Destigmatising ‘The D word’

At the Orpheus centre, the days between the 24th and 28th May were dedicated to hearing from the disabled community outside of Orpheus. Zoom workshops were led by artists to encourage students to think about their own identities and what the word ‘disability’ has meant to them.

The artists who held the workshops set challenges at the end of their talks, and encouraged creative approaches to contemplating identity and disability. On 25th May, for example, actress Charlene Salter encouraged the students to reflect on the question ‘what are your barriers?’ On large pieces of paper, the design group wrote down some personal barriers in black ink, and then in colour, fellow students wrote down advice on how to overcome those barriers.

This collaboration between students not only allowed for discussions on breaking down barriers, but the sharing and support made a good contribution towards helping to de-stigmatise and de-generalise all of their very individual experiences. On a feedback sheet from ‘the D word’ week, some of these barriers described by students had been the ‘stress of lockdown’ and ‘spelling and writing’. Another barrier a student was trying to overcome was the challenge of finding themself. However, the majority of students reported that they found the week to be interesting, and that it allowed them to learn new ways of expressing their voices, as well as giving them new approaches to the word ‘disability’. One student wrote that the week allowed them ‘to be myself and more confident’.

Another activity that was set on 25th May, by actress Caro Parker, was to take the song ‘You’ve got a friend’ and express it through other forms of art. The work produced ranged from sculptures and paintings to interpretive dance and the spoken word. This inspiration for the students to express themselves, through these different mediums, in turn encouraged them to let go of some of their inhibitions and barriers and discover more about the part that their disabilities had to play within their overall identities.

Songs created by the students, such as ‘Goodbye discrimination’ by students Lauren and Daniel, stemmed from another stimulus: ‘to be heard and to contribute to society’. The importance of finding and using your voice was demonstrated through the power of their music. Jake and Charlie also wrote a song, which was entitled ‘Be Inclusive’. This was inspired from a talk by Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company. It formed as a musical manifestation of their emotions after discussing disability rights.

Another profound response to Sealey’s talk and her question of ‘how can we get rid of the term “special needs”?’, came from Orpheus student David, who reworded the term ‘SEN’ (Special Educational Needs) to ‘Speak, enable, nurture’. David’s video, which alludes to how we are all different but have the same needs.

It is clear to see that such activities and discussions have really provided students with the space and opportunities to express their feelings, and has opened up the door for sensitive and personal discussions on what it means to live with a disability. Whilst some students found the week challenging and somewhat difficult, many recognised the importance of uncomfortable discussions. One Orpheus student said: ‘Some work has been challenging and I love a good challenge’.