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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Embracing difference
Animated, Autumn 2000. Accreditation, evaluation, widening participation ... the buzz words go on - all too familiar terms to anyone in arts and further education. How then do we really do those things as opposed to merely stringing them together as arts or education speak? Judy Bird talks candidly about the journey Salford and Trafford's Disability Arts Initiative (STDAI) has travelled in the creation of an accredited arts programme for people with learning difficulties where participants can grow and excel themselves, value and be valued

For some time there has been a national trend towards offering people with learning difficulties activities outside Social Service settings, creating new opportunities within colleges and 'independent' spaces. Trafford Council's Arts Unit has pioneered this approach developing work for and with people with learning difficulties through initiatives such as STDAI. But because so much of the work with people with learning difficulties focuses on social skills and independent living, STDAI wanted to offer an arts programme which acknowledged and developed real arts based skills ... Express yourself! was the result, funded initially for a three year period by Salford and Trafford's Health Authority's Joint Finance Scheme.

College and statutory provision can often maintain a pretence of 'vocational' training. Recognising that paid employment in the arts would be an unlikely outcome for most participants, Sue Caudle, the Disability arts worker for STDAI, and myself, felt it crucial that we place the 'value' of the work firmly on 'evaluation'. We achieved this by asking group members what they would like to do - building their ideas and requests into the structure and content of the programme. As a result, Express Yourself! is rooted firmly in the arts world and is delivered by experienced artists and practitioners, rather than being based on a prescribed Social Services model.

Furthermore, many people with learning difficulties have little opportunity for change or development in their lives. We therefore explored routes into and out of the programme including higher level courses and access into three performance based companies: DIY in Salford, and Open Door Theatre and Dodeka Dance Company in Trafford.

Group members soon began to request "getting a certificate", a practice with which those who attended college were familiar. We were aware of the participants pride in their own work and wanted to find ways which were appropriate and acceptable to them, and which would acknowledge, value and celebrate their achievements. And so, we began to explore the possibilities for accreditation.

Concurrently we undertook a research project, Above the Parapet, which looked at a number of performing companies, agencies and long-term projects involved in developing work with people with learning difficulties. One of our objectives was to discover what already existed in terms of accredited performing arts programmes. The findings showed that most work was in its infancy or in the planning stages. And it was at this point that we decided to embark upon our own accreditation process.

Since we were not well versed in all aspects of accreditation, we employed a consultant to work with us who was extremely knowledgeable in the processes and practice of accreditation. This proved invaluable as we were made aware of the potential pitfalls from the outset. There ensued a six month research period looking into pre-existing units within the Open College Network's unit bank. Research also involved contact with the organisations we had interviewed the previous year to see how far their work had developed, as well as consultations with local colleges of further education. In fact, we read numerous course outlines and units before deciding that none of them exactly met the needs of Express Yourself! And since we could not take anything off the shelf, we collectively set out to write our own.

The process involved quite a learning curve. Much emphasis is placed on language and terminology appropriate for the specific level and many a happy hour was spent deliberating over semantics. Was the wording 'respond to' or 'react to'? How did Entry Level differ from Level One? How specific did our definitions have to be? It was certainly a lesson in clarity.

In terms of gathering evidence, how could we show group members capabilities when the majority could not read or write? We also needed to find ways to support group members to reflect on their own learning and have achieved this through the groups' preferred methods of recording and documenting, using visual media such as video, photography, painting and drawing.

The current units are generic: Developing Dance/Drama Skills in a Group and Performance Skills. Both are at entry level and level one. But we already have plans to write a level two course in Performance Skills and intend to write a Workshop Leader/ Facilitation unit at level two as a number of the group members have assisted in running workshops.

Once we had the course written in draft, we met with the development worker Bill Humphreys at Greater Manchester Open College and took him through the document. Working with Bill in this manner was extremely useful as he was able to give us tips and pointers as well as question the language used in the document. We were also invited to sit as observers on a panel similar to the one to which we would make our presentation so that we knew what to expect. A final text check, some fine tuning and the document was at last ready for submission.

We presented the course and programme in May of this year. A simple text reading can be flat and uninspiring, so we made it real by using video excerpts involving the people at which the course is aimed, performing their own work. The document was passed with a couple of minor textual amendments by the panel.

We will begin to deliver the units this September which will run over two terms. However, during the past year, the dance group has done a trial run, recording and reflecting on their own work at the end of each term and developing their own portfolios of evidence including photographs, a video, drawings by a visual artist and their own images of the things they have enjoyed and remembered.

The logistics of running such a course are major. Management and coordination responsibilities are undertaken by Sue Caudle who provides a focus for the development work across the borough of Trafford. The work takes place in a community building, thus providing an independent space ie. one that is not affiliated to Social Services. In addition to employing a support worker for the group, we provide and co-ordinate transport to and from the venue. And where one-to-one support is required, the member brings their own Support worker.

There is also a need for ongoing liaison with day centre staff and carers to keep them up-to-date with the programme; the Open College, Local Authority and the external moderator, as well as appointing freelance artists and practitioners as course tutors.

Membership of the course is self-selecting. But certain criteria relating to attendance and hours of study are applied for as part of the accreditation process. Where people cannot meet these criteria for health reasons, they can still participate (although they will not receive a qualification), thereby ensuring that ongoing access is provided for all.

We have experienced difficulties finding appropriately skilled people to work on the courses - artists and practitioners who are accomplished in their own artform, with an interest and ability to connect and who possess the experience to work with people with learning difficulties - are rare. Consequently, the Express Yourself programme has provided a training opportunity for a number of artists to develop or hone their skills in this area. In the dance programme we have worked with artists and practitioners including Bisakha Sarker, Andrea Buckley, Penny Collinson, Louise Krafchek and Claire Quinn with ongoing co-ordination provided by myself. This year saw the introduction of artistic collaborations between Andrea Buckley and Dan Williams to produce a video. Bisakha Sarker also worked with visual artist Noelle Williamson, creatively building documentation into the process.

The accredited course is written in such a way that it can accommodate any dance or movement technique which enables us to be responsive to requests from course members as to what they would like to work on. For example, they have requested street dance styles for the autumn term and during the spring they want to make another video. Change is an inherent part of the course - the groups are adaptable and flexible and are able to respond to different people with different approaches to the work. We have also found a themed approach - changing termly - to be effective.

The units are now in the Open College Network's Unit Bank and are available to colleges or agencies who wish to deliver them. We hope to continue to build on and add to the portfolio of units as the work grows and the group members develop new skills.

Where people have been marginalized it is important to offer them areas where they call grow and excel themselves, value and be valued. The emphasis remains on the 'credit' part of accreditation. Furthermore, it provides them with affirmation that they have achieved and enables participant's own preferences and ways of expressing themselves to be creatively supported and evidenced, giving their work a broader relevance. This is not tokenistic certification: it is evolutionary development where group members have contributed to the processes and practices and where their work and skill level can now be validated in a concrete way.

Judy Bird, artistic director, Dodeka Dance Company. For more information contact Disability Arts Initiative +44 (o)161 912 1214.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001