Something rather uplifting has been happening in the backwaters of Buckinghamshire. At the end of March 2019, Aylesbury Ward 72-old member Diane Hands was chosen by a ‘lucky dip’ to cut the tape to open the National Paralympic Heritage Trust’s display in Stoke Mandeville Stadium near Aylesbury. She shared this honour with John Harris, a Paralympic medallist in several sports.
Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire is known throughout the world as a centre of excellence for spinal victims; the Heritage Trust was set up to honour and celebrate this excellence. The National Spinal Injuries Centre was established in 1943 by Dr Sir Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann CBE FRS, at the request of the British government. When the centre opened on 1st February 1944, Guttmann was appointed its director (a position he held until 1966). He believed that sport provided effective therapy for injured military personnel that helped them build up physical strength and self-respect.
Diane was invited to participate in the lucky dip because she runs the local charity, ‘I Have A Voice Too!’ (IHAVT), which provides educational drama experiences for people with learning disabilities. To mark the occasion, IHAVT performed a short play, Dr Guttmann’s Journey – Germany to Stoke Mandeville, in the Olympic Lodge at Stoke Mandeville Stadium.
IHAVT grew through Diane’s desire to make a difference when she saw the lack of opportunity for people with learning disabilities over the age of 21. In 2012/13 she was part of a training programme with Landmark Worldwide. Here she both gave training to others and received it. What motivated her was the challenge of setting up a project that would make a difference, and so IHAVT was born.
Diane was adamant that there should be no auditions and no exclusion on grounds of capability. Through contacts in Landmark Worldwide, she recruited a pair of theatre professionals prepared to work with a group of people with various forms and degrees of learning disability.
The professionals decided to show the group a Swedish folktale called The Christmas Mission. After a couple of months of practice, the group performed this short play to a small audience of friends, relatives and care staff. It was very well received but most enlightening were the responses of the actors: “They treated us like real actors”, “I've always wanted to perform on stage and now I've done it”, and “When can we do this again?”
Responses from care staff over the ensuing weeks and months, indicated that the learning experience had entered into the private lives of the actors: “The performance was weeks ago, and she still remembers all her lines perfectly. She's so much calmer” and “He's quieter and more relaxed since being part of your production.”
Under the current director, Sebastian Lister, IHAVT actors have performed a number of productions including an adaptation of Treasure Island from the novel by R. L. Stevenson and a theatrical collage about time travel. On market days in Aylesbury, they have also been involved in charity collections on its streets and promoting the opening of the National Paraplegic Heritage Trust.
Sebastian Lister does not give the IHAVT actors scripts to work from. Instead he involves them in writing them. He believes this enables the actors to put their ‘voice’ into the work. In doing this he has found that some in the group have the potential to work as professional actors.
IHAVT was also invited to perform at the opening launch of the County Museum's Community Voices Exhibition; once more it received very positive feedback.
As a result of these recent experiences IHAVT may be asked to perform at the Flame-lighting Ceremony in Stoke Mandeville Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Every year an IHAVT group undertakes a sponsored circular walk from Aylesbury Market Square of over 4 miles. Last year the group asked, “Could we go further?” The group more recently chose to walk almost 6 miles. Some weeks ago, Diane was asked by IHAVT actors if they could do the same walk this year. Now they're asking for the sponsorship forms. They also want to host a charity dinner and auction, something successfully done the previous year. The enthusiasm from the group is uplifting.
Diane's vision is to form an Academy of Drama where all aspects of performing arts are offered, enabling people with learning disability to become the people they really want to be.
IHAVT actors meet every week in the Aylesbury chapel, enjoying their Saturday afternoon drama activity, bonding and making new friends. Bishop David Day has been delighted to facilitate this, and several other Ward members are now involved, both in acting and in making costumes and props.