A few years ago I had the great privilege of going up Kilimanjaro with a group of ‘disabled’ climbers, who thoroughly kicked my arse in the mountain climbing department. So it wasn’t a complete surprise that at Heart n Soul’s Squidz Club at the Albany in Deptford, I had a wonderful lesson in how to party.
From the minute you go into the venue (past terribly polite, yet reassuringly large door staff) it’s obvious that Heart n Soul have created something different. In some ways, it was like an aftershow party for a film premiere – separate zones to chill out, play video games, dance, listen to live music, have a beer and some food – and in the most important way it was utterly different. Everyone there was actually having fun. Any notion you might have had about patronising ‘entertainment’ being put on for people with learning disabilities is quickly blown away as you realise that at every level in the organisation, it’s the people with the disabilities who are leading the whole event. They’re DJ-ing, VJ-ing, compering, rocking out with the band, doing interviews, stewarding, and generally doing all the other things teenagers and adults do on a Friday night. And bloody good luck to them.
I monopolised Mark Williams MBE, the Artistic Director, for far too much of the evening, but then, he’s a wily devil – funny, challenging, inspired and with a highly developed sense of mischief. Which might explain why we ended up dressed as a Giesha Girl (me) and some form of Tudor nobleman (him) to have our picture taken (one of the many brilliant things to do at on the upper floor). Heart n Soul have been running for 25 years now, and if you can watch the videos on their website and feel nothing, I’ll eat my hat, your hat, and any other hats you care to find.
I could rant on all day about the incredibly influential work they do, and the 50 clubs around the country that have sprung up in response to their ground breaking work, but you should find out for yourself. The most powerful thing I took away from the evening was something I’ve seen in my own family. I’ve got a wonderful nephew, Jamie, who has Down’s Syndrome, and while obviously there are things he can’t do that the rest of the family can, there are also things that only he can do. Amongst other things, he can connect with people, who are maybe sometimes a little closed in, in a way that transforms everyone in the room. Multiply that by the hundreds of disarmingly warm, expressive and funny people I met last night and it’s a truly powerful experience.
I’m going to see if I can help Heart n Soul in whatever way I can. If I can twist a few corporate arms to get them some money and support, then so much the better. But if you want to get involved, don’t do it because you feel sorry for them. If you go along you’ll see that celebrating the gifts and talents of people with disabilities is transformative for everyone. Particularly uptight, middle-class, stressed-out people who’ve forgotten how to have fun.
And it’s cheaper than therapy!