Today’s post is from Nicky Goulder, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the award-winning charity Create, which uses music, dance, drama, and visual art to transform lives, foster social change, increase well-being and strengthen communication. The group has worked with over 9,000 disabled participants in the last ten years. Today Nicky talks on about the recent cross-art form project, creative:connection.
The Disability Equality Scheme published by Arts Council England found that those with disabilities are significantly less likely to participate in cultural activities than the rest of the population. Underlying reasons include lack of access to the physical environment, inflexible ways of working and exclusion from educational opportunities. The health benefits for disabled people of engaging with the arts, however, cannot be overlooked with reports noting the positive impact these activities can have on well-being and feeling part of a community. We designed creative:connection in response to these issues as part of our commitment to bringing together young people of all abilities to take part in collaborative, high quality creative activities.
During June and July, we delivered a series of workshops in Watford for students from Breakspeare school (a local authority special needs school) and Rickmansworth School (a co-educational secondary school). Students aged 16-19 were able to meet, get to know one another and collaborate. For the first part of the project, our professional artists, dancer Rachel Drazek and actor/playwright James Baldwin (co-founder of Function Theatre) led movement activities with 11 students from Breakspeare School that encouraged them to explore how their actions and movements could be used to communicate. The idea was to create a shared social space within which all of the young people could participate equally.
The group decided on the theme of “the water cycle” and explored how the body could be used to show a raindrop falling from a cloud and water flowing in a river. Our focus was on the unique, individual contribution that each participant could make using non-verbal communication. One student subsequently told us, “I was able to make connections with other pupils and felt very happy when they remembered me.”
During the second part of the project, a group of 20 students from Breakspeare and Rickmansworth Schools came together for interactive music activities led by our musicians Jenni Parkinson, Ben Sellers, and Omar Shahryar. Using a multi-sensory approach – feathers, parachutes and sensory objects were paired with instruments to explore themes of ‘flight’ and ‘neighbourhood’ – the young people created original compositions, which they performed to an audience of family and friends. One student commented, “Using instruments has given me an opportunity to express my feelings” while a non-disabled student explained how this could improve relationships outside the classroom, “My uncle is disabled and I have always struggled to communicate with him so I think this has really helped. I learnt that talking isn’t the only form of communication”.
Although these young people live in the same neighbourhoods, their interaction with each other is minimal. At a time when unconscious bias against disabled people has risen in the last two years, despite the success of the 2012 Paralympics, we need to look at ways we can address this and encourage stronger connections between people in a community. Creating and performing collaboratively is a unifying experience and we were delighted – but not surprised, as we have been running collaborative projects such as this for almost a decade – to hear that students from both schools had developed friendships as a result of new communication methods. Staff at both schools commented on the project’s social impact, “Our students have found new ways to communicate with people, build trust and the project has helped them to gain a new perspective” and “Many came away with a desire to take responsibility for developing relationships with others in their community.”
The creative arts have amazing expressive potential, can have a real impact on wellbeing and have an incredible ability to forge relationships. We need to focus on building the foundations for these relationships and creating shared understanding if society is going to be a more inclusive, more caring place.
The Centre for Excellence & Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services ‘Improving the Wellbeing of Disabled Children’: http://php.york.ac.uk/inst/spru/pubs/1913/
 Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion: http://www.enei.org.uk/news.php/691/unconscious-bias-against-disabled-people-is-higher-now-than-before-the-paralympics