Written By: Saba Salman 6/7/15
People with learning disabilities will help stage the SprungDigi festival this weekend with innovative art installations, music and dance performances.
An interactive digital arts festival this weekend (10-12 July) will feature giant portraits of learning disabled people projected onto buildings, a game played with an accessible mapping app and an inclusive, high-tech design workshop to re-imagine a town centre.
People with learning disabilities will help stage the innovative art installations and music and dance performances that they have created alongside digital and community arts practitioners. The inaugural SprungDigi Festival in Horsham, West Sussex, runs from Friday until Sunday.
The name of the free event reflects the concept that digital technology and online activity can be a springboard to social inclusion. The aim is to ensure that people with learning disabilities are more visible and feel more connected to their local areas.
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Digital inclusion is vital in social care, as supporters of technology for community inclusion argue. It is widely acknowledged that digital technology – the internet, smart phones and tablets – has the potential to increase people’s independence and make them feel more included in society. Earlier this year, for example, Unesco’s World Summit on Information Society Forum included a special focus on accessible and inclusive information technology for disabled people.
The £170,000 festival project has been funded by Horsham district council and the Arts Council. It began some 18 months ago when diversity arts specialist Sarah Pickthall noticed the adverse impact of social care cuts on the learning disabled people she collaborated with in workshops across the south-east. People were becoming more socially isolated, says Pickthall, they were “more withdrawn and their language and communication was suffering”.
The artist recognised the potential role of digital technology in supporting social inclusion. Pickthall says digital technology’s obvious benefits include using online networks and social media to maintain contact with friends or finding information online.
She explains: “We noticed that people were being reassessed [for social care support], had less access and were cut off from day centres they’d been attending for years. Their friendship groups were suffering … we noticed one man’s mental health was suffering, he was confused [about the loss of support] and would come accompanied [by a personal assistant or carer] to a session, but had to leave after an hour because that’s all he had support for.”
The roots of this weekend’s festival developed from Pickthall’s previous collaborative digital arts project,Mapfactor, which created accessible maps for carnivals and other outdoor community events Mapfactor was part of the Brighton Digital Festival last year.
For the Horsham festival, 15 people with learning disabilities worked with Pickthall and other inclusive arts and digital experts in creative workshops in schools, day centres and clubs. To ensure that people stay safe online, the project also pairs participants with “digital buddies” – more experienced users of digital technology and social media, with or without learning disabilities. Project workers have trained several local businesses to be “safe havens” – learning disability-friendly venues – where, for example, staff understand and can support people’s communication needs.
Sarah Bush, 17, lives with her family in Broadbridge Heath, Horsham, and has worked on several aspects of the festival, including a digital redesign of her local town centre. She says: “I like to watch YouTube videos. I’d like to see a place in Horsham where you could go and watch YouTube and also make your own videos and upload them there.”
Bush is a fan of digital technology because it means “you’re part of something … everyone can and should do digital. I think SprungDigi should spread around everywhere”. The teenager is keen on championing the benefits of the kind of activities she has been involved in so that she can support any of her less tech-savvy peers to feel more comfortable with digital technology.
What links the festival’s interactive activities and workshops, says Pickthall, is that they are “quite subversive, doable, but connected to local places”.
One highlight is a video game featuring an autistic character based on one of the project’s participants who has autism. Other aspects include a street theatre piece with a digital element, a music installation that allows listeners to remix the track themselves and a game of dares that involves using the accessible mapping app, for example, to take a quirky photograph at a local landmark. There is also a dance piece that turns motion and sound into a live project and a screening of digital animations.
Nick Jenkins, Horsham district council community development officer, says that the festival “is about offering learning disabled people the same social and creative freedoms as everyone else, with an emphasis on positive integration and safe autonomy”.
Those involved in the festival believe that the event offers an easily replicated model of a local event that encourages greater integration and equality between diverse members of a local community. “We want this rolled out to other towns,” says Pickthall. “Everyone has the right to a creative life … It’s about the fundamental right to live well in your community and be active and creative within it.”