice and explore issues of oppression and power.

We play lots of games based on theories of inclusion, building connection, respect and equality. It’s fun and in addressing issues of having and not having power, we invite the people who have power, to step outside their comfort zones of sitting round tables having meetings and try a different way- a way that works better for people with learning disabilities. It might feel new and risky but it works and it’s also fun!

We work with participants to create interactive pieces of theatre based on people’s real life experiences of oppression and we invite the audience to explore with us ways we might do things differently. It’s safe, and it can deeply touch us. In allowing ourselves to feel our emotions we can create deeper connections with the people we are trying to co create new ways forward with.

When we step into our own vulnerability we can find the courage to let go of our power over others and use our strength to go forward from a softer, more inclusive and co creative place.

In Prague, an incredibly courageous woman with learning disabilities shared her story. When she was 15 her mother died and her father put her into an institution for many years. Her story was deeply troubling and very traumatic and when she shared her experiences, it touched everyone in the room. She offered her story to enable us to co create a short play that we could Forum. In this way we were able to better see in front of us how Supported Decision Making would have changed the way her life went. This remarkable woman taught us all something that I will never forget. She taught us about taking risks, finding our own deep courage, sharing our pain and our stories and the huge gift people with learning disabilities offer by sharing their stories of oppression. In sharing their stories we can all learn from and with people with learning disabilities how together we can make things better for the next generation of people with learning disabilities.

How many of us go to that place in our everyday lives, let alone in work. It can often feel easier to stand in the place of judgement and power. It is safer and easier for us to build an armour of professionalism which often comes with disconnection and distance from the very people we are here to serve. We worry about budgets and savings and forget to see people.

Yet it is the very people who we as a society have unintentionally excluded and betrayed who are our biggest teachers and are generously showing us a new way forward if we dare to see it.