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.