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19 April 2009

Caroline Cardus reports on Buckinghamshire's Cultural Olympiad project

Colourful hand print replicated four times within same picture Caroline Cardus

Digital image produced by Caroline Cardus in a Driving Inspiration workshop

Image: Caroline Cardus

Driving Inspiration is Buckinghamshire's main Cultural Olympiad project. Working with five schools, the project partners disabled artists with paralympians, to share their inspiring success stories.

DI has generated paintings, music, dance/theatre performances, and films and will be developed as part of the Olympic celebrations locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

During 2009/10 there will be a music commission, visual arts work leading to posters for training camps and public transport, interviews by young people for Disability Arts Online, and dance/theatre productions.

An image that looks like a photo negative of a girl holding up her hand with a glove and 'imagine' written on it

To date Driving Inspiration has visited three schools in Buckinghamshire. Mandeville School, Buckingham Primary School and Cressex Community College have all had a one-day session with disabled artist Rachel Gadsden, a medal-winning Paralympian, and myself.

Paralympians who have taken part so far are Andy Blake, basketball captain and swimmer; Sophie Christiansen, equestrian; and John Harris, discus and pentathlon champion.

The project has been popular with each school. The day starts with a presentation to the whole school in which artists and paralympians talk about their lives and the journeys that have led them to be skilled in their chosen field. This gives context and helps the children understand how very different parts of their lives have come together successfully.  

Being able to see how the experience of disability has added something to positive to people's lives is invaluable. There is an underlying message that these disabled professionals are not highly successful despite an impairment, but because it is an intrinsic part of who they are. These ideas are carried further in an interview session where the children are invited to ask anything they like about life experiences, art and sport - no question is out of bounds. It is with this understanding that the fun starts...

20-30 children per school spend the day concentrating on art and sporting activities designed by the artists and paralympian. They are split into two groups that swap over halfway through the day. Cue ecstatic kids bouncing round the room as they try to net a basketball like Andy Blake did so effortlessly during assembly, or rush around en masse in team games John Harris has designed with more than a hint of mischief.

Over in Rachel Gadsden's drawing activity, silence reigns as the children study and try to capture in chalk and charcoal the essence of the whirling energy of their classmates over in the sporting group. Rachel literally takes apart her practice so the kids can understand what her starting points are - and begin there themselves.

My activity is about taking small groups aside throughout the day to ask them what their dreams and aspirations are. It's a small thing that delivers succinct results echoing the day. The words are written down on white gloves and worn by the children for photo-booth style photographs, striking poses and choosing special effects to make it more fun.

A wind down talk signals the end of the day. The children have gone from initially shy to relaxed and chatty, as they say the day was "loads better than lessons" and "feel more comfortable with disabled people now".

A few are wearing Paralympic medals and beaming smiles. So much is crammed into days like these, and we can only hope that if activities like this are really 'better than lessons', that there'll be more opportunities to run lessons like these as we move toward 2012.