Headway Arts

Headway Arts Erasmus+ project participants

Enabling young learning-disabled artists and making art truly inclusive

Erasmus+ is helping a Northumberland-based centre raise the aspirations of young learning-disabled artists and helping them to play a full role in their communities.

Headway Arts offers a welcoming cultural hub in Blyth, providing opportunities for arts participation that everyone in the town and beyond can access, and has a long history of involvement with Erasmus+ and its predecessor programmes.

“Through our work, we apply the use of the arts as a tool for personal and social change," said creative director Alison Walton-Robson. "During the 12 years that we have taken part in Erasmus+ and its predecessor programme I have witnessed first-hand its astounding effects.

“We work with people in one of the most disadvantaged wards in the UK and learning-disabled people are even more disadvantaged within this context.

"Thanks to Erasmus+ we have been able to offer people incredible opportunities that they would never have had a chance of, or even dreamed of, experiencing otherwise.”

The REAL deal

Headway's latest Erasmus+ partnership project, Reflective Expressive Artistic Learning (REAL), is an example of how the team there are helping young learning-disabled artists to gain new skills, increase their confidence and compete in the real world.

Alison explained: “We have collaborated with partners in five European countries to bring together groups of artists and facilitators who are exploring ways to make art inclusive. Artists with physical and learning disabilities have come together to teach and learn across all forms of art including dance, music, visual art and theatre. 

“Throughout the project we have explored the concept of quality in learning disability arts, what this is, and how it impacts on the experiences of young learning-disabled people.

"Through practical explorations of the work of partner organisations and initiating conversations between partners, we have also explored the concept of quality in creative work by, and for, young learning-disabled people.

"We have learnt new methods of evaluation, self-evaluation and critical thinking that are accessible and meaningful.

Thanks to Erasmus+ we have been able to offer people incredible opportunities that they would never have had a chance of experiencing otherwise

"This is all helping us to raise the aspirations of our young learning-disabled people, enabling them to develop critical thinking skills, which in turn will help them to make and access good choices for their future.”

Project activities took place in all partner countries - Poland, Portugal, Lithuania, Greece and the UK - targeting youth workers, disability workers and those working in the arts and disability from each partner organisation.

"Through a combination of transnational workshops, conversations, learning events, online discussion and evaluation, the project enables young learning-disabled people to be more active, both within the partner organisations and within their communities," said Alison. "We’re also finding that it’s helping them to learn the importance of quality in their work.”

REAL benefits

She added that taking part in the project has also developed the confidence and self-esteem of young learning-disabled people, increasing their motivation and their understanding of what they can achieve.

REAL Erasmus+ project participants holding sign“I recently watched one of our learning-disabled participants run a drama workshop with a cohort on our REAL project.

"She’d met them on a previous mobility and was keen and confident enough now to show them what she could do. I was there ready to support her but I am proud to say she didn’t need me.

"She delivered a carefully planned and executed international workshop by herself, to a room of 30 disabled and non-disabled people. If that’s not overcoming multiple barriers, I don’t know what is!”

Alison believes the project has had other benefits, including challenging the preconceptions of learning-disabled young people and raising their profile.

“Not only does it show what can be achieved but it is also providing a positive role model to others, through providing platforms for the work of young learning-disabled artists. It is also raising awareness of the role disadvantaged people can play in the social, economic and cultural life of their communities.”

Alison has seen improved awareness of cultural differences and the development and improvement of language and communication skills in everyone involved in the project.

"We spent a lot of time talking to each other informally, such as during evening meals, chatting about how we do things differently and indeed the same too," she said.

I have seen members of my group transform, recognising their potential as individuals with real skills and lots to offer to others, becoming role models and peer educators. It has been fantastic to witness

"There was a lot of fun as we tried to pronounce each other’s languages and names and learn sign languages too.

"While this made the learning fun, it also had the serious effects of raising awareness of different cultures and bringing mutual understanding. One young woman who has Down Syndrome was inspired to learn how to say hello in each language and prepared before her mobility.”

Future plans

The partner organisations have made new connections as a result of the initiative, with some now successfully working on a new Erasmus+ project as well as sharing the knowledge and practices already developed and expanding their current programme of work for young people.

The UK partners are currently developing a new arts-based event production training programme and offering learners accredited qualifications. 

“Thanks to Erasmus+, Headway Arts has expanded, honed and tested its practice in an international arena," said Alison. "We have pioneered an international network of arts-based educators and artists with a learning disability and their champions, sharing practice and building aspirations.

"We have helped establish three companies and trained over 500 people, directly and indirectly.

"I have seen members of my group transform, recognising their potential as individuals with real skills and lots to offer to others, becoming role models and peer educators. It has been fantastic to witness.”

Inspired by Headway Arts? Apply for Youth Strategic Partnership funding!