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The past few weeks have provided some reasons to be cheerful. I thought it was appropriate to share these in the run-up to Getting Equal’s first birthday.

 

Sketch impression of ‘Derelict House’ by Antony M, Lowry gallery member of staff.

A recent study, the UK National Values Assessment asked 4000 people about their personal values. It is encouraging that the key concepts chosen included: fairness, independence, respect and trust. My experience over the past couple of weeks, working with a meeting a wide range of people, supports the upbeat conclusions of the study.

In Wiltshire at a conference organised by Help for Heroes and Wiltshire County Council for groups supporting military veterans, I was struck by everyone’s willingness to forge links in order to provide a more integrated service. I was one of the speakers and briefly mentioned the struggles of one of the charities for which I am a Trustee. I was touched that another speaker, Ruth Moore at Irwin Mitchell, took the trouble to approach me and offer some helpful contacts and ideas which I could use to improve the situation.

Doing the decent thing

Last week I gave a lecture and workshop at Leeds Business School for future senior managers of Human Resources. I asked the students how they would have tackled the situation over my posting at the FCO. Their responses were thoughtful, sensible and involved dialogue and compromise. I felt encouraged that these young people

would be the HR managers handling situations like mine in the future. The next day I was speaking at the opening of the new offices of the country’s only private law firm to specialise in supporting clients with hearing loss, Joseph Frasier Solicitors in Blackburn. One of the other speakers was local MP, the Rt. Hon. Jack Straw. He was Foreign Secretary while I was working in London at the FCO and, typically of him, had come up to talk when he first saw a colleague and I using a lipspeaker. He would

always take time to say hello on subsequent occasions. The last time we had met was outside No. 10 Downing Street when I was waiting to accompany a Polish visitor to a meeting there; as far as he knew, I was still a diplomat. He seemed taken aback when, in Blackburn, he realised what had happened later at the FCO. When we spoke afterwards he apologised. I said it was not his fault; it had been about particular individuals within the administration and their decisions. He said nonetheless he was sorry, and that if it had happened while he had been minister, he would have stepped in. I believed him. While an exchange like this does not, and cannot, change anything, it is important because it shows decency and willingness to do the right thing.

Jack Straw was accompanied in Blackburn by the Ambassador to Turkey, who was shadowing him to learn about what an MP does on a constituency day. I suspect His Excellency, Ünal Çevikȍz, felt somewhat bemused by the colourful speeches about deaf legal rights and a star turn by Eileen and her delightful hearing dog, Sian, but if he did, he avoided showing it with great charm and seemed genuinely interested in it all.

Superb inclusive service

Salford Quays footbridge

At the weekend a visit from a friend from university days provided an excuse to be a tourist in my own city for the day. My friend was keen to visit The Lowry on Salford Quays. I had the luxury of being able to spend longer than usual enjoying this superb arts facility. At the Lowry gallery I asked staff about a favourite painting by L.S Lowry, Derelict House. This is a stark picture with a very narrow house in the centre and a solitary figure in front of it. It had appealed to me when I had last visited the gallery about a year before, probably because it reflected so well the bleakness I was then experiencing. The staff were superb, going to a lot of trouble to satisfy my curiosity and identify the picture, which was no longer hanging in the gallery. Soon after one member of staff came up with a hand-drawn sketch (photo at the top of this blog) asking ‘Was it like this?’. It was extremely close to the image I was seeking. I asked ‘How did you do that?’ and he said ‘From memory’. Clearly Anthony M. has artistic talents of his own (I will keep the sketch!) but what really struck me was the outstanding service he and his colleague had proactively provided. Encounters like this are all too rare but wonderful when they happen.

I had further evidence of how good The Lowry is at this stuff when viewing their Centre Stage photo exhibition where there was an audio transcription of the short videos by Hilary Easter-Jones. There were also high-quality captions on the excellent 20-minute film,’Meet Mr Lowry’. These may seem like minor points, but they are ones which many arts venues do not even consider. The difference they make to a deaf visitor is hard to describe if you have never felt excluded from a service, but put simply, I felt just like any other visitor – and that is unusual. At the gallery I was taken with two quotes from Salford’s greatest artistic son:

‘I’m attracted to decay, I suppose, in a way to ugliness too. A derelict house gets me.’ and: ‘Don’t you start thinking I was trying to put over some message; I just painted what I saw.’

Me too, Mr Lowry. Those deserted, abandoned or neglected (Collins dictionary’s definition of ‘derelict’) are, I think, more interesting and deserving of attention than glossy, shiny perfect types. And as for trying to show – or in my case, tell – it like it is, there is more need than ever of people who will do this.

Getting Equal will soon be celebrating its first birthday. It has been a humbling year on a sharp and exciting learning curve. Thank you to everyone who has given positive opportunities to support equality, and helped make me feel a little less derelict. I am looking forward, with your help, to achieving even more positive change, and giving even greater cause for optimism in the year ahead.

I love the arts – always have – both as a performer and a member of the audience. This blog looks at why the arts are so important for all of us.

Over the summer I had the pleasure of joining some of the events organised by Liverpool’s Da Da Fest which formed their vibrant international festival celebrating the work and talents of deaf and disabled artists and performers. I could easily have spent half a day immersed in the Niet Normaal exhibition which pushed provocatively at the boundaries of what is ‘normal’. One of the exhibits I could not tear myself away from was by Ben Cove. See below and scroll right for the full effect:

With thanks to the artist, Ben Cove

What reaction do you have to this? Mine was first laughter, then a long pause as possible references piled up – the economic recession, social disintegration, cuts, unemployment, illness, disability… a child’s fearful question to a parent: ‘Will everything be all right?’ yet optimism survives. I love the way Cove so simply ‘twisted’ the language to offer us the chance to reflect; one work says so much.

At the festival opening event, Dutch comedian, Vincent Bijlo’s fast-paced dark humour was reinforced by his deaf-blindness: ‘Seen what disabled people are achieving these days? Amazing! A man with no legs climbing Kilimanjaro? Makes me feel ashamed. I’ll get people on the street asking me “What are you doing? Why aren’t you off climbing Kilimanjaro or something?”’.

 

Niet Normaal’s curator, Ine Gevers with Jane, comedian, VIncent Bijlo and his wife, Marisa

Lose yourself in music

One of the silliest questions I have ever been asked was by a man at the Foreign Office: ‘You play music? Well what do you get from it?’. Although I sort of understood the question – for him music is just sound, presumably – I was still appalled by it. Everyone can feel rhythm. A perfectly co-ordinated symphony orchestra or quartet, breathing together, creates so much more than a bunch of sounds. How was I to start to explain to this person that as music had dominated over half my life, there was simply no question of it somehow disappearing just because I had become deaf? How could I get across to him the sheer pleasure (as well as terror) of sitting in my local orchestra rehearsal and making my contribution to playing something with everyone else, following the music – being part of it? [Click here for my local orchestra’s website.]

In fact I didn’t bother. But having recently seen the 5 ways to well being, I realise that playing music involves most if not all of the recommended activities: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. This helps to explain how music engrosses us so well.

On holiday with my dad in Seville last year, we tracked down a flamenco dive, well off the beaten track. In fact it was so well off the beaten track that took approximately 2 hours to find it, including the requisite refreshment breaks. But it was worth it. There were just three performers in a large, extended tent who performed on a postage-stamp of a stage – a guitarist, a singer and a dancer who had no ‘props’ – just using her hands for clapping. From the first few notes, the three operated as one. They were ‘in’ the music. You felt, watching, awe-inspired by the performers somehow responding to the music’s powers rather than creating the music. It was stunning. Anyone within 100 metres of the performance, regardless of any ‘impairments’, would have been stopped in their tracks by it.

Freedom for your thoughts

And this is what this blog is about. The arts – whatever grabs you – art, music, drama, cinema – make us pause; they give us space to think. A work of art or performance which absorbs us frees us from our daily concerns. In our accelerating, electronically-driven world, where many messages are reduced to short bursts of communication, the value of this is difficult to quantify. I am tempted to suggest that if monomaniacal insider traders had been forced to take a break and contemplate an intriguing or beautiful work of art or performance on a daily

or at least weekly basis, we may not have quite the financial mess

we now face. That may be going too far, but I wonder.

I am honoured that Da Da Fest’s powerhouse of a Chief Executive, Ruth Gould, has asked me to become Chair of

the organisation’s Board. I am on the Boards of two other charities, so before I responded, I had to ask myself: ‘Will the work benefit people and have value?’. Having read this blog, I am sure you know the answer.

 

Mentoring lets you share ideas, solve problems and learn. I have been lucky to have had fantastic mentors. I have also learnt a lot from mentoring others. If you are interested in trying, this blog is for you.

3 good reasons to mentor

  1. Teaching or guiding someone else boosts your learning; there is no better way.
  2. Being asked good questions increases your self-awareness. You may be surprised by how much knowledge and experience you have to offer.
  3. Giving makes you feel good. Times may be hard, but they are even tougher for younger people. Supporting a talented young person can help put your situation in perspective.

 

3 top tips for mentors

  1. Be honest: Explaining how you handled difficulties can be just as important as giving your recipes for success – sometimes more so.
  2. Listen openly and fully: Avoid jumping to what you think are solutions while the person asks you a question; this can stop you absorbing everything the person wants to tell you.
  3. Relax, engage and enjoy: Don’t clock-watch in the sessions. If you really can’t make time for the person, explain and reschedule.

 

5 tips for getting a great mentor

  1. Be clear: You need someone with whom you can develop a rapport and who can offer what you need. First profile your ideal mentor. What professional experience and personal qualities will help you? Do you need a role model who resembles you in some way? Someone in your own line of work? Or someone who brings fresh ideas from a totally different context?
  2. Sell yourself: Summarise what is special about you. Highlight evidence of your capacity to learn and develop. Put this in a short ‘pitch’ you can email to a potential mentor. What might they learn from you? Prepare for practicalities – time, communication – and do everything to make life easier for the mentor.
  3. Ask! The worst thing that can happen is they say no, but that is not the

    end of the world. Most people are open to suggestions and feel flattered that someone wants them to be their mentor.

  4. Review the relationship regularly: Ask for honest feedback and give it. Keep the learning channels open.
  5. Make the most of the relationship: Make time to work out your priorities before each meeting and email your agenda to your mentor. In discussions, take notes, then re-read them and use them to work out your next steps, or further questions you may have.

Need further inspiration?

Check out this new book to which I have contributed a case study: Click here for details.

 

What do people want from a blog?

Why are you reading this?

Normally at my happiest with pen in hand (yes, a pen, with messy real ink – younger readers will be able to find a picture of this antique item on the internet). But writing a blog? That’s another story.

Do we read blogs because other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating? Or is it because we are constantly in search of a life (and answers) which are better, apparently, than our own?

And who are ‘you’ anyway?

If I were writing this in Polish I would need to decide if you are plural (i.e. all you imagined hoardes of readers gathered breathlessly around your screens waiting (in vain) for pearls of wisdom to drop into your lap) or singular (e.g. the one person, such as my best and most loyal friend, who I can reliably assume will actually read this)? English lets one (not ‘you’!) be vague grammatically. If I knew who ‘you’ were I could gear this blog accordingly, throwing in references to suit your preferences. But I am working in the dark. You may be deaf like me, or disabled, and interested in that aspect of my experience. Of you may be a legal beagle who has heard of the court case I brought against the Foreign and Commmonwealth Office, or perhaps you are someone who is interested in having coaching.

I could and would write quite different blogs for you in these audiences, but as it is, I feel in a similar state of trepidation to the one I experienced many years ago, when as an English teacher, an editor asked me if I could turn as set of classroom activities into a book. Of course I could! But when it came to write the instructions for the activities, I asked, ‘Who am I writing for? A novice teacher taking their first steps in the classroom and needing every detail spelled out? Or a seasoned professional who could knock up a lesson plan on the back of an envelope in their coffee break and breeze through, confident of being able to handle the classroom dynamics? And where were they- Yemen or York?’ The answer came: You are writing for all those teachers and everyone in between. Right. Er, OK.

So, readers from Worsley to Warsaw, here are

this month’s highlights:

Most interesting event: The Springboard Consultancy’s annual conference. A brief to inspire 100 dynamic personal development trainers – experts in inspiration themselves – was slightly daunting initially but ultimately exhilarating and humbling. I admit it made a change to spend a day in such unreservedly positive company. See what their verdict was.

Best pause for thought: Watching ‘Minsk 2011’ by Free Belarus theatre – in Russian, with backdrop English captions – the first genuinely thrilling and biting theatrical experience for a long time. A set of heart-rending short stories from each actor at the end struck me as real. (I have visited and briefly worked in, Belarus). I met the Director afterwards, checked and sadly, I was right. It beggars belief that less than a 3-hour flight from the UK and on the border of the EU there is a Soviet-style dictatorship alive and well. Take any opportunity you can to see this talented, brave group.

Women of the month:

Lamia Al Sinani from the British Council in Oman: One of a new generation of women’s development trainers in the Middle East, Lamia’s presentation at the Springboard conference was a timely reminder of the challenges women face in the region. One of her comments particularly struck home to me: ‘For you in the west a woman being able to make her own decisions is normal; for the women in Oman it can make a huge difference to her life’. Bravo to Lamia and her colleagues trainers for the crucial work they are doing.

Ruth Gould, CEO of the Da Da Fest: a volcanic spring of energy, passion and creative enthusiasm with an energetic team to match. I am hoping to attend some of the Da Da’s wonderful- events in Liverpool next month.

Getting physical: Zumba. Being a deafo I tend to avoid classes like the plague.

But losing your hearing does not mean losing your sense of rhythm. If you can forget the comic effect of my poor balance on the ‘waggle- round- in-a-circle- on-one-leg’ move, I was no worse than the other 29 people in the class. (And as you ask, no, I did not fall over, but not quite falling over can actually look funnier than doing it- which tends to evoke sympathy, or at least pity!)

Hamlet

Mystery of the month: Why does Hamlet (next door’s semi-adopted cat, pictured) choose to spend so much time sitting on the fence between our houses? Is he an undecided voter as regards the quality of feline catering in each household? Or is he practising some mystical meditation which enables a medium-sized cat to actually be oblivious to the discomfort of the narrow fence on which he is seated? (NB: Naturally when I arranged a photo session to illustrate this, Hamlet, like all celebrities, declined to be pictured in the requested position, as it clearly did not show his best side).

Best austerity observation: A 6-year old at the gym approached me to show off her new umbrella. When I explained that mine was broken, with part of one hinge hanging off, she frowned and examined it. Having asked me how to open it, she pointed out ‘It still works!’ which was indeed true. I felt chastened. What is a more cosmetic irregularity such as an unhinged hinge, compared to functionality, especially in these times of austerity? She then mused, ‘My umbrella’s better though’. As hers not only bore attractive pictures of Snow White but also lacked troublesome hinges, I could not disagree!