Out of the Shadows: shining a light on learning-disabled people who fall through the cracks


Out of the Shadows is a book made in collaboration between photographer Polly Braden, journalist Sally Williams and arts organisation Multistory, which explores the untold stories of people with autism or learning difficulties. The book is being published by Dewi Lewis, with an exhibition at Midlands Art Centre (MAC) from 8 September until 11 November.

Man sits on bed

Roy, Out of the Shadows: the untold story of people with autism or learning disabilities, 2018 © Polly Braden

In 2014, learning-disability charity MacIntyre approached photographer Polly Braden with the idea of making a long-term photographic study following learning-disabled and autistic people who the charity helped through their ‘Great Interactions’ scheme – which is the name the charity gives to its method of individualised support through facilitation skills.

Braden spent two years photographing people MacIntrye supports, culminating in a book and an exhibition of the photographs at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. “Everyone from the book came and we celebrated,” recalls Braden.

“But one question kept troubling me. What was happening to the people who weren’t getting this kind of support, the people whose learning disabilities and/or autism wasn’t quite bad enough? How would they cope with the daunting prospect of moving from adolescence to adulthood and all that it entails, bills, work, travel? And what would happen if they failed?”

Braden decided to do some digging on the topic and stumbled across a Prison Reform Trust report from 2008 entitled ‘No One Knows’ which identified that at the time, up to 10% of the prison population were learning-disabled. Braden explains:

“The figures are not clear as there is no screening going into prisons and we learnt that many people try to hide their disability in prison to avoid bullying. But it is likely 10% or more of the prison population has a learning disability and so this is much higher than in the general population.”

Man shot from behind

John, Out of the Shadows: the untold story of people with autism or learning disabilities, 2018 © Polly Braden

Braden approached Multistory, an arts organisation supported by Sandwell Council and Arts Council England, which commissions acclaimed photographers, artists and writers to work with people to tell their stories of everyday life. That’s when the idea for the book ‘Out of The Shadows: The Untold Story of people with Learning Disabilities and autism’ was born.

Braden decided to enlist the skills of journalist, Sally Williams, to draw out the stories of those photographed. “Sally Williams and I have collaborated on many projects,” says Braden. “I love working with journalists. I’ve learnt a lot about how to listen from Sally, when to push and when to wait, when to investigate further and how to do it. We were in every interview together and so could form our ideas about the project together.”

Finding collaborators was the easy part, getting access in order to interview and photograph people proved a real challenge. “As Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian a few weeks ago, in the past the Ministry of Justice let journalists into prisons given due notice,” says Braden.

“We spent a year trying to get in, we ran workshops, offered to work for free, spoke to over 20 prisons but in the end, each prison said no. 10 years after the influential report No One Knows – which highlighted shocking failings in the criminal justice system – nothing has changed.”

Although the issues clearly affect thousands of people, for the book Braden and Williams decided to focus down on just ten individuals. Braden reflects:

“They have shown courage in sharing their personal stories of how they came to be in prison. These stories are disturbing, moving and important in pushing debate on why there has been no change and why people with a learning disability are finding themselves incarcerated because of failings much earlier on in their lives. We would like our work to be a springboard for debate and discussion.”

Woman holding arms outstretched

Lindsey, Out of the Shadows: the untold story of people with autism or learning disabilities, 2018 © Polly Braden

Below Braden and Williams agreed to share a snippet of one of the stories, about a woman called Lindsay:

Lindsay has been at Elms since December 2015. She is lively, motivated, honest and talks about past experiences with a cheerful shrug – but her body still carries the evidence. She has no front teeth because her pimp kicked them out. She is deaf in one ear – a legacy of childhood neglect. The scars on her forearm are self-inflicted.

Ask Lindsey to describe her childhood and she lists a disturbing inventory of theft (she went ‘nicking’ for her parents), violence and rape (her father regularly abused her from the age of six). At 14, Lindsey began a relationship with Leroy, 30, whom she now describes as a ‘knob’ and a ‘proper pimp’.

‘Leroy made out he loved me – and I wanted somebody to love, I believed him’, says Lindsey, ‘the next minute he’s putting me out on the streets’. Whilst with him, Lindsey was convicted of theft, mail deception (‘I used to nick mail for credit cards’), criminal damage and fraud.

Women with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Dr Michelle McCarthy led a two-year research project highlighting the physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and financial abuse experienced by women with mild to moderate learning disabilities: ‘Sexual assault of women is common anyway so if you add on top of that an extra layer of vulnerability then yes, it is going to be very high’.

Before Elms, Lindsey experienced bullying in prison. She says prison officers knew she had mental health problems and learning disabilities but she was never offered any help. ‘They just let the girls bully you. They don’t care, the screws.’

Despite having photographed learning disabled people since 2014, Braden still finds societal attitudes towards learning disability shocking.

“Most of the people in the book have suffered bullying and in each case, they have been failed earlier on in their lives. If we keep cutting services to younger people then it is certain more people will slip through the net. The costs of keeping people in a cycle of prison, probation and homelessness have to be weighed up against the cost of keeping services open for young people.”

The stories and photographs are currently on display in an exhibition at MAC and the Guardian will be publishing a selection of them later this month. But for Braden, the important thing is making these untold stories known and beyond that influencing change: “We’ll give the book to ministers and people in the prison services with recommendations for change from people with learning disabilities and experts in the field.” Clearly, that change can’t come soon enough.

Out of the Shadows is on display at MAC Birmingham until 11 November. The book is available from Dewi Lewis publishing for £20 (free shipping within the UK).