‘Made Possible: Stories of Success by People With Learning Disabilities, in Their Own Words’ edited by Saba Salman, focusses on the stories of eight individuals including a campaigning councillor, a professional musician, artists, trainers, social care professionals – who are also adults with learning disabilities. Review by Nila Gupta.
Saba Salman‘s introduction eloquently challenges the idea of what an ‘achievement’ is. She details the first Christmas in which her sister – a learning disabled young adult – independently bought presents for her family. It had me punching the air with joy, in talking about meaningful ‘everday successes’. So, after this, I found the focus on ‘achievers’ a little jarring. As Salman points out, all the ‘successes’ are radical, important, and worth celebrating – but I felt this was somewhat undermined by the focus on ‘achievers’ in the wider collection.
Or perhaps there is a massive need here to counter the dominant problematic narrative about learning disabled people: a statistic quoted repeatedly is that only 6% of learning disabled adults are in work. What comes across positively again and again, is the life changing effect of having appropriate and practical support – mentoring, peers, aspirations rather than assumptions.
In both Matthew Hellett and Lizzie Emeh’s pieces, for example, we find themes that crop up throughout the collection: the extreme amount of control exerted over children and adults with learning disabilities. Learning disabled adults are routinely treated like children, and presumed to only exist in their disabilities. Again and again ‘care institutions’ show interest in their passions, talents, creativity without paying attention to the specific needs of those who aren’t white/heterosexual/cisgender etc. Matthew Hellett’s piece speaks to how necessary it is to be understood as at once: a gay man, a man who is learning disabled, an artist, an organiser.
Again and again, learning disabled adults are either abandoned – as if a change in age means they suddenly have no needs? Or shuffled into a non-learning disabled idea of ‘life/work’ – an idea which has no space for quality of life for individuals.
And, it is not ‘work of any kind’ which is valorised by the contributors – another thread is learning disabled adults being forced into low status/repetitive/minimum wage jobs, often precipitating a mental health crisis:
Matthew Hellett: “The care organisation found me a job; they said it was ‘therapeutic work’. There I was, sitting in an office mail room, stuffing letters into envelopes every day. It really wasn’t me; I felt like the lowest of the low. If I’d been making art at that time, it would have done me the power of good. What was wrong with these people who were meant to be supporting me? They should have asked me, ‘What are your hobbies and interests?’ Not one person asked what would inspire me, what would make me happy.”
I worry that the focus on those who have made significant career achievements, who have left the minimum wage, low-status worlds behind can be alienating to those for whom those things feel out of reach? Or ARE out of reach because of the interplay of learning disability oppression with structures like race, class, gender, heterosexuality etc.
Often in discussion of these issues, I miss a wider awareness of how learning disabled adults also navigate other serious structural oppressions. The cumulative effect is of a neoliberal ‘gloss’ which valorizes individual achievement above structural change. Then again, when battling such massive oppressive stereotypes /structures as those facing learning disabled people, perhaps it’s important to demonstrate achievement, aspiration? When learning disabled people are routinely treated not even as people, is it important to showcase and lift up stories of those who prove this oppressive story wrong?
Again and again, the stories point to the importance of support from groups and peer-led work. Of the radical refusal of what non learning disabled society deems ‘appropriate’ for adults it deems inferior. Also of supportive families: eg in Lizzie Emeh’s piece, the knowledge/support of her nan is key in encouraging her talent and self-worth. Support of family comes up again and again, whether blood family or chosen learning disabled family.
But I’m reminded of an internet meme I see shared often in online disability communities:
“Shout out to disabled people who aren’t ‘inspirational’, who are unemployed or stuck with a job they don’t like, who didn’t do well academically and/or had to drop out of school, who aren’t in a position to live and take care of themselves independently even if they would like to, whose lives didn’t work out in the way they were hoping for, who haven’t ‘overcome’ their disability in the way society tells us we’re supposed to. You exist, you’re worthwhile, and you matter.”
Each of the authors is clear about the ways that support, love, and community (whether of blood or chosen family or both) have enabled them to defy expectations and followed their own path. All the stories are testament to the importance of interdependence rather than dependence. Contributor after contributor explicitly points up the ways in which respectful support and advocacy have enabled them to live out their dreams and passions. These are collective wins, and could be illustrated with more ‘everyday’ triumphs such as Raana Salman’s, which for me, were the most powerful moments in this collection.
‘Made Possible: Stories of success by people with learning disabilities – in their own words’ is published by Unbound (ISBN: 9781783528264) and is available through Waterstones and other book stores for £9.99
For further developments follow the Made Possible Facebook page or @Saba_Salman on Twitter via the hashtag #MadePossible