Cultural Representations of Learning Disabilities: My keynote address at the Cultural Inclusion Conference 18 October 2018


I’m delighted to have been asked to address this conference, but also a bit worried.

I’ve worked as a theatre director for a long time, ran theatre companies for more than 20 years, and written books, plays, translations, journalism, and so on. 

I’m also the father of a young man with severe learning disabilities: Joey is 22, has intractable epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder, and has never spoken a word.   

I’m the proud Chairman of KIDS, a terrific national charity which provides a range of services for disabled children, young people and their families.   And I’m a campaigner for the rights and opportunities of disabled people, especially people with Learning Disabilities.   My Twitter handle states ‘Learning Disabilities Matter’ and that’s become my unofficial mission statement.

But although I’m an experienced director and deeply committed to people like Joey, I’m no expert on theatre for or by people with Learning Disabilities.  I champion all attempts to make the arts more responsive to this group and have huge respect for the people who take it on -Graeae, Ramps on the Moon, Blue Apple and Dramatize, and so many others, all doing exemplary work. 

But the fact is it’s not within my area of expertise or experience and so I feel a bit like an impostor in this conference.

What I can talk about is the representation of Learning Disabilities in culture, especially drama, but also in our everyday language.   As I’ll try to show, I think people with profound learning disabilities are a forgotten minority. They pose real challenges to many of our deepest  assumptions not just about art, but humanity too.  And it’s partly for this reason that I think attention should finally be paid. 

Socrates proclaimed that the ‘unexamined life was not worth living’, and we all have a sense of what that means: think carefully about what you’re doing, analyse your actions from every perspective, and use your brain to live in full consciousness of your actions.  But the problem with the phrase is that it suggestions that people who don’t examine their lives are living lives unworthy of living.  I’m unsure of how much my Joey ‘examines’ his life and, as so often, Learning Disabilities make us look at the familiar from the other end of the telescope.  Brecht would be proud: Learning Disabilities ‘alienates’ the normal and provokes us into thinking again.

Like many of you, I love Shakespeare with a passion. I’ve directed a dozens of his plays, written a book about them and Shakespeare is the closest I have to religion.  But the fact is that for all the claims of his universality, there’s no character in the plays with Learning Disabilities. People point to the fools: but while some of the real life ‘natural fools’ in Elizabethan England probably had Learning Disabilities, the fools in Shakespeare are all ‘artificial fools’: highly intelligent working-class men whose brainpower helped them see through the hierarchies of the world and satirise the underlying truths of society.  

Other people point to the illiterate Peter in Romeo and Juliet, the blustering Dogberry in Much Ado, or Dull, the policeman, in Love’s Labour’s Lost.  But these aren’t people with Learning Disabilities, they just don’t have an education, and this conflation of intellectual capacity and class status lies at the heart of the matter.  

It’s striking that when Macbeth calls life a ‘tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing’, the word didn’t mean someone with learning disabilities, it meant someone with insignificant social status.  Now of course people with Learning Disabilities would have had negligible social status, but not every so-called ‘idiot’ had Learning Disabilities.  

This mention of the word ‘idiot’ makes this perhaps the moment to take a sidestep into language.  

Because the more I listen out for it, the more I notice how terms of abuse for people with Learning Disabilities are common in everyday speech, and that there is a grotesque double standard in the terms of abuse that are acceptable in polite society, and in the arts.   

Last year I saw two plays at the National Theatre in which characters spoke about others being ‘retarded’.  In one a new mother celebrated the fact that her baby wasn’t ‘retarded’.  Not only did the audience not blink, but there was no dramatic consequence for the speakers. Compare that to a play in which a character suddenly used the ‘n’ word: within half an hour he was blinded and subjected to a tirade about his racism.  

Or think of the number of times we’ve been told that Trump is a ‘moron’, or that only ‘cretins’ voted for Brexit, or that Momentum is full of ‘retards’.  I keep getting called a ‘libtard’ on Twitter (and I wear the badge with pride).  ‘Sticks and stones will beak my bones but words will never hurt me’, but it is possible that we should be more careful when using language invented to describe and then persecute some of the most vulnerable people in our midst.

When looking at the cultural representation of Learning Disabilities the most obvious observation is there an aching absence.   This is partly because for most of history Learning Disabilities wasn’t recognised as a discrete category.  But it’s also, I’d suggest, because such people wouldn’t be regarded as being of artistic interest.  Why bother write about people who can’t speak, who aren’t geniuses, whose brains won’t split the atom.

A striking exception is Wordsworth’s long poem The Idiot Boy (1798).  It’s an affectionate portrait of a young man who has evident Learning Disabilities.  A precocious fan was dismayed by Wordsworth’s choice of subject, and wrote that ‘it appears almost unnatural that a person in a state of complete idiotism should excite the warmest feelings of attachment in the breast even of his mother’.  In a fascinating response Wordsworth offered one of the first written expressions of genuine affection for people like my Joey. The last paragraph reads:

The loathing and disgust which many people have at the sight of an idiot is a feeling which, though having some foundation in human nature, is not necessarily attached to it in any virtuous degree, but is owing in a great measure to a false delicacy, and, if I may say it without rudeness, a certain want of comprehensiveness of thinking and feeling.

Another example is Dickens, whose essay ‘On Idiocy’ in Household Words is remarkably progressive.  Speaking about a person with learning disabilities, an idiot, he concludes that ‘there is no greater justification for abandoning him than for abandoning any other human creature.’  It’s hardly surprising that Dickens should have been involved in setting up Great Ormond Street Hospital, which Joey visited regularly.  

Although the twentieth century saw huge advances in the representations of many minorities, people with disabilities were frequently ignored, or when featured usually had to carry a heavy load of metaphorical meaning. One example might be the voiceless Kattrin in Brecht’s Mother Couragehaving to act as a Cassandra-like prophet of catastrophe.   

Another tendency is to make a character with disability someone with exceptional, and uplifting, abilities: Rain ManMy Left Foot and, possibly, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, to name just a few examples.

Even a play such A Day in the Death of Joe Egg which takes parenting a child with disability as its subject, sees the profoundly disabled daughter as a problem, an object, somebody to be reacted against, but hardly as a person in her own right.  The poster for the original production didn’t credit the actress who played her.

I’ve even heard about a play being developed in which a character with severe learning disabilities is going to be represented by a puppet.

By any standard, the first half of the twentieth century was a terrible time for people with Learning Disabilities.  Recent research shows that Hans Asperger, one of the pioneers of autism, was also involved in the T4 programme, the dreadful murder of almost 200,000 disabled people by the Nazis, many of whom had Learning Disabilities and lived what Hitler called ‘lives unworthy of life’.  

Les Murray’s poem Dog Fox Field is, I believe, the greatest artistic responses to the catastrophe.  He prefaces it with a note quoting the Nuremberg trials to the effect that ‘the test for feeblemindedness was they had to make upa sentence using the words dog, fox and field’. Here goes.  Hope it doesn’t crack me up:       

These were no leaders, but they were first

into the dark on Dog Fox Field:

Anna who rocked her head, and Paul

who grew big and yet giggled small,

Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans

who knew his world as a fox knows a field.

Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,

this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts

for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed

to field the lore of prey and hound

they then had to thump and cry in the vans

that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.

Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,

they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

It’s a masterpiece, which manages to be both subjective - we feel what it is like for these kids - and objective.   And I know with a gulp that it’s a test my Joey would have failed miserably.

We shouldn’t imagine that the Nazis were alone in their detestation of people with Learning Disabilities.  In fact, a belief in eugenics was widely shared.  Many British and American liberals - some of them household names - believed that the sterilisation and murder of such people would be beneficial to the ‘race’.  

I hope I won’t dash too many illusions if I quote Virginia Woolf recalling coming across “a long line of imbeciles” on 9th January 1915.  She describes a few of them in the most uncomplimentary and derisive terms, concluding that “It was perfectly horrible.  They should certainly be killed.”

No room of their own for that lot.

So what can we do now, in the 21st Century?

Well, one thing is to be honest about the challenges faced.   It’s all too easy for arts organisations to make nice noises about the subject but not engage with the reality.

Last year I was approached by a director who was staging a good new play which featured two young women with Down Syndrome and a young man with autism.  She and her producer wanted to know if I had any insights.  My answer was simple, almost banal: ‘people with  Learning Disabilities have learning disabilities’, I said.  But the implications - which rather shocked them - was that they needed longer rehearsals, a different attitude to the status of the script, altered rehearsal and performance hours, etc.  The point is that involving people with Learning Disabilities requires practical changes, not just changes in attitude.  The result was terrific, and they had good specialist support from Access All Areas.  But I think it was a steep learning curve for everyone involved.

There are, of course, dozens of brilliant companies and individuals doing marvellous work with people with Learning Disabilities. But non-specialist organisations who want to include people with Learning Disabilities need to approach the subject with respect and seek out advice.

They could do worse than read Sara Ryan’s brilliant book, Justice for Laughing Boy, about the fight for justice for her son, Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned in a bath in an NHS Unit while having an epileptic seizure.  

If the inclusion of people with Learning Disabilities has its challenges, their representation in modern culture seems - at times - even more problematic.  One gross example was Las von Trier’s film Idiots (1998) in which a group of neurotypical people pretend to have learning disabilities in order to confront the apparent certainties of bourgeois life.  

Another dreadful example  - in my opinion - is Brad Fraser’s play Kill Me Now which seems to imply that no greater love hath the father of a profoundly disabled young man than to wank him off in the bath.  In both examples, if one replaced the category disabled with some other minority or vulnerable person its true nature would quickly become true.  Imagine the father (or mother) in Brad Fraser’s play molesting his teenage daughter in the bath and you’ll quickly see what I mean.   It’s striking that in both the people with Learning Disabilities were performed by the neuro-typical

There is, I believe a real question of taste. And I don’t mean taste in a ‘simplistic, not wanting to offend the delicate’ way.  I mean taste as a political act, in the way we talk about the vulnerable, and treat people who are, inevitably, weaker than we are.  I faced this problem myself in writing my play All Our Children about the Nazi T4 programme.   I realized that to bring on stage the victims of this repulsive crime would cause as many problems as it solved.  If they were played by neuro-typical children the obvious and important questions would be asked about ‘cripping up’; but to introduce a group of children with the cognitive disabilities that the Nazis designated for murder would, I believe, distract the audience from the subject and make them feel uncomfortable in entirely the wrong way.

Some people felt I’d missed a trick and I understand what they mean, and I do understand what is meant by ‘nothing about us, without us’.   But what I do know is that just as my Joey wouldn’t understand the conventions of being in a play, so he’d not have understood that the busses with grey painted windows which the Nazis used were going to take him to his death.  The two facts are related and it was more important for me to explore the actions of the persecutors in depth, than to feature the category of people who were being persecuted.  

And it’s the subject of Learning Disabilities, in all its complexities, that I want to see represented more widely in the arts. It’s not enough to do another production of As You Like It and have a girl with Down Syndrome playing Rosalind - welcome though that would be.  It’s new plays, new films, new art, new stories that are needed.

And so here are ten things I’d like to see, not in any particular order:

Stories with characters with Learning Disabilities who aren’t defined solely by their Learning Disabilities.  

Stories in which, when a character’s Learning Disabilities are mentioned, we see the social structures surrounding him or her.

Stories which recognize the challenges of a relative with Learning Disabilities, but don’t show them simply as a tragedy. 

Stories of people with Learning Disabilities which aren’t simply examples of courage in the face of insuperable odds.  

Stories in which people with Learning Disabilities aren’t granted special powers or abilities.   

Stories which don’t expect people with Learning Disabilities to convey a load of metaphorical meanings.

Stories in which family members can be shown to be frustrated by their relatives’ Learning Disabilities while also loving them forever

Stories which show that while people with Learning Disabilities are sometimes the victims of abuse and cruelty, they often bring out the very best in the people who come into contact with them.

Stories which show the funny side of some learning disabled behaviour without falling into contempt or abuse.

Stories in which the language of contempt and abuse towards people with Learning Disabilities is challenged.

In other words, I want representations of people with Learning Disabilities which see them as human beings like the rest of us. Because people with Learning Disabilities are our brothers and our sisters, our sons and our daughters, our mothers and our fathers.  They are ourselves.   

It’s time the arts stood up for and found ways of representing the complex and all too human experience of this forgotten minority.