Acting the part?

WheelchairDo the Right Thing is a charity through which disabled people take part in the training of others. Graham Hopkins explains how the Bar could benefit when training its members in how to deal with vulnerable witnesses.

With some cracking one-liners and visual jokes, the Dublin director Damien O’Donnell’s 2004 comedy-drama “Inside I’m Dancing” makes a powerful plea for equality for disabled people in society. There are undoubtedly convincing and strong performances from the lead actors. But therein also lay the film’s controversy. As BBC critic Neil Smith pointed out, O’Donnell, by “casting able-bodied actors as his wheelchair-driving protagonists unavoidably weakens his argument.”


Why didn’t he cast disabled actors? It’s not as if we’re short of them. They are out there. We just don’t really get to see them. Indeed, there are so few opportunities for disabled actors as it is, without non-disabled actors grabbing the occasional plum jobs that do roll up.

I thought of this film recently after seeing a short drama on autism performed at a conference. The person with autism was played, admittedly very convincingly, by an actor. After all, it’s what actors do: act a part. So what if the part happens to be someone with autism? Why should it matter?

In recent years, I have written, produced and directed a number of training DVDs and short dramas for conferences, training sessions and seminars. Each one has centred on the experiences of either people with learning disabilities or disabled people. For example, one DVD is used to raise the awareness and understanding of disabled people for interviewers for the British crime survey; another – “Bully for You” – commissioned by the charity Voice UK, explores hate crime against people with learning disabilities. It has never crossed my mind not to use a disabled actor; nor to not pay them properly – or at least the same rate as any other professional actors we use. Even when a film should commercially cost around £30,000 to deliver, but we produce it for one-fifth of that amount because that’s all the budget our (usually public services) commissioners have, we never shrink from that basic equality.

There are agencies for disabled actors – I regularly use the VisABLE model agency (www.visablepeople.com). There are a number of theatre groups for disabled people and people with learning disabilities that can provide fabulous actors. Not only do you get integrity and authenticity by using disabled actors, you also get the added value of meeting people before and after performances. You can tell them what you thought of their performance; but, critically, they can also tell you what they thought of you. As someone working in the criminal justice system you will, at some point, come across a disabled person or someone with learning disabilities either as a witness, victim or defendant. To get their really best evidence you need to understand how to achieve that. You need to understand them and what makes them tick. So, meet them, train with them and watch, listen and learn with them.

People with learning disabilities lead the Misfits Theatre Company, based in Bristol. “Our company directors, and our actors, who deliver bespoke equalities and issue-based training for a wide range of organisations, all have learning disabilities,” says the company’s development worker, Beccy Young. “The impact of our training comes partly from people sharing their first hand knowledge and experiences of what life is like for someone with a learning disability. The best person to talk about what it is like to have a learning disability is someone who lives with it everyday.”

But, adds Young, there is a more important aspect of training delivered by people with learning disabilities: the implicit challenge to people’s perceptions and stereotypes. “Many people who attend our training have never met someone with a learning disability before. They don’t know how to talk to or approach someone who is ‘different’; they aren’t ‘disability confident’.”

She continues: “Meeting our friendly and approachable actors, seeing them in a professional role, and being led by them through a workshop or performance enables participants to see things differently and find the similarities not the differences. We believe the way you should treat someone with a learning disability is the way you should treat everyone.” Jane, a Misfits trainer and company director, agrees: “It’s great to be able to give training to those who support people with learning disabilities so that they can see the real person.”

Penny is another Misfits actor and trainer. She sees her work as very much a two-way process: “Through our work we are getting the message across to people that they see us for who we are and not for what we look like. It just goes to show that people with learning disabilities have the same rights as everybody else and deserve respect. With the work that I do it brings out the potential in me and the rest of the group.”

Debbie, Misfits actor and trainer, assistant drama facilitator and company director, agrees: “I’ve been doing this for a long time and getting paid for my job. I absolutely love it. We’ve kept it going all this time and we’ve all worked really hard to achieve things. People get a lot out of it, use their acting skills, learn new things and interact with the public.”

The impact on those being trained, or delegates at conferences, can be humbling and inspiring in equal measure. As one participant said: “The main things which stood out for me during the session today were the differences in the classroom dynamics from the beginning and then at the end of the session. At the end there was a sense of community, inclusion and an attitude where everyone was willing to let down their barriers and get involved. A really memorable experience.”

The Winchester-based Blue Apple Theatre was founded in 2005 to enable adult performers with learning disabilities to create theatre, dance and film and to present high quality productions to the widest possible audiences. “We have over 50 members who meet weekly and a small touring company who perform smaller scale issue-based drama and theatre productions,” says founding director, Jane Jessop. “We are currently touring a production of Hamlet which stars six actors with learning disabilities all speaking Shakespeare’s words in theatres across the south of England.”

Blue Apple Theatre produced Freddie’s Story, a play that toured to medical schools and provided training in response to the issues thrown up by Mencap’s report and campaign, “Death by Indifference”. This began after six people with a learning disability died in NHS care. Their families were not getting answers about why their loved ones had died, or why they were treated so badly because they had a learning disability.

However, touring a production is a very costly exercise and so Blue Apple was commissioned to produce a 20-minute training DVD based on the stage version (see link in panel). This incorporates face-to-camera feedback and training, and is a versatile and relatively low-cost means of providing a powerful introduction to people with learning disabilities for medical staff.

Dr Jennifer Dolman, consultant psychiatrist, Eastleigh and Test Valley learning disabilities teams, is certainly won over: “My students were raving about it. It’s a great introduction to all our training, especially if students cannot meet people with a learning disability.”

Jessop agrees: “We believe involving real people with learning disabilities is the only way to give the trainee a real experience. We simulate real procedures, invite actor feedback on how they were made to feel, and include a relaxed time for face-to-face contact so that actor and trainee get to know each other as whole people, who can be fun to be with, not just people with problems. I feel this could be adapted to help with training for any professional who might otherwise only come across people with learning disabilities when they are vulnerable, ill or needy.”

Indeed. Barristers and lawyers could learn so much by training and interacting with real disabled people and those with learning disabilities.

Graham Hopkins is Director of Do the Right Thing.

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