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It’s Good to See You: Theatre and Non-Verbal Communication

Posted on 16 August 2017

The Belgrade’s Communications Assistant, Shaista Hussain, has written an award-winning article on the impact of theatre and non-verbal communication for young people with learning disabilities. It was selected as one of the winning entries for outstanding print journalism in the Mencap Journalism Awards 2017. Have a read of her article below:

Theatre practice is having a positive impact on young people with learning disabilities, equipping individuals with communication skills which move past traditional verbal means.

An alarming figure revealed by a Department of Health survey indicated 1 in 2 respondents with a learning disability stated that healthcare staff never ask how they should communicate with them.

I met with Richard Hayhow, theatre practitioner and director of the Open Theatre Company who has been working with people with learning disabilities in the Midlands for over 30 years. Through his work, Richard has found societal attitudes towards verbal communication plays an instrumental and often detrimental role in the way we understand relate to people with learning disabilities. Richard commented “people with learning disabilities in our society are still to a large extent invisible, so they are essentially denied all social and communication skills.”

Through founding the Open Theatre Company, Richard has been able to directly engage with young people with learning disabilities in theatre practice, establishing and encouraging experimental communication methods. Richard makes the case “in order to understand who you are as a human being, you have to be able to relate to other people through interaction.”

A recent research study conducted by Mencap revealed young adults with learning disabilities are amongst the most socially ostracised, with a staggering 1 in 3 18 – 35 year olds spending less than 1 hour a day outside their home. Furthermore, Mencap’s research found that just 10% of the general public say they have seen someone with a learning disability featured in newspapers or magazines in the past six months. Richard points out “we unconsciously and implicitly prevent people with learning disabilities from communicating because we are saying that the only way we can negotiate who you are is if you can talk.”

Richard’s work in the field of learning disabilities and theatre actively attempts to dismantle this social structure and please for greater understanding. He explains “a lot of young people I work with do not find using words the easiest way to communicate…there is a lack of experimentation and exploration when enabling people with learning disabilities to effectively communicate.” Accordingly, Richard adopts an integrated, interactive and physical element to the theatre he enables his participants to create.

Theatre as a medium, embraces non-verbal elements intrinsically, be it through the genre of physical theatre, gesture, imitation or digital interactivity. Even in our day-to-day functioning, Mencap estimate that our communication is made out of 3 core components, with body language taking up a dominant 55% when it comes to our communicative understanding, tone of voice alone utilises 38% of our understanding and actual words are relatively insignificant – 7% – making up a minute percentage of our communicative understanding.

Richard reminds us that “what people with learning disabilities are much abler to understand and recognise all of the other non-verbal ways of communication that we forget…if you open up all of those different ways of communication and communicate with someone non-verbally, then you will not only discover more about who they are, but they are also discover a little bit more about who you are.”

The social and personal significance of Richard’s work cannot be underestimated. With 33% of children with a learning disability stating they find it harder than average to make friends in comparison with 9% of children without a learning disability, Richard’s work is a vital avenue for young people with learning disabilities to engage in group, peer activities, commenting “the arts have the power to completely transform people’s lives for the better.” In his work, Richard has seen his participants become more confident, capable and able. Indeed, Richard’s work in communication and theatre demonstrates that you do not have to use words to communicate effectively and meaningfully.

However, Richard points out that his theatre company, The Open Theatre Company works solely with people with learning disabilities. Whilst the specialised, person-centred approach is often necessary, it does raise question on whether integration into society is truly possible, particularly when pursuing a career in the theatre sector. With a growing number of people with learning disabilities outright denied opportunities onto performing arts courses, Richard emphasises how it is necessary to “support actors with learning disabilities to become part of mainstream theatre making culture…embracing change needs to be at the heart of what we do.”

In all of the work that Richard does, he tries to find a balance in supporting individuals with learning disabilities to develop their identity, discover who they are and where they see themselves in life, whilst at the same time, trying to find out where their creativity lies, supporting them as artists. This measured, sensitive approach opens up a dialogue, which is much more than just verbal and allows for a deeper exploration of communication which can be beneficial for a career in theatre and equally as important outside the realms of theatre.

Through his person-centered, holistic approach, Richard helps young participants with learning disabilities to develop confidence in their communication skills. These skills can be utilised in day-to-day interactions, be it through building friendships, communicating with family members and healthcare professionals, or working collaboratively and creatively which can have a profoundly positive impact on individuals with learning disabilities.

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