This week, I are ... awed by the brilliance of writers with intellectual disabilities

I have been meaning to write this post for such a long time. It’s about a creative writing collaborative project I’ve been working on over the past eighteen months that is very dear to my heart. The project is with a group of people who are brilliant writers and who have intellectual disabilities.

Strictly speaking, I’ve worked on two different projects, over two different years. Last year, the group of writers, who attend services at Waterford Intellectual Disability Association (WIDA), published an eight-page booklet of poems describing their homes, their places of work (WIDA) and their city or county. This year, more writers came on board, and we will soon be publishing a second booklet, a twenty-page booklet of stories called Days of Our Lives. Both booklets are being funded by Creative Ireland through Waterford City and County Council.

The booklet launched by Waterford Intellectual Disability Association under the Creative Ireland funding we received last year.

Reasons for Starting Writing Project

I came up with the idea for this project through experiences of my own. In the past, I wrote extensively about my experiences as a visually impaired person, and my articles and essays were published in anthologies, newspapers and magazines. This all culminated in a novel, The Pink Cage. Publication is always a thrill, but that wasn’t the only reason why I was happy to see my name in print.

Writing has given me a sense of power, power to shape my own story and power to decide how I want to be seen by others. In my writing, I’ve always aimed to move people beyond a label and show them the realities of life with a disability. Writing also gave me a way to structure and make sense of my experiences, and turn them into stories that other people could enjoy.

I wanted other people with disabilities to experience that same sense of power and to discover their own creativity. So, I looked for a group I could work on a project with as a creative writing facilitator. I liked the idea of working with people with intellectual disabilities. I had done some one-off workshops previously and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, so I Googled intellectual disability service providers in Waterford.

I was delighted to get a reply from Nicola Spendlove at WIDA. As well as being an occupational therapist, she’s also involved in the arts, and it was great to know that she understood what I was trying to do. I gave a trial workshop, which the service users really enjoyed, and then I looked for a funding opportunity that would enable me to work with the group on a more long-term basis. A few months later, I came across the Creative Ireland funding, made a joint application with Nicola and was successful. And the rest is history.

Traits Displayed by Writers

Bringing out the booklets is a rewarding progress. But what’s really rewarding is the chance to work with these wonderful writers and watch them blossom. They stand out in my mind because they have certain traits that make them natural writers. Firstly, they are always themselves. There is no outer layer, no public self that they present to the world. It doesn’t occur to them to be anything other than their true selves. And that authenticity shines on the page. They’re also not the slightest bit worried about what other people think, and that makes them unafraid to take risks. They’re uninhibited and they will say and do absolutely anything. That brings freshness and originality to their writing.

Writing isn’t easy for these people. They first have to process what I’m saying to them and what’s on the worksheets I give them. They then need to think about what they will say and convert those thoughts into word on a page. That’s quite a challenge. But they persevered and took the time they needed, and they got there in the end – in style.

We all know that all work and no play makes us pretty dull, and the thing I’ll take away most from the workshops we did was how much fun they were. The zingy one-liners that some of them cracked out. The ones that never stopped smiling. The many times they broke into song or started dancing. Only for their sake would I have endured Nathan Carter’s Wagon Wheel. Dancing to that at the end of one session ended up being the highlight of this workshop series.

I do hope these great writers feel they are being seen as a result of their involvement in this project. That they are being seen as more than people to be pitied. That because of these booklets, people won’t be as inclined to say, ‘Poor thing,’ or ‘God help us.’ That instead, they’ll say. ‘He’s a really funny writer,’ or ‘Her writing is full of love.’ In the end, only they can tell whether that goal has been achieved.

I’m always happy to explore brilliant writing opportunities with community groups. You can find out more about my writing workshops here.

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