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Whose Learning Difficulty?

Book cover

Strength cover image. David Toole from CandoCo Dance

Paddy Masefield writes about the campaign for Disability Rights and his new book Strength, which charts a journey through Disability Arts over the past 20 years.

On Saturday 3 December Sir Christopher Frayling presented the Paddy Masefield Award to Jonathan Barr Lindsay at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. This was the first time in its 60 year history that such a senior Arts Council official had paid tribute to a disabled artist. Sir Christopher as Chair of Arts Council England, whose annual funding is more than £400 million is the most influential figure in the UK arts world. Jonathan Barr Lindsay on the other hand was born with learning disabilities, is partially deaf and had his arm badly damaged in a car accident. A mere 40 people were present to hear writer Paddy Masefield, himself a survivor of disability, long term illness and a prognosis of terminal cancer deliver a powerful plea to mark the presence of 1.2 million people who are learning-disabled. The fact that 03 December was European Day of Disabled People was equally unknown even to many of those present.

Paddy Masefield writes: How is it that this last great struggle for Human Rights in the UK - the campaign for Disability Rights - grabs so little attention in our media? The battles for recognition of gay rights, of same sex marriage, for the representation of individuals originally from ethnic minorities in our political system, or for the respect of minority religions in the UK, and for the rights of refugees, are far more widely known.

Comprising one in five of society, disabled people outnumber the collective total of those other groups by two to one. The majority of their number acquire disability in adult life. So if only through self interest one might have expected the same sort of personal concern expressed even by young people on issues of pension rights!

Discrimination as historical fact
Historically the majority of learning-disabled adults were detained inside institutions popularly known as lunatic asylums until the 1960s. Even now, many social workers seek to deny their rights to adult sexual activity and marriage.

It is this almost un-remarked thoughtlessness, rather than deliberate cruelty, that makes an everyday occurrence of remarks such as that made by the deputy mayor of a large southern city only a matter of weeks ago. In a committee debate over whether to send some severely learning-disabled children to a care home in Cornwall, he tersely expressed the view that they would be better sent to the guillotine.

Were the same to be said in racial terms a prosecution might follow. The Disability Discrimination Act has no such teeth. Yet it is currently being proposed that the Disability Rights Commission, its lone voice, be subsumed into one catch-all body responsible for gender, race and disability.

Prejudice from biblical times
Much of the press in this country still persists with language to describe disabled people as handicapped or crippled that is as grossly offensive as are the long abandoned phobia of queer and nigger. The media merely overlooks the very existence of disabled people, unless their disfigured faces or unusual behaviour mark them out for the same sort of voyeuristic delight that was once reserved for the spectacle of unarmed Christians being eaten by animals in Roman amphitheatres.

Such prejudice pre-dates Roman times. In the Old Testament Moses was told to exclude, from the temples; A blind man or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose or anything superfluous, or a man that is broken-footed or broken-handed, or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken. What an extraordinarily explicit list, just in case a single one of my historical forbears might have slipped through the net. (Though I do love anything superfluous? If only! Most of us have losses.)

Disabled people are at pains to explain to a still hostile world that the barriers denying access to education, transport, and employment are caused not by our impairments, but by society. If as an example it dis-ables me by failing to provide ramps for my wheelchair, or all my reading material in large print. The shrinking of one fifth of our population to less than one in five hundred of the vast arts industry of more than 650,000 is surely Variety's Greatest Vanishing Act?

Yet it is those very same arts that disabled people have targeted as the platforms on which to tell their stories, and present their images.

The greatest strengths
It is true that in the UK adults no longer abandon disabled babies on orphanage steps, padlock learning-disabled people in iron cages, or shut them in cupboards at home when visitors call, all of which are still the case in Greece, a member state of the European Union, as well as in many other Eastern European countries. While Bangladesh is only one country among many whose traditions dictate that a husband should divorce a wife who acquires disability or disown a disabled child.

But disabled actors have yet to appear regularly on the stages of our Royal National Theatre or the equally Royal Shakespeare Company, or even to be cast in the roles of the few disabled people to be central to films such as Christy Brown's My Left Foot.

So this country continues to perpetuate the myth of disability equating to inability. Even though I have been a disabled person for 20 years, it was only while researching my forthcoming book Strength that I realised just how apt my chosen title was. Sculptor Adam Reynolds, who sadly died earlier this year at the ridiculously early of 46, spoke for many disabled artists when he said:

As an artist I have been particularly keen to help others enjoy the contradictory nature of the universe. In my own case I am clear that my greatest strengths stem from being born with muscular dystrophy, to others apparently my weakness.

Who we are?
Extraordinarily Strength will be the first major work in the UK to concern itself with Disability Arts. Yet many of those art forms, from Signed Song or signed dance, through theatre by blind or deaf people, or the visual arts and poetry of Survivors of the mental health system are the statement of who we are, who you are and therefore how we can all begin to understand each other's strengths.

Strength there certainly is in quality. But it has been the inertia of the arts establishment in the UK that has consistently precluded strength in quantity. This is a country still so riddled with class, chauvinistic and xenophobic attitudes that it is largely unprepared for the acceptance of people who speak, move, sit or express themselves in defiantly different ways. Our new millennium wears the face of public compassion but bares the instincts of personal selfishness.

I was already historically the longest serving advisor to the Arts Council of England when interviewed by a consultant concerning the closure of their Disability Unit. Her opening question was:

Surely we can agree that the Disability Movement has had its day in the same way that the Women's Movement is historically behind us?

We have never had our day.
This book is testimony not only to a lost history but a disgraceful present. No one after reading this book can fall back on the plea of ignorance. Ignorance of the cause is no defence.

Were those rights and representations to be the norm in our society there might have been 400 rather than 40 people present at The Paddy Masefield Award last Saturday.

50 speeches
The final irony being that the Award bears my name only because it was to honour my life after my death. A death whose postponement for the last 3 years has allowed me the time to set down the experience of a life of 40 years in the arts. 20 as a non-disabled award-winning playwright, internationally acclaimed theatre director, and pioneering arts consultant, and 20 as a leading campaigner for disability rights in the arts. 20 years that included being the sole representative of disability on any of the original 5 Good Causes Lottery Boards and the reformed UK UNESCO Commission. And that also allowed me to present more than 50 public speeches commissioned from bodies such as the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the Theatre Managers Association and the Foundation for Community Dance. It is those 50 speeches which lie at the core of Strength, described by Liz Lynne, MEP, former actress and now Vice Chair of the European Parliament's All Party Disability Intergroup as:

A revealing account of the arts industries' attempts to exclude Disability Arts. Readers will be astonished by the potential of disabled artists to refresh the arts world with a new honesty and insight in this wonderfully illustrated anthology. There is a wealth of extraordinary material. Paddy Masefield's observations are touching, scary, funny, but above all human.

Ordering Strength
STRENGTH: Broadsides from Disability on the Arts by Paddy Masefield OBE MA is published by Trentham Books at £17.99. Order forms for discounted prices of £16.99 for students; £14.99 for arts professionals and £11.99 for disabled people can be obtained from

Writer's workshops
Following the publication this year of Paddy Masefield’s new book ‘STRENGTH: Broadsides from Disability, on the Arts’, Paddy is offering Writers Workshops specifically for aspirant disabled writers around the UK.

In June his Workshop is at The Winchester Writers’ conference on Friday 23rd June : (M102). For details contact Tel 01962 827238

In July Paddy’s Workshop for Dartington’s ‘Ways With Words’ Literature Festival is on Monday 10th July. For details contact Tel 01803867373

In October he will be doing Disability Writers Workshops at Ilkley Literature Festival on Sunday 1st October; for details contact and at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Writing and Reading on Saturday 21st October; for details contact, as well as in Birmingham and Newcastle Upon Tyne.