Cultural Institutions and neurodiverse children

By Stephen Unwin


Anyone who has ever run a cultural institution—a theatre, a museum, a concert hall—is familiar with the problem: you can’t please everyone all of the time. But, by God, the demands come thick and fast: the accountants want a bigger income and a smaller cost base; the press would prefer things to be more chic and make a better story; the statutory funders expect you to fulfil whatever their latest policy statement insists on; and corporate supporters insist on high profile events which support their brand. Meanwhile, parents ask for more work suitable for their children; intellectuals expect art which is more radical and cutting-edge; and the local authority explains that their council tax players should be getting popular, accessible work which is value for money.

What’s more, behind the scenes, one board member insists that if only we charged another 25p on every Flat White sold our financial problems would be over, a founder attacks you for having betrayed the institution’s guiding principles, and a young trainee mutters that you’re a terrible ‘sell out’.

The whole thing is utterly exhausting, and you regularly stagger home at the end of an exhausting day and want to flop down on the sofa and say: ‘Oh, please, leave me alone, I’m just trying to keep the bloody doors open.’

Help is at hand, however, and it comes from a surprising place.

One day you get an e-mail from the new head teacher at a special school in your area. She’s trying to find ways of involving her pupils in the local community, giving them a chance to see how the outside world works, develop some skills, make new friends, and breathe a different air. ‘Oh Christ,’ you think, ‘not another bloody person wanting a bit of the action; I’ve got that nightmare meeting this afternoon with the insolvency lawyers, and an emergency session of the Finance and Audit Committee. And they expect me to care about disabled kids?’

Of course, you know you shouldn’t think like that, but the horrible fact is you do. And you hate yourself for it. But then you notice something at the bottom: Nancy Turner (Mrs) has typed the following: ‘Although this would be good for the children, I think it might be good for you and your institution too.’ You’re struck by this, and so you fire off a short email: ‘Are you free for coffee at 11.00 tomorrow? It would be good to talk.’

The next day Nancy Turner turns up a couple of minutes early, with a big, warm smile on her face and a real aura of competence and positivity. And she’s brought with her two of her pupils: one, a young Asian lad called Harry with Down’s Syndrome, who comes bounding into the café, full of energy and laughter, big and solid and with a big smile; the other a fragile-looking girl, Marie, very quiet, very tender, very shy. They’ve come with Gail, a support teacher: she’s got bags of energy, and is as bold as brass.

Nancy introduces everyone and insists on paying for your coffee, and Harry’s infectious laugh quickly distracts you, and he shows you a trick that he does with his glasses that makes you smile, and you notice Marie sipping her herbal tea ever so gently and realise that she’s not said a word since she’s arrived. Nancy explains that she’s almost entirely nonverbal, but she does notice everything going on around her. And you see how Gail is such a friend to these kids: helping them out, chivvying them along, making things work. And all done with such energy and a defiant, optimistic laugh.

Soon Nancy starts to explain her proposal: she wants to help you make your institution more welcoming for the kind of children who go to her school. She doesn’t blame you for what you’ve not got right yet, nor does she sit there angry and expectant. Instead, she has some ideas. The kids could be involved in taking tickets on a Saturday afternoon, she says. Some of them, especially the ones with Down’s Syndrome, but other ones too, are so welcoming and friendly and your visitors will love being greeted by them. And she also explains how brilliantly tidy and organised Marie is: maybe she could help out in the bookshop or the kitchen? And there are so many other kids with different skills. They all need work experience, but they can help you too.

Nancy gives you the statistics of the number of families with disabled children in the region. You’re amazed at how many of them there are: why hadn’t marketing told you about this? She also tells you about the challenges they face in securing even the simplest things: education, holidays, transport, care support, even access to an adventure playground. Everything seems to be so difficult for these families and you realise that you had no idea. It’s certainly a world away from the lives of your two non-disabled teenagers at the local grammar school.

Gail starts talking about the families of the kids at their special school. And you start to sense what an amazing community this is: full of energy, laughter and love, but also commitment, hard work and endurance. She also tells you about the new hydrotherapy pool at the school that’s just been built, paid for by a charitable trust, and you start to wonder what the hell your development department has been up to: it seems that these kids are not just good at jobs, and have committed families and connections but, bloody hell, there’s money attached if you play it right.

And then you remember the last funding report, droning on endlessly about reaching new audiences, and that desperate meeting when you foolishly insisted that your figures for non-white attendees were a direct result of just how white your area is, or certainly the kind of people who seem to want to come. You feel guilty, but don’t know how to address the problem. But you suddenly realise that you had completely forgotten about this minority group, and think that, maybe, just maybe, it would be a clever idea to champion a minority so often forgotten. Are you being cynical? Not entirely, but you are being practical.

Nancy then talks about some brilliant initiatives out there: arts companies doing creative artistic work for, by and about young disabled people, and you Google their names, and you quickly see what she’s talking about. It’s clear that there’s so much interesting work going on which you’ve somehow forgotten about, and you realise you’d be crazy not to involve these amazingly creative, positive and dynamic people. It’s good for everybody.

You soon say goodbye to your visitors, and watch them leaving the café: big Harry is dancing around, singing and larking around with Gail, making your front of house people laugh, while sweet Marie picks her way carefully to the exit, one thin arm laced into Nancy’s, elegant and tender to the end.

And as they leave you start to realise something else. This is why, all those years ago, you got interested in the arts. This is why you’ve become the director of an arts institution instead of being the lawyer your dad wanted you to be. This is what you’re fighting for, this is why you go to all those endless meetings, this is what it’s all about. You want to run an open public place where everyone is welcome, where all people’s voices are heard, where all the usual divisions of a sick society evaporate. Isn’t that what art centres and museums are meant to be: a celebration of all of humanity, whatever shape they take? Isn’t that what Rembrandt and Shakespeare are about; isn’t that what Alice Walker and Pina Bausch engage with; isn’t that what great art, great theatres, great museums should be doing?

What’s more, you realise to your horror that so many institutions like yours have turned their backs on this essential group, a group that over the centuries has been neglected, segregated, abused, and worse. That such treatment has deep roots in the dreadful attitudes of so many mighty intellectuals towards people who they think are inferior. And then you remember that documentary you watched years ago about the way the Nazis murdered people like Harry and Marie, and you can feel the tears welling up. Things must change.

For if culture has any real social role, isn’t it to challenge such prejudices in the most fundamental way imaginable? Welcoming Harry and Marie and giving them a place is the very least you can do.

It might even help you satisfy the Finance and Audit Committee. Who knows?


Stephen Unwin was the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Rose Theatre, Kingston (2008-2013), having spent 15 years as Director of English Touring Theatre (1993-2008). He is the father of a young man with profound learning disabilities and is Chairman of KIDS, a charity providing services to a range of disabled children, young people and their families.