On the same bill as Penny Pepper at DAiSY Fest on 4 June was veteran disability arts performer Allan Sutherland (author of the groundbreaking Disabled We Stand 1981). In his introduction to the event Dao editor Colin Hambrook, described his mission to present art as a tool to counter prejudice. Review by Wendy Young
Transcribing words into poetic form, Sutherland’s Proud from the words of Jennifer Taylor is a moving account of people with learning difficulties and the result of a residency with the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University in 2011, in which Allan wrote four cycles of life history transcription poetry called Neglected Voices.
Jennifer Taylor is strikingly powerful in a quiet and dignified way and Allan’s muse for Proud. She was in the audience and later expressed how ‘proud’ she was. The reading by Allan embedded Jennifer’s life experiences in our collective mind.
Playing Out is a poem explaining a normal day playing football with her brothers and Jennifer getting the ball for her brother, which ended as a fatal quest:
And I think the car
just knocked me over for six,
didn’t know where he was going.
And as I went to go and get the ball
the car just went past me
and just knocked me on the ground.
Her left side was paralysed and her distraught mother thought Jennifer was dead:
where’s Jennifer? Jennifer’s dead.
Jennifer’s dead. I wasn’t dead,
just laying there, laying there.
We really ‘heard’ as an audience, as Sutherland’s reading brought Jennifer’s childhood into the room. Wrenched with sadness, we heard how she was punished for her disability by being disowned by her mother ‘she’s not my daughter’ and defied her other children to talk to her. Yet Jennifer’s dignity was disarming: 'I never let my disability let me down, or pull me down in any way.'
An Operation, put one in mind of Wilfred Owen’s A Terre: ‘Sit on the bed; I'm blind, and three parts shell, Be careful; can't shake hands now; never shall.'
when the doctor told my mother,
I’m paralysed all on that side,
and the other side is all normal,
but I can still walk on my leg.
But I’m. I’m you know,
as you can see
they’ve done like a operation there,
to try and get my hand straight.
Well they couldn’t,
couldn’t straighten it out,
not this one.
Ambiguously, her life would not be straight now either in the aftermath of her abandonment as we heard her experiences in Homeless, Standing up to Bullies’ the tragedy of loss in her homage to Paul her ‘wonderful brother’, and teenage pregnancy culminating in her boyfriend’s rejection.
With a hard edge, Sutherland expressed a truthful rendition of Social Workers who did a ‘bad job’!
I hate the social workers, I tell you,
because they have done wrong to me.
They have done wrong to me
and they know they shouldn’t have
done this to me…
They just wanted me to sign the paper
and done with it, you know. And I think,
like I said before,
I feel like a stranger now, you know.
I maybe got my sons photos at home, you know,
and, and I’m looking at him thinking to myself
I wish I did have my son to look, here with me.
Hammering home a message ‘We need to go out there’ shows determination and grit: It’s hard for people to get jobs, for people with learning difficulties, because some of them are on benefits and some of them are not on benefits, and its very hard for them to get, to get a job and to be part of the society itself. Allan read with poignancy They should’ve asked me
….what would you like for your sons, Jennifer…
I would like my sons to live with me,
not to be put into care or anything like that,
but they just didn’t want to know.
In I want every mother to know Jennifer wants to support people who may be in her position: 'The way I see the future now for me as a person with, a mother with learning difficulties, really I, I feel I want every mother whose got learning difficulties, I want every mother to know, with learning difficulties, how it feels to take your kids off you, you know, be strong, don’t think about it too much... keep living your life to the full.'
The wise and humble Jennifer wants to express that her ‘disability’ will not pull her down, life is short and it should be lived to the full and dwelling on the past and being upset just makes life harder.
Colin spoke for all of us "I am overwhelmed" and Allan "didn’t know it was going to be as strong as it was". Here endeth the lesson.