Having their own possessions can bring a sense of independence and control that people with learning disabilities are deprived of all too often. Darren Devine hears how an art exhibition tells the stories behind these meaningful possessions and their owners.
When John* came to support provider Dimensions, he arrived with nothing more than an array of medication and the clothes he wore.
“Lots of people have given me keyrings including the lady I met in Asda. I see her every time I do my shopping and we’ve become friends. She came to my party and comes to see me on her day off. Her keyring has a photo of the two of us together so if she isn’t working when I do my shopping I can still see her.”
For the Reading-based not-for-profit group, his story is not unusual. In fact, the regional director of Dimensions Cymru (Wales) Russ Kennedy, says they never have to hire a van for belongings when a person with a learning disability moves into one of their supported living properties. Dimensions say that since joining them, John feels like he has more control over his life.
Kennedy said: “Everyone has objects that may seem mundane to others but, to us, are more precious than gold.
"Too often, we see people arriving at our services without any possessions. We never have to arrange a van to move someone’s belongings. This is why it’s incredibly important that we at Dimensions support people in a way that allows them to build ordinary lives and gather possessions that ultimately help tell their stories.”
The Power of Ownership Photography Exhibition
But an exhibition held last month at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff attempts to convey the crucial role ownership plays in the lives of people with learning disabilities. Managed by charity the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, the venue's proceeds go towards projects supporting human rights.
The photography exhibition featured images of people supported by Dimensions with their most treasured possessions. The project is the first of its kind to showcase how objects can play a vital role in giving people with autism and learning disabilities ownership over their lives. It explores how personal possessions have the power to evoke memories and provide comfort.
Photo courtesy of Adele Carter.
Geri Stephenson, who is also supported by the support provider, cites her Race for Life medal as an object that brings back happy memories. Despite struggling to walk, Stephenson completed the 5K run: an item on the "60 before 60" bucket list she created. “The medal makes me happy when I look at it. I walked a long way and running is not my thing", she said. "I made sure I had an ice cream at the end!”
The photobooks that Patsy is photographed with symbolise her close relationship with her sister. Patsy had been supported by Dimensions for a year when she got a call from her sister Marlene. Her sister phoned her house one day after tracking her down and their relationship has blossomed. Now, when Marlene comes to visit, she stays with Patsy.
When meeting Marie, it is easy to see that what really matters to her is what these programmes represent. Her love for musical theatre is palpable. She said: “I’m into musicals bigtime, whenever I see a show it’s like my dream come true. I have been to see Grease recently which was amazing, and Hairspray at Cardiff Bay and Donny Osmond were good too. There are way too many good ones for me to choose an ideal show but I would love to see the Lion King or a show in London.” Marie has been to all of the shows which she has the programmes for; except one: Strictly Come Dancing.
Vanessa loves playing darts. She is part of a team that plays on a Tuesday and she goes there with a friend. She would like to go more often and we are sure she will as she is very good at getting people involved.
For Ros Mountjoy, her most meaningful objects are the set of keys to her bedroom and her keyrings. The keys represent the privacy that she cherishes and her keyrings have been given to her by different people over the years. Mountjoy's favourite keyring was a gift from a friend who works at their local Asda. They became friends, and the keyring features a photo of them together.
“Lots of people have given me keyrings including the lady I met in Asda", says Mountjoy. "I see her every time I do my shopping and we’ve become friends. She came to my party and comes to see me on her day off. Her keyring has a photo of the two of us together so if she isn’t working when I do my shopping I can still see her.”
Wendy Enfields is non-verbal and has, in the past, struggled with anxiety. Her most treasured possessions are her hiking boots. Since Enfields has taken to hiking, her anxieties have reduced dramatically, meaning her medication could be reduced. Dimensions say that Enfields is visibly happy when she sees her hiking boots and now walks a few miles each day. With the help of her support workers, Enfields organised a hiking holiday to Pembrokeshire and she is now planning a trip abroad.
Why can ownership be so powerful for people with learning disabilities?
People with learning disabilities often have limited control over their own lives and, by extension, can end up with few personal possessions. Owning the objects may give someone an element of control that may otherwise be missing from their life.
Psychologist Mark Millard says that when people lack the power to make simple decisions in their everyday lives, owning objects can bring continuity and become an extension of the person. He added: “It [the favourite object] is my extended self — it’s a part of me that exists apart from me. If you’re talking about family or relationships or not being in one place — you also find people who move around a lot can just have a few treasured possessions because they provide an anchor to a point of stability.
“It provides that psychological anchor where the physical or emotional anchors might not exist. So it’s doing that same job — fulfilling that fundamental human need.”
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One of the most recent art exhibitions to feature the lives of people with learning disabilities was Rightful Lives, an online exhibition showcasing work focused on the theme of human rights. Some of the work, which includes pieces by people with learning disabilities, professionals, and family members, deals with detentions in long-stay hospitals.
All images courtesy of Emile Holba, commissioned by Dimensions.
* John is a pseudonym