Seen but Seldom Heard: Challenging the Perceptions of Young Disabled People Through Poetry and Performance

by May 4, 2015

The London 2012 Paralympics raised the profile of disabled athletes in way never seen before. The focus was unquestionably on people’s achievements and successes rather than exclusively on their disabilities. While it went a long way towards changing perceptions of disability, concerns remained that it did little to challenge the negative media portrayals of disabled people. Some even argued that the image of disabled athletes as ‘super humans’ only served to emphasise the divide between elite sports people and ordinary disabled people.

For Dr Carrie Hodges and her team in Bournemouth University’s (BU) Faculty of Media & Communication, and Wendy Cutts and Dr Lee-Ann Fenge from the Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, the platform provided by the Paralympics created the perfect opportunity to challenge perceptions of disability. ‘Seen but Seldom Heard’ is a collaborative project between BU and the Victoria Education Centre and Sports College, Poole. By working with young disabled people, the research explored their experiences of disability through creative methods.

One of the challenges of working with young people was designing a project which allowed participants to work in collaboration with researchers rather than being seen as subjects. By using creative, poetry-based approaches, the ‘Seen but Seldom Heard’ project aimed to enable young people to tell their own stories and develop confidence in their own skills. As well as being more engaging for those involved, it was felt that supporting people to tell their own stories, in their own words would be an extremely powerful way of reaching the hearts and minds of the audience.

Poems were written in workshops facilitated by performance-poets – Jonny Fluffypunk and Liv Torc – school support staff, Dr Hodges and Wendy Cutts. By focusing on a variety of issues – such as the Paralympics and everyday life with a disability – the young people learned how to communicate and express themselves through poetry. The resulting poems were diverse and imaginative, shining a light on how people thought others saw them and how it made them feel. Through a mixture of film and live performance, the young people were supported to put on a series of poetry events to showcase their work, including performances at the House of Commons in 2014 and as part of the 2012 cultural Olympiad.

The effect on both participants and audience members was profound. One student said: “I wanted to express my story and show people that disability isn’t all about the wheelchair. Some people found the poetry humorous, some people found it emotional. [The most important thing about the project was] that we all got our individual voices heard…everyone deserves a say.” Reactions from audience members were just as emotive. One commented: “[It] was very powerful – challenged my preconceptions. Broken down barriers – mainly based on fear. Very effective – the poems I have heard today were very evocative and moving.”

Given the participatory approach underpinning the research, it was important for its results to be freely available. “The Seen but Seldom Heard: challenging the perceptions of young disabled people through poetry and performance intention behind publishing open access was to be able to share best practice and the methodology behind our work so that community groups would be able to draw upon it and develop it into their own projects,” explains Dr Hodges, “It also means that we can share it with young people who want to be part of future workshops. By making our research widely available, we have been able to leave an academic legacy which will benefit others.”

The initial scope of the project was to work with a local residential and day school which offers specialist care and education to children and young people with physical disabilities and complex medical conditions. Throughout the course of the project, the team has seen the young people they worked with grow up, and in some cases go on to studies or careers in creative subjects which they might not otherwise have considered. The difference it has made to the lives of those who took part has been part of the inspiration behind seeking further funding to extend the work.

Additional funding will support a collaborative project working with BU students and young disabled adults (18-25) going through the transition from school to adult life. This can be an exciting time for a young person but when a young person also experiences disability, it can also be challenging. As Dr Hodges says: “The transition into adulthood and future aspirations is a theme which unites BU students and young disabled adults and this project provides the space and opportunity to explore what this means for both groups. This can be a time of significant change and potential disruption for young people, which makes it an important issue to explore.” By enabling people to express their own experiences of transitioning to adult life, it is hoped that others will learn from them and be inspired to share their own stories. •

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