And here it is! the last story of our 60 stories, celebrating 60 years of Harpenden Mencap. Provided by Caroline Hysom this story is centered around setting up a dance and drama group called Special Act.
My son Anthony loves performing on stage and had been taking part in the Harpenden and Wheathampstead Gang Show for some years.
I knew that, when he became 18 years old, he would not be able to continue in the show and that he would miss it terribly. Anthony has Down’s Syndrome.
He has two younger sisters, one of whom has friends whose siblings also had learning disabilities; Anthony’s other sister did not. It is not easy to be the sibling of a brother with a learning disability when you have no friends in a similar situation, friends who instinctively understand the difficulties and accept the difference without question.
I had been looking around for a drama/music group in the local area suitable for Anthony’s needs, to no avail, but realised over time that a group, both for young people with a learning disability AND their brothers and sisters would be so much better for everyone concerned.
It would give those with a learning disability, access to exciting and meaningful challenges whilst having fun with other young people who understood them and who did not question their behaviours or their disabilities, who could model good communication and good behaviours.
It would also provide a safe environment for their siblings to be with others who fully understood the difficulties of being the brother or sister of someone with a learning disability, and all the compromises and challenges that entails, without being judged or questioned or having to deal with awkward starts or unkind comments.
They could simply be themselves. In short, a safe and comfortable place to have fun amongst friends. No such group existed in the area, that I could find.
So, I decided to form a group and approached Harpenden Mencap to put feelers to see if others would also be interested.
Other parents were equally enthusiastic. Together with Patrick Fisher, a trustee at Harpenden Mencap, who gave me unwavering encouragement and support, and a small committee of parents, we set up our inclusive dance and drama group.
It was called Special Act, a name thought up by one of our first families taking part. We met on Mondays at The Lea School with 20 children attending every week.
We hired Act One, a drama and dance group, run by the exceptionally talented Suzie Scambler, who herself was a wheelchair dancer and performer.
Our children really enjoyed the activities, exploring movement and dance and communicating in fun, creative ways.
No one was excluded due to challenging behaviour, and opportunities were developed for each and every young person to enable them to participate at the full extent of their imagination.
Barriers were broken down and all our young people grew in confidence and self-expression. At the end of each term the group put on performances for parents which were full of joy. Once a year, Special Act joined with Act One’s other groups to put on a joint performance, once in Potters Bar and also in Welwyn Garden City.
Special Act was a non-profit group that relied largely on raising funds at a time when fundraising was not easy, but certainly considerably easier than today.
We were generously supported by Harpenden Mencap, The Herts Community Foundation, Harpenden Town Council, the local Scouting organisation, the St Albans 10k & Fun Run Event and Harpenden Ladies Circle to name a few.
We bought equipment for the sessions, paid our Act One teachers and even funded a group trip to watch Mary Poppins at a London West End theatre, which was a fabulous day out.
Firm friendships were performed amongst parents and our youngsters, and it was so rewarding to see all our children and young people relaxing in a non-judgemental and accepting environment. It was a truly significant and worthwhile inclusive project, which carried on for many years.
- Caroline Hysom