Introducing Creative Rhythms

Creative Rhythms: Tailor-made, person-centred art, music, nature and sensory sessions to develop, excite and inspire

Wouldn’t it be nice to live a world where people recognise that what unites us is far more important than any ‘dif-ability’* that divides us? Music, nature and the creative arts speak to something deep inside each and every one of us, and promote a great and long-lasting sense of wellbeing and inner peace.

Creative Rhythms offers person-centred, tailor-made art and music sessions along with sensory and intensive interaction time and seasonal outdoor activities to focus on what we all have in common: a love of and deep connection to music, art, nature and the senses. Aside from being tons of fun, sessions can help to develop the following:

  • Sensory skills
  • Spiritual and emotional wellbeing
  • Imagination
  • Reclamation of personal power
  • Potential for holistic development
  • Meaningful opportunities for learning
  • Hand-to-eye co-ordination
  • Individuality
  • Sense of self
  • Learning rhythm and tempo
  • Motor skills
  • Choice-making
  • Communication skills
  • Interaction with others
  • Observation and listening skills
  • Creativity
  • Teamwork
  • Self esteem
  • Sessions are also therapeutic, calming, and inspire happiness

The Creative Rhythms Philosophy is that all people with a ‘dif-ability’ can express themselves and come alive through music, creativity, the senses, alternative communication techniques, and time spent in nature. 

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FAQ

Who are the sessions designed for?

Creative Rhythms uses the arts to engage with hard-to-reach individuals, whatever their situation. The sessions work well for children and adults with mild learning disabilities and have also proven very beneficial to those with profound and multiple learning disabilities. These sessions can benefit sufferers of dementia, particularly through music that sparks nostalgia, and they can also act as a positive outlet for individuals with mental health problems or those expressing ‘challenging’ behaviour.

Why choose Creative Rhythms?

The key difference with Creative Rhythms is that sessions can take place in the comfort of your own home. As well as a relaxed environment, this means activities are person-centred and tailor-made rather than having a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In terms of music, Creative Rhythms offers a wide range of resources including a loop machine, karaoke, amplifiers, microphones and a wide variety of musical instruments and percussion, all available at a cost that is designed to be inclusive and affordable.

Are the sessions safe and professional?

Yes. The sessions are fully insured and conducted by Sophie, who has a current enhanced DBS certificate, is an emergency first aider, and also trained to administer Midazolam rescue medication.

How long do sessions last?

Sessions run for either one or two hours, depending on the needs and wishes of the individual or group. Art, music, and nature sessions (summer only) can be combined as required.

What do they involve?

Creative Rhythms focuses on art and music, with other nature-based sessions taking place in the spring and summer months. Sessions are person-centred and therefore are all different, designed to suit each person/group’s needs and wishes and bearing in mind any issues of capacity and ability.

Where do the sessions take place?

Creative Rhythms is primarily a mobile service and comes to the individual’s home (or organisation) for sessions. It is based in Luddenden, Calderdale, West Yorkshire, and covers the whole Halifax area, Todmorden, and most of Kirklees and Bradford.

When do the sessions run?

The sessions can be arranged at a time and day to suit the individual or group, and run all year round.

How much do the sessions cost?

The session prices below reflect fuel and travelling time, as well as the cost of all materials and resources. Prices shown are for one hour. Second hours are all charged at 50% of the usual price.

Groups of 4 or more: £7 each, with discounts for taster sessions available.

Groups of 2-3: £12 each, with discounts for taster sessions available.

Individual: £25, with free taster session and further discounts for block bookings.

Large groups, day centres, schools and organisations: to be negotiated at the point of enquiry depending on requirements and group size. Taster sessions are always free!

Click on the tabs at the top of the home page to find out more about how art and music can make such a difference to someone who is differently (*dif)abled. Keep scrolling for testimonials and gallery!

Email: creativerhythmsophie@gmail.com
Phone: 07482 316571

Testimonials:

“Sophie has been working with my daughter who has profound mental and physical disabilities. She has introduced art and  music into Amanda’s life and made a real difference. Having one to one sessions with someone who really cares and has patience    and vision has given Amanda some way to focus her attention to colour and texture and helps to improve her concentration. Music has always brought pleasure to Amanda, but this has really been enhanced by Sophie playing an instrument in her presence and encouraging hands on involvement. These therapies have given Amanda something special to enjoy.” – Cathy & Bill, parents

“Sophie is very creative and she also has the rare ability to tune into peoples’ sensory and communication needs in the most fantastic, person-centred way.” – Sarah Walton, Supported living manager, Creative Support Calderdale

“Sophie has spent time with my non-verbal child on many occasions , both in our home and in an outdoor setting to offer sensory time and encourage my son to interact. The sessions have been well thought out and appealing and he has really enjoyed the time spent with Sophie. The benefits have been more engagement, more smiles, and it has also encouraged his love of music and nature. Robin looks forward to seeing Sophie and experiencing new things.” – Emma, Parent 

Gallery

When working with vulnerable people, the use of photography and video recording is rare, for obvious reasons. As such this gallery is limited – in fact, the only real way of finding out what happens in a Creative Rhythms workshop is to try one and see for yourself ! So please get in touch and ask about discounts for taster sessions.

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Martin loves strumming the guitar and playing with the bells, but sound baths are his favourite!
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Martin loving the butterfly cocoons
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Amanda loved making this beautiful lion made with Autumn leaves
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Painting a butterfly with Amanda
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Jack exploring some of the sights, sounds and smells of the theme at the start of a ’round the world’ sensory music session
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Some percussion instruments (and a monkey who likes to say hello)!
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Here’s me recording a song I wrote for Jack

Inspirational quotes I’d like to share!

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How to start growing your own food (even in a small or urban space)!

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Credit: Flickr, Stacie Stacie Stacie

Being self sufficient in a small space is much easier (and enjoyable) than you might think! Since lockdown, I’ve been busy making a vegetable patch with the people I support. Not only is this a fun activity for ‘dif-abled’ people that makes the most of the sunshine we’re currently all enjoying, but it will also save a ton of money and attract lots of wildlife and pollinators to our garden.

Ten years ago, I knew nothing about gardening. It seemed like a useful but time-consuming hobby: too much hard work and too much information to take in. Then I moved to a small farming community in the mountains of southern Spain, where old men wearing flat caps still use mules to plough the earth, and everyone in the village has their own allotment, or huerto.

Planting lettuce at home in Spain. This plant, and many more, can also be grown in window boxes and pots for urban gardening.
Planting lettuce. This plant, and many more, can also be grown in window boxes and pots for urban gardening.

Neighbours in the village would bring me gifts of fat orange carrots and juicy red tomatoes fresh from the earth, and I realized with horror that I had never tasted real food until then. Making a decision to grow my own produce was the next logical step, and I was surprised to discover it was much easier than I had ever imagined. Not only that, I found getting muddy in the garden was so relaxing it was almost zen-like, not to mention rewarding and fun. On top of the pleasure it brings and the knowledge that I’m contributing to a global back-to-basics food revolution, growing my own produce has saved me a lot of money and enabled me to provide a constant supply of delicious healthy food for my family. In these strange times, it could prove to be a useful skill to have. Most people don’t have the luxury of a plot of land or big garden, but much of what I’ve learned can be applied to city centre apartments with only a small balcony or yard.

A balcony garden. Credit: generalamazo, Flickr
A balcony garden. Credit: generalamazo, Flickr

Please note that all the methods explained here were chosen for their simplicity, but there are various approaches to urban gardening and other people may use different methods (and different plants) than those I cover here. Gardening is a learning process: experimentation is essential to find out what works best for you and your plot. I’ve avoided using words like permaculture, bio-intensive, bio-dynamic and so on, because I think sometimes as a beginner these terms can only make things more confusing. I’m also a firm believer in grasping the bare basics and then learning through experimentation and getting your hands dirty! Also, I recommend that you do your own research for specific planting times for your climate. Spring in southern California or southern Spain comes earlier than spring in the UK or Canada for example, so it’s worth checking out guidelines for where you live if you’re in a different part of the world. I’m writing this with the UK in mind.

Choosing suitable plants

Plants that grow upwards, rather than spilling out across the earth are the best ones to cultivate in a confined space. In spring, you can plant cucumbers, sweetcorn, tomatoes, climbing beans, aubergine, and peppers, which don’t require much ground space and are all easy to grow. These plants will thrive with lots of sunlight (ideally a greenhouse), but many others can survive even in a shady spot.

A trellis can be used for climbing plants. Credit: boboroshi, Flickr
A trellis can be used for climbing plants. Credit: boboroshi, Flickr

Sweetcorn can be planted directly in the ground, but the others will do better if they are first grown in seed trays and left indoors, only ‘transplanted’ when the seedlings are sturdy and strong (around 10-15cm tall). Make sure the last frost of the year is well and truly over in your area before placing seedlings outside – late April or May is usually fine.

Potatoes are usually grown in the ground, but experimentation has taught me that they do just as well in sacks full of earth which you can easily place on a balcony. Recycled buckets will also do fine. Simply save a few old potatoes, and when the shoots have grown to around 3cm, cut the potato into quarters and place each piece inside a sack of compost (if you can get hold of any chicken or horse manure, add that liberally too, placing inside the hole you’ve dug before adding the seedling and covering with earth).

Chilli peppers, cooking herbs, lettuce, radishes, spinach and beetroot can also be planted now for summer, and will thrive even in window-boxes and small pots. Hanging baskets can also be used to make the most of your space. Other easy-grow crops are garlic, onions, broccoli and pumpkins – the latter seem to take over the garden of their own accord, and require pretty much no maintenance whatsoever (they do need a little more ground space, though, so would only be suitable for a bigger plot).

Choosing and sourcing seeds

I find the easiest thing to do wherever possible is to take seeds from an organic specimen and then dry them for a day or two on a piece of tissue paper. This works for any seed-based plant: cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, as well as strawberries (also great for small spaces, and very hardy) and other fruits. For seedless plants, you can buy organic seeds online or from an online seed bank; I would also recommend finding out if there are any free exchanges in your local area to save money (and connect with other green-fingered folk!)

Radish, beet and purslane growing in a small window box. Credit: Samantha cy-v, Flickr
Radish, beet and purslane growing in a small window box. Credit: Samantha cy-v, Flickr

Soil and fertilizers

As a beginner, even getting your head around the various different types of soil can be a headache. Of course different plants have their own requirements to thrive, but mostly it’s common sense: make use of what you have in the local area (where possible) and keep an eye on your seedlings as they grow, making sure the soil doesn’t become too dry and learning from observation what they need. If the earth in your area is too gritty or clay-based, you might need to purchase soil, but any gardening store should be able to advise you on this.

Organic fertilizers are a good idea, and if it’s not possible to get hold of any manure, you can use any plant-based waste to give nutrients and moisture to your soil (a process called mulching). This could include wood chips, pine needles, bark, leaves, or compost mixes made from any leftover fruit and vegetable peelings. I usually dig a hole, fill a quarter of the hole with manure or mulch, then add a little more soil before placing the plant in the earth and repeating this process (mulch, then soil again to the top). For small seedlings you’ll only need to do this process once.

Lunar gardening

The waxing and waning of the moon doesn’t only affect the tides; it affects soil moisture, tree sap, and everything else (including the water in our bodies). The idea of using the moon’s cycles to plant, prune and harvest may sound crazy to some, but it’s a method that has been used in rural Spain (and many other cultures) for generations, and with amazing results. I can personally testify that even if you are skeptical, starting your new hobby with a lunar gardening calendar to help you out will make the whole process much easier, and will pretty much guarantee you success (whether you believe in it or not!).

A beautiful summer harvest! Credit: Todd Heft. Flickr
A beautiful summer harvest! Credit: Todd Heft. Flickr

The best calendar I’ve found can be bought online from Lunar Organics here. Unlike some other highly complex charts I’ve seen elsewhere, Lunar Organics’ calendar divides plants into four basic categories: roots (anything that grows underground), fruits (including vegetables) that grow above ground), leaves (lettuce, herbs, spinach etc), and flowers. The calendar is very simple to use and is colour-coded to show you when best to sow and harvest these ‘families’, which is great for total beginners and disorganized gardeners alike! It also comes with a handy guide to planning your space and an introduction to companion planting (see below), which is an excellent way of repelling pests and being kind to the earth without using any chemicals.

Companion planting and pest control

One of the best organic methods of pest control I’ve found is to collect nettles, soak them in a compost bin half-full of water until they reach a mulch consistency, then simply apply the mixture around the base of the plants. The toxicity of the nettles seems to deter most garden pests, as well as acting as a great fertilizer. Beer placed in sunken cups around the base of the plants will trap any unwanted slugs, but if you don’t like this method you can also loop copper wire (and even eggshells) around the bases to deter them instead.

Companion planting has many benefits. Credit: Samuel Mann, Flickr
Companion planting has many benefits. Credit: Samuel Mann, Flickr

Companion planting is based on the idea that certain plants thrive best when they are grown together. Since different plants give and take different nutrients to and from the earth, and since some plants (such as sunflowers) offer shade to those which need it (eg, tomatoes), this is a great way of avoiding chemicals and working in harmony with nature. Beans grow well with cucumbers and beets, for example, while tomatoes like being close to herbs, garlic and peppers. A handy list of all companions (and those which you should avoid grouping together) can be found here. Companion planting is also a great method of pest control. Marigolds, for example, repel a wide range of pests – I try to plant one flower next to every seedling and would swear by this method. Herbs and flowers can also repel or attract various insects, so it’s well worth checking this list out before deciding what to plant where. Tomato flies don’t like lettuce, so planting these around the vines will help increase your crop, while sunflowers (another great addition to a balcony garden) repel aphids. Finally, plant as many flowers as you can to attract bees: Lunar Organics sells a great seed mix with hardy, easy to grow flowers, chosen specifically to help our furry friends in their fight for survival.

If any of you feel inspired please comment and share, and do let me know how you get on with your new hobby!

How to cope (and thrive!) during lockdown

 

Credit: Pexels, CC license
Credit: Pexels, CC license



There’s no doubt about it: life has become intensely weird over the last couple of weeks. All the simple things we used to take completely for granted – seeing friends and family, hugging, standing close to a stranger in a queue, sitting on a park bench, having a nice meal and a few drinks out – has gone in the blink of an eye. For those of us in health and social care, the frustration isn’t only felt in our own personal lives, but experienced at work too: a myriad of ever-evolving company policies to negotiate, breaking the tragic news to parents that they can no longer see their children in supported living, stretching the imagination on a daily basis to come up with creative ways of entertaining our service users – many of whom may be confused, anxious and unable to understand the sudden death of their activity schedule and the complex reasons behind the lockdown.

It’s certainly a stressful time – on that we can all agree – but I often feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I discuss COVID-19 with friends, family and colleagues and argue that what the world needs now more than anything else is positivity. So rather than giving into the temptation to hide under your duvet until it’s all over, here are a few proactive and realistic steps you can take to put a smile back on your face. And if you’re a nurse or carer, the same goes for the people you support!

  1. Bond with mother nature

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Credit: pexels.com CC licence

Spending time outdoors is absolutely crucial to restoring your energy levels and feel connected to the Earth. At the time of writing, COVID-19 government guidelines still allow all of us to get out and exercise once a day.  Not only is nature breathtakingly beautiful, but the great outdoors is a great stress-free zone. No wifi and mobile signals messing up your brain, no CCTV cameras, no man-made noise, no light pollution, no crowds – and no talk of the virus! Whether you’re walking through a forest or sitting down by the ocean, you notice an instant calming effect that soothes the soul. Nature is oblivious to humanity’s problems. No matter what’s going on with our species, the wind keeps rustling in the treetops, the ocean keeps making waves, babbling brooks keep flowing, and birds keep singing. If you live close enough to the wilderness to head out for one hour a day and enjoy the tranquility, do it! If you’re a city dweller, try heading to a park at lunchtime, exercise outside rather than in a gym, and plan regular weekends away to escape the oppressive urban jungle as much as you possibly can. Never underestimate the healing power of the natural world.

  1. Turn off the TV

Credit: Wikimedia
Credit: Wikimedia

Television acts like a drug, and even alters your brain chemistry, so it’s worth trying to limit your consumption in these strange times. I’d say this is even more important now than ever before, simply because television – and specifically the news – is more negative than ever at the moment. Try to only watch films and series that are positive, funny, uplifting or educational. Start looking for inspirational films and documentaries you can watch on your laptop. Choose your own entertainment, rather than let pop culture choose it for you. And stay positive!


  1. Get involved

Credit: Wikimedia commons CC licenced
Credit: Wikimedia commons CC licenced

Dwelling on the horrendous pandemic that is COVID-19 isn’t going to help you or anyone else, so instead choose to be part of the solution. Contact your local councils, charities, food banks, NHS services and other local services to see if you could volunteer – dropping off shopping, medication, or even just being a friendly person to call for those who are feeling loneliness in isolation. Always remember the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

  1. Avoid the mainstream news

A selection of headlines that will do nothing to boost your mood. Credit: CC license, pressreform.blogspot
A selection of racist, fear-mongering headlines that will do nothing to boost your mood. Credit: CC license, pressreform.blogspot

Fear, terror, shock, horror, fear, terror, shock, horror, death…it makes absolutely no sense to wallow in the awfulness of it all. What will it achieve? I recommend taking one month’s ‘media fast’ per year, where you don’t watch or read any news at all. You quickly learn that the negative energy we create when we feel anxious, angry or frustrated at the world is always better spent on positive thought and action. Terrifying news reports tend to spark widespread fear, division, and hatred for ‘the other’, all of which are detrimental to our shared goal of harmony, happiness, and global peace. OK – you need to know what’s going on in the world, I get it. But knowing all the facts and memorising the exact death tolls for each country due to COVID-19 isn’t going to stop it from happening – it’s simply going to make you feel anxious, afraid and helpless.

Is a better world possible after all this is over? I believe so! But it starts with positive attitude and belief, rather than being dragged into the fear matrix that is the mainstream media.

  1. Channel your frustration creatively

Credit: pexels CC license
Credit: pexels CC licence

Don’t get mad, get poetic. Writing, drawing, painting, vlogging or blogging, playing a musical instrument, or creating GIFs and shareable memes online are all ways of venting your frustration at the world in a positive way. Creativity is a wonderful antidote to depression. Many people claim they don’t have an artistic side, but I’m skeptical- even doodling on paper can relieve stress, and even if you think you can’t write a poem, you won’t know until you try. We are all creative, including those people you may support!

  1. Disconnect (to reconnect!)

Credit: Wikimedia
Credit: Wikimedia

A study from Denmark suggested we’d all feel much happier if we had a break from social media. The Danish Happiness Institute found that participants who put down their smartphones and quit Facebook for a week were more content, and (not surprisingly) interacted more with real-life human beings. Social media can definitely be used for positive change, but if you’re depressed about the world it could do you good to back away from your smartphone for a few days, at least. Instead, do what everyone else is doing – download Zoom or House Party, ignore the negativity on Twitter, and socialise with people you love, spreading your positivity while you do so!


  1. Take control of your mind

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Credit: Pexels, CC license

Reminding yourself to live in the present moment is a very effective way to eliminate worrying and get some perspective. It’s easy to forget that the past is gone and the future doesn’t exist: all you really have is now. So many of us panic about what might happen or spend a lot of time wishing the past had been different. Since we have no control over any of this, it’s a total waste of your mental energy. If you don’t seem to be able to stop thinking, it’s worth considering meditation. There are even groups that participate in global group meditations to visualize world peace, and these kinds of initiatives have even been credited with lowering crime rates in cities like New York and LA (the idea is that individual brain waves can affect the collective consciousness).

Spiritual philosophers like Louise Hay, Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts and Jiddu Krishnamurti are well worth checking out for anyone who wants to use positive affirmations, mindfulness, ancient wisdom and meditation to visualize a better planet (or even just to make beneficial changes in your own life). If this all sounds like nonsense so far, I recommend watching a powerful film called ‘What The Bleep Do We Know’, which uses the latest cutting-edge research in quantum mechanics and interviews with leading physicists to illustrate how human beings are truly the co-creators of their own reality. True story!

    1. Remember: millions of people feel the same as you!

Credit: Wikimedia
Credit: Wikimedia commons

Realizing you’re not alone in feeling despair for the world is important. Surround yourself with like-minded people, and never underestimate the importance of a hug – even a virtual one! Reddit even has a forum for people who are feeling down, so if you can’t speak to anyone in your life about how frustrated and down you feel, try an online community. Reaching out to someone else who may be despairing is a great way to boost your own strength and resilience during the lockdown. 

  1. Nurture yourself

Credit: pexels CC license
Credit: pexels CC license

Repeat this mantra: “I am not a superhero.” Nobody expects you to be, and nobody is asking you to be. So stop beating yourself up about things that are absolutely out of your control. If you’ve got to the point where you’re so sad about the suffering of others that you’re no longer looking after yourself, you’re really no use to anyone. You’re  big-hearted, so it’s normal you can’t stop thinking about the plight of COVID-19 victims here and around the world- but you’d be much more able to take proactive steps to help them if you make sure you’re healthy and happy first. So exercise, sleep and eat well. Do what you love. Give yourself a break. Be your own best friend. It’s vital to stay happy if you want to make the world a better place. There are lots of things we can still do during lockdown – just dancing around your living room to uplifting music will give you an instant energy and endorphin boost. Sing in the shower. Smile even if you don’t feel like it. Hey, there’s even a lot to be said for watching funny goat videos on YouTube.

10. Celebrate and be grateful for the positives

Credit: Wikimedia
Credit: Wikimedia

Despite the fact there are so many global issues that urgently need addressing, we can still cultivate positivity in the darkness. Emily Dickinson said “Hope is a thing with wings,” and she was right. The best way to make the world a better place is to begin with yourself and those around you. Treat yourself and your loved ones with love and compassion first, and you will likely find this starts spreading. Make just one person smile today, and you have made a difference.

Not only that, but researchers have found that “people who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals.” Scientists say that people who write ‘gratitude letters’ to someone who made a difference in their lives “score higher on happiness and lower on depression, and the effect lasts for weeks.” So instead of feeling guilty for your own blessings, say thank you regularly. Every night, make a list of all the positive things that happened to you today, no matter how small. Start your day by telling yourself that something wonderful is going to happen, and within a few days you’ll feel more in control and more optimistic about life – and better prepared to make positive changes in the world.


 

Is a disabled person’s life really worth less than yours?

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Diego blinks several times and looks at me with his trademark grin. “S-s-s-sophie”, he stammers, his eyes alight with excitement, “Can we sing the Shrek song again?” Happily, I oblige, and we dance, and we play, and we laugh a lot. We do this every single day. Next, he’ll ask if we can sing YMCA, we’ll laugh some more, and then at some point I’ll persuade him to back away from the music blasting out of the computer and come for a walk in the countryside with me.

He’ll hold my hand as we amble through the woods. He’ll point out birds and many other wild sounds I hadn’t even noticed – being as I am too wrapped up in my everyday problems – and I’ll be glad he brought me back to the present moment, as always. Then Diego will usually tell me the same story over and over again, and even though it takes him a while to find the words, I’ll never get tired of hearing it because he does it with such enthusiasm – always smiling, always peppering the tale by telling me ‘I l-l-l-l-love you Sophie’, with his beaming grin, his pride and his genuine affection cheering my day up no end. I feel the urge to kiss Diego all over his cutesy, chubby little face every time I see him. He’s probably the most adorable child I have ever met in my life. 

Diego happens to have Down’s syndrome, which, far from being a burden to me as his (informal, family-friend) nanny, only seems to reinforce my belief that most disabilities could be more accurately termed ‘dif-abilities’. 

I have a daughter, Evie, who is three years younger than Diego. They went to primary school together, played out together daily, and slept in the same house at least twice a week. Evie was born with the usual number of chromosomes. Evie is wonderful, of course: she’s hilariously funny, she’s bright, she’s artistic; she amazed me and made me burst with pride by learning a foreign language fluently in three months. She’s also warm and caring and kind. She’s ‘good’ at things’ in a way Diego never could be. 

But Evie has her flaws. She doesn’t have the same passion for life as he does, she doesn’t have the same sunny temperament, beaming grin nor the same very special and loving personality as Diego. She’s argumentative, she’s stubborn, she’s sulky, she’s lazy, she gets bored easily, she refuses to walk the dog with me, and although she’s the biggest love of my life, she’s also much, much harder to parent than Diego is, in a hundred different ways. 

I looked after Diego daily between the ages of 10 and 15, while living in rural Spain. Diego is now a happy, healthy, bright 19 years old, and is something of a comedian. He still loves music and dance and stories and playing. His Mum and Dad, Mari and Manuel, have never treated him any differently from his sisters Laura and Lucia. As far as the family are concerned, there are no limits to what he can do. Diego even has his own YouTube channel, which makes me well up with pride every time I watch a new upload. He is loved –  and I mean really loved, cherished and respected – by the whole village, with its tiny population of 200.

In that small farming community, Diego isn’t the only person with Down’s Syndrome. There’s also Paquito, now 40 years old, who is the (self-appointed) tour guide of the village. He waits patiently for buses to pull into the bus stop at the top of the hill, instructs the bemused tourists to follow him, and then accompanies them back to the coach after his guided walk, standing with his wallet wide open and a big smile, waiting for tips. Needless to say, Paquito does very well out of this casual work. He’s something of a local celebrity – he’s appeared on the local news, he was instrumental in promoting a local saint to appeal to Catholic pilgrims from all over Spain, he’s printed his own T shirts and branded himself, and just before I came back to the UK, he even wrote a successful book. Paquito’s parents were told he would never amount to anything, and yet he’s proven that his entrepreneurial spirit rivals that of Alan Sugar or Richard Branson.

Call me ignorant, but until I stumbled across a segment from the Victoria Derbyshire show last week – clip below – I had absolutely no idea that UK law allows for termination up to the moment of birth in the case of ‘foetal abnormality’. The moment of birth? Surely there’s a name for that. Heidi Crowter, who has the same condition as Diego, agrees. She’s petitioning the government to change the law, which is now 50 years old and (at best) completely out-dated.

Victoria Derbyshire also asked Heidi what she would say to a couple who had received news their unborn child could have Down’s syndrome. Heidi responded: “I’d say, don’t be scared, and carry on with the pregnancy. And I would also give the advice to meet someone with Down’s syndrome, and really get to know them and really see that there is a person behind that chromosome.”

I know that on a personal level, my life without Diego in it would be far less enriched. I can say with certainty that I’d have learned less about love, about the simple things in life. I’d be more cynical. I’d have laughed fewer times, danced fewer times, and maybe I’d never have discovered how much I love being around and working with people who were born different, people who a significant section of society still cannot accept and understand – let alone see as equals. This needs to change.

Heidi is backed by actress Sally Phillips, whose son Olly also has Down’s Syndrome. Phillips has argued: “Given advances in medical care and quality of life for people with Down’s syndrome, the different right to life is beginning to look not just dated but barbaric.”

Paul Conrathe, the lawyer supporting the families, stated: “This case addresses a matter that is fundamentally discriminatory — that unborn babies with a disability, and in this case Down’s syndrome, should be aborted up to birth.”

In the past ten years, there has been a 42% rise in the number of abortions for Down’s Syndrome. Many of these ‘abortions’ are carried out at birth. Wait. Can you really ‘terminate’ a newborn baby? Is that a fair term to use, or is it just a vile euphemism? It’s a baby. A fully-formed human being. It’s not simply a bag of cells; that baby has sentience. It feels pain, disabled or not. The 24-week deadline on abortions surely should apply to all babies, no matter how many chromosomes they have.

To be absolutely clear, I can’t (and I won’t!) judge or blame the parents for this statistic. I’m sure they went through hell, I’m sure it was the most difficult decision they ever had to make, and I genuinely believe it’s not their fault that medical practicioners (specifically) and society (in general) has filled them with so much fear that the idea of keeping a baby born with Down’s Syndrome seems an impossible choice. Many parents of children with the condition have reported that they were encouraged – even pressured – to terminate the pregnancy. This seems insane in today’s world. I like to think that Heidi’s suggestion that getting to know a person with a dif-ability would lead to a sea-change in attitudes is probably correct.

I write this blog from the point of view that all lives are valuable, that all humans have the potential to achieve above and beyond what is expected of them, that leading a fulfilled life is not something that is reserved for those of us who society deems normal and acceptable. Disability does not need to define a person. Having a child with complex needs is undoubtedly a great struggle, but over time I have come to believe that it is nurture, rather than nature, that affects whether or not a ‘difabled’ child will thrive or not – especially when discussing Down’s Syndrome in particular.

I once worked in Eureka children’s museum cafe while at university, and a colleague of mine was born with the condition. Sarah was highly efficent and hard working. She took great pride in her cleaning duties, she always had a smile for the customers, she adored being able to help them, and even when they complained she would find a solution that most of us hadn’t been able to see. This is why I hate the word disability. It’s offensive and it’s inaccurate. Sarah has abilities I don’t have, as does Diego, and Paquito, and arguably everyone I work with now who was born with some kind of ‘defect’ or ‘abnormality’. My music sessions have proven that many difabled people have better rhythm than I do – and I’ve been playing drums for 4 years!

So how about instead of allowing (or even encouraging) parents-to-be believe that their lives will be entirely ruined if they go ahead with the birth of a disabled child, we give them all the resources and support possible to make them feel strong enough to cope with the undoubtedly challenging – but very rewarding – journey ahead? 

What do you think? Please share this post and your comments below!

Nature & wellbeing go hand in hand

Winter is fading, green shoots are pushing up through the earth, and we can already enjoy the beautiful sight of snowdrops and crocuses bursting with colour. Yay! Spring is almost upon us, which seems like the perfect time to write a blog post about the therapeutic value of such things as gardening, rambling across the moors, walking through a forest, or otherwise appreciating the natural world, with its wonderful sounds of babbling brooks, birdsong and breeze rustling through the trees.

New research out this month has offered further evidence that human interaction with nature is a vital ingredient for health and wellbeing. Surprised? Me neither. But wait! Not only that, this fascinating study found that having an emotional connection with nature is four times more likely to make us feel that our lives are worthwhile and have meaning than having a high social status or income level.

The paper, co-ordinated by Natural England and based on five long years of research, concluded that many things we assume are vital for our happiness levels – such as getting a great education, having a professional occupation, earning a good income, and generally feeling respected by society – actually pale in comparison to the sense of deep satisfaction and wellbeing we gain when we choose to make nature a big part of our lives. I do hope I’m not simplifying the research too much here, but to summarise the most mind-boggling findings, this would be the key take-home point: A disconnection to the natural world (let’s call it ‘nature poverty’) could actually cause more harm to your health, happiness and wellbeing than socio-economic (financial) poverty. Wow. Just wow…I feel like something I’ve innately known since childhood has finally been confirmed!

Almost five thousand adults took part in the scientific study, which aimed to draw conclusions between health and wellbeing and our relationship to nature (not only in terms of how much we are immersed in it and whether we live in a green area, but also whether we have an emotional connection to the natural world), and whether this influences behaviours: such as showing an interest in conservation, undertaking voluntary work related to the environment we live in, and/or buying eco-friendly products. Interestingly, researchers found that living in an area with green spaces will not affect your health in a beneficial way in the slightest, unless those green spaces are being used (looking out of the window and admiring the view just doesn’t cut the mustard…in fact, the study found it may even adversely affect your health).

Getting out and enjoying the countryside at least once a week, however, was credited with much higher levels of what scientists call eudaimonic wellbeing. Even watching nature documentaries on TV was credited with inspiring viewers to feel a little more emotionally connected to nature, as well as sparking environmentally-friendly behaviours. Why is that so important? Because feeling a connection to nature could be the one thing that saves it from human destruction, according to other significant research.

Bearing in mind that people living with dif-abilities (wheelchair users in particular) often find it extremely difficult to access Britain’s countryside and immerse themselves in nature at will, what could the findings of this study could mean in the context of disability rights and accessibility to our countryside?

What do you think? Please do share this blog post and comment below! 

Note: Thank you to the wonderful work of Prof. Miles Richardson (one of the researchers who led the study) and his blog summarising these findings, which I’m so happy I stumbled upon. It’s worth pointing out that research into nature connectedness has been named by Universities UK as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs for its impact, so if the therapeutic values of nature interest you as much as they do me, I’d recommend you follow Prof. Richardson’s blog