Case study: Open Theatre Company

For 30 years Open Theatre Company (OTC) has been working with people with learning disabilities to create theatre and meaningful drama experiences.  Most recently the Open Theatre Interactive Programme has delivered projects for young people in Birmingham and Coventry working in partnership with schools and arts organisations.

Through delivering this programme Richard Hayhow of OTC has become increasingly aware of the lack of cultural provision for people with learning disabilities especially the lack of job opportunities for school leavers and adults to work in the cultural sector. National statistics in 2012 had identified that although 1in4 young people were not in employment and the statistics were higher for those with learning disabilities with 4in5 not in employment. With a desire to make a change he brought together OTC, Communicate2U and changing cultures to find out more about the cultural opportunities for young people with learning disabilities in Birmingham and the 4in5 Manifesto became the title of our joint focus.

One of our skills is being able to identify ways to create sustainable change and to develop project plans for greater impact.

With 2012/2013 partnership investment funding from Arts Connect, changing cultures began by helping to develop a framework for research and a plan for taking the research forward.  Richard was asked by Nikky to create a wish list of what he’d like to see in cultural organisations for people with learning disabilities.  Nikky then turned these into 6 top questions to ask from the points of view of arts organisations, other organisations and young people.  For example:
Q5AO – What opportunities do you provide for ypwld to work within your organisation?

Q5SOO – Are you aware of, or had experience of, any provision within arts organisations for employing ypwld?

Q5YP – Have you ever worked within an arts organisation, if so how and where?

Four of us (Richard OTC, Malcolm c2U, Claire and Nikky cc) then took a list of arts organisations, other organisations that work with people with learning disabilities and young people from across Birmingham to ask these questions to.  Mostly we conducted the research through face to face interviews, sometimes by phone and email, and with the young people the questions were adapted into language with pictures to be accessible as part of group discussions.

We found that the research was not just about answers to questions but the beginning of a dialogue.  Many of those we spoke to had not considered the questions before and therefore we were raising awareness of the gaps and opening minds to the opportunities that could be created.  The research itself was bringing about change, as we gave food for thought or helped to make connections between people as we discovered ideas or learnt of current activity and ambitions.  We were excited by what we were finding out and the possibilities for the future.

A ground swell was becoming apparent and to help turn this energy into action we invited those we had met with and others interested to come together at the 4in5 summit to discuss the research, consider the possibilities and commit to next steps.  It was a thought provoking day, not just to talk about what could be and the challenges that exist – but to work with what we have to make something happen.  We asked Nicola from changing cultures to create a visual representation of the research as part of our distilling of the information for the summit and final report [links]. This was a challenge – to take discussion and turn into solid data – but as our aim was not to be critical but merely show a point in a journey, we planned for it to be a tool for discussion.

Which is what it did, along with other visual aids that captured the places across Birmingham current activity was taking place – an ‘ideas cloud’ to help share ideas quickly for those attending and those who couldn’t make it and wanted to contribute.  By the end of the day a joint action plan was created with all contributing and agreeing to take responsibility for a specific element.  The idea of a manifesto for people with learning disabilities now involved many more people.

The research element came to an end with the summit but something else has now come into being.  A consortium of interested parties that are set in bringing about change.  An increase in cultural opportunities for young people with learning disabilities has already been seen within a few months and further change and ambitions are on target to be achieved.

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