The arts are for everyone: My perspective showcasing the talents of people who have Down syndrome

with Hayley Newman, DownsSideUp

In February last year, Ofsted published a review into the factors that contribute to a high-quality art education in schools in England. Within it, they argued for an ambitious art curriculum for ALL pupils, including those with special educational needs and/or disabilities. They recognise sometimes teachers unnecessarily lower their expectations for pupils with SEND, removing parts of the art curriculum instead of finding alternative ways for pupils with SEND to engage.

My daughter has Down syndrome. Due to her fine motor skills, she struggled to engage in the fine art aspects of an Art & Design GCSE course. When, with our encouragement, the teacher adapted the course content to incorporate clay modelling, photography, collage and more abstract art, she began to shine. Her creativity knew no bounds and she finished school with one GSCE–Art & Design–with a Grade 5. This was the confidence boost she needed and it demonstrates the importance of the arts curriculum for pupils who have SEND, especially when it is adapted to use methods that are accessible by all.

Art is a rich and varied set of practices. It can be therapeutic and allows people unique ways to express themselves practically and aesthetically. This is especially important for pupils who may struggle with speaking or writing, such as pupils who have learning disabilities. Art education should therefore be an important part of the curriculum for learning disabled pupils, not one that is limited. If pupils are given the right opportunities, they can demonstrate their creativity and skills and go on to achieve great things, for instance, winning competitions such as the annual My Perspective photography competition.

SNJ Contributor Hayley Newman has kindly written about her and her daughter Natty’s experiences of the Down’s Syndrome Association’s My Perspective competition below…

My Perspective: giving learners who have Down syndrome a voice. By Hayley Newman

‘It was completely fa-bu-lous!...

…I had champagne and danced on the stage with my friends!’

Natty Goleniowska

Natty’s smile stretched across her face and she did a little dance move as she remembered the Down’s Syndrome Association’s My Perspective Awards Evening she recently attended. She was thrilled to be asked to be a Judge for My Perspective 2023, a global photographic and filmmaking competition for people who have Down’s syndrome. As part of this role she was invited to London for the Awards Evening where winners are revealed!

My Perspective has drawn entries annually from around the world since 2010 and last year diversified the competition by introducing a short-film category. Whilst Natty’s photography skills stop at taking hilarious phone selfies, she was fascinated by the eclectic range of shortlisted images she was asked to rate. She pored over them, looking at every detail, declaring decisively the ones she wanted to win. She instinctively understood the story that each creator was telling through their work.

I think we can agree that art in all its forms, including photography and filmmaking, is a way of expressing yourself, communicating concepts, thoughts, feelings or identity in ways that might otherwise be difficult to articulate. The arts offer a way of showing others what the world looks like through your lens. They can showcase ability, break down stereotypes and give people a voice, particularly those who are nonverbal.

It is widely acknowledged and observed, that participating in the arts can boost self-esteem, connection, and confidence with positive knock effects seen in relationships, in the educational environment, and in the workplace. It raises awareness, changes attitudes and is widely used therapeutically.

Image shows a photo of Natty with actress Sarah Gordy, a group of the winners and an image of a blue tit from the competition

Previous winners

One of the 2023 My Perspective winners is nonverbal, and his mother said photography had given him freedom and changed his life.  

Orla Rawlinson won the People’s Choice Award in the Child Category last year and she was only six years old at the time. Orla said after her win, ‘Taking photos is a way for me to explore my world.’ You can check her and her photography out on Insta @Orlagram2016.

Jijo Das is an artist, illustrator, animator and photographer from India, he won the Judge’s Choice Adult Award last year for his stunning image, Beyond the Reef, you can find out more about him here.

Arts in education

Here in the UK, we continue to do battle with constant, inexplicable cuts to the arts curriculum in schools. Consequently teachers, parents, and carers must independently source alternative artistic provision and opportunity for their students and children.

Competitions like My Perspective are vital opportunities for expression and storytelling, personal growth, and development. And who knows perhaps even a future career in photography or filmmaking?  In 2019, Oliver Hellowell won Judge’s Choice Award category for his incredible image of a blue tit in the snow. Oliver started taking photos aged 11 and is a professional photographer and now a published author. His work has featured on BBC’s The One Show and Country File.

Oliver said: ‘Me and my dad go out and find interesting logs and things to put outside the hide in the garden for the birds to land on. We got this really cool bit with fungus and moss and bits on it. We had some snow, and my mum loves blue tits, and they look so cute in the snow I got this one for her.’

I watched Natty from afar that wonderful night in a room full of people who had Down’s syndrome, all strangers but instantly connected. Natty wanted to mingle without me cramping her style, insisting I stood away from her. I saw her stand tall chatting to those who inspired her, such as actors Sarah Gordy, Grace from Eastenders, filmmaker Otto Baxter and content creator Clare May-Minnett. For the first time in her life, I was looking in on her world and it was wonderful to see her find ‘her people’ at last.

There was a tangible sense of pride and fulfillment that night, as the entrants saw their work printed large upon the canvases around the room. Everyone went home with their self-esteem and confidence boosted high, alongside a sense of achievement that hopefully had a huge ripple effect on all aspects of their life. You simply can’t put a price on that.

Find out more...

If you would like to find out more about My Perspective and enter the competition please visit: downs-syndrome.org.uk/our-work/our-voice/my-perspective/

Find the Easy Read document about the competition here

Also read:

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Sharon Smith
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