The pandemic had a devastating impact on people with learning disabilities. The loss of routine, closure of activities and self-isolation all had a devastating effect on mental and physical wellbeing. People with learning disabilities were also much more likely to contract and die from Covid-19 than the general population (according to data from Mencap). So how did a small, local dance charity manage to overcome these barriers to thrive during this time?
DanceSyndrome, based in Lancashire, has always strived to break down barriers for people with learning disabilities and challenge perceptions of what “disability” means. The charity was founded by Jen Blackwell after she spent 10 years unsuccessfully searching for dance opportunities that could be adapted to meet her needs as a person with Down’s syndrome.
The group formed in 2009 with the unique ethos that every activity should be disability led. People with learning disabilities work collaboratively to design and deliver sessions alongside a professional Dance Artist. The concept worked well and DanceSyndrome now offer their own Level 1 and Level 2 accredited training courses (through Sport’s Leaders UK) to empower people of all ages and abilities to become Dance Leaders.
This unique, inspiring model has been celebrated with award after award, the most prestigious being the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, which the charity received in 2019, and the Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award in 2018, amongst many other local and national accolades.
All was going well for the charity, with inspiring performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and National Learning Disability and Autism Awards and TV appearances too… then the pandemic hit. How could a small Arts charity offering in-person opportunities adapt to the crisis in an inclusive way?
The DanceSyndrome team quickly started offering free YouTube adaptations of every pre-pandemic session. They remained inclusive, adaptable, and professional, but they lacked the much-needed social interaction that everyone missed so much. Zoom sessions were the obvious solution and they were so popular that at the peak there were 15 sessions a week running, with innovative new styles like a Rave themed session being developed by the co-leaders.
Dance Leader Jodie Turner, who has quadriplegia cerebral palsy and uses assistive speech technology, helped to deliver some of these sessions and participated in many others. She said “Zoom dance was important to me because it enabled me to keep dancing. I was still able to lead dance sessions which I enjoy, and I have learnt new styles and types of dance. Zoom kept me in touch with my dancing friends and new friends joined us. I have never had so many friends in my kitchen!”
As lockdown eased, DanceSyndrome offered outdoor dance sessions to allow people to ease back to face-to-face dancing whilst understanding that there was still anxiety around Covid-19 and confidence needed to be rebuilt. Finally in July 2021, indoor dance sessions and live performances returned. Popular new Zoom sessions like the Rave session were brought to life in the community alongside established favourites, such as Street and Ballet. But Zoom dancing isn’t going anywhere!
Online dancing enabled DanceSyndrome to reach beyond their physical location, breaking down more barriers than ever before! People from as far as South Africa, Europe and the USA were able to participate with truly inclusive dance for the first time ever, and they loved it! So something positive came out of the pandemic. Now, this small charity with a big impact can reach even further, engaging isolated people, people