Stories and Sweeties (the best way to start a week!)

Today was the first day of TouchBase’s Christmas week, and I started it by helping two of the art tutors run a drop-in session. The workshop was based around the activity of melting chocolate in the microwave, then pouring it into shapes, decorating and leaving to cool. The decorations included rose petals, dried raspberries, jelly babies, marsh-mellows, honeycomb, butterscotch, popping candy, smarties, nuts fruit and many more. Each participant was given a small bowl so that they could try all the different flavours and collect the ones they like best. It was a fun way to start working with taste, a sense that all of the people who came along could access, despite any other impairments or difficulties. I was working with a new member of Sense who had previously been quite shy and introverted. It was great to see that after just a week at TouchBase her confidence had grown, and she was vocalising much more than she had done before. I think with food there is something really important about exploring, as it can often become a necessary but inconvenient fuel, especially when someone is being fed by a support worker. As with touch, it is easy for food and taste to become practical and utilitarian and this session invited people to let it be a more creative experience.

The session was pretty bonkers, with everyone wanting to join in all at once. Getting everyone in the space would have been impossible, so the participants split into two groups. The first group had a noisy, hectic atmostphere, which seemed to really suit some of the participants. The second group was far calmer, which again suited some people very well. It reminded me that when I was with teachers in Oakgrove Primary School last year there seemed to be an emphasis on everything being fun and active. This often lead to busy, chaotic energies in the classroom. The only alternative seemed to be total still and silence, when listening to a story or perhaps doing a worksheet. Just as it was assumed that primary school children could only cope with extreme busy-ness or stillness, there can often be an assumption that adults with learning difficulties require calm peaceful atmospheres at all times. I agree that everyone needs some calm in their lives, but I don’t think there is any need to be afraid of noise and hectic-ness. For those who enjoy that atmosphere it is really very important!! And even for those who don’t like it, it is important they have the opportunity to try it and find out for themselves.

In the afternoon I joined in the Sensory Storytelling session with the drama and music tutors. This was held in the music room, and involved projections, shadow puppets, music (performed my three musicians from Sense) as well as the all important story read out-loud to the group. The first story was a performance for the group, the second became more interactive as the group were given instruments to join in with the story. The session finished off with some christmas carols for everyone to join in with. The session was enjoyed by the group, but part of me would like to see how movement could be fitted into the session. One group member was more than happy to engage with the sound physically, often standing up to dance. However, she then returned to her chair, which seemed oddly static. Petra Kupper’s essay “Stillness, Silence and Space in Mental Health Settings” got me thinking about the politics surrounding movement within facilitatory practice. Although she discusses mental health settings and institutions, I feel that there is a large overlap in the experience of mental health services/institutions and those providing for people with learning difficulties. Kuppers says;

“I soon realised the existence of a connection between the physical and the representational … lack of physical and mental privacy had undermined many people’s ability to be confident in their use of space … with this inability to take space, simple actions such as reaching and touching became problematic … validating our spatial experience became an important aspect of our work. We had to rethink spacial and temporal aspects of embodiment, and politicise them. In other words, we had to find ways to assert the simple acts of breathing and being as interventions into the social space”

I feel this lack of physical and mental privacy can very much be present in systems providing for people with learning difficulties. On top of that, many people have physical impairments that may limit their movements. Alternatively, some people have vigorous movements that others may try to restrict to make them seem more acceptable or ‘normal’ in social spaces. When I saw Robert Softly-Gale’s ‘If These Spasms Could Speak‘ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he spoke about how he used a wheelchair despite his ability to move around without one. He did this because people were uncomfortable with him moving around on the floor in an ‘abnormal’ way, using his hands and knees. In my experience of depression, I have noticed that when I am down my spatiality and physicalization reflects this dramatically, as does my use of voice. I would enjoy seeing how the group would have reacted if movement was built into he session. It may not go down well at all, but I feel it is something that is very important to investigate with a group.


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