In the lead

A leadership skills programme for people with learning disabilities is going national, reports Adam Smith

Adam Smith at the Battersea Arts Centre

Access All Areas is a learning disabled and autistic theatre company that creates powerful work that challenges people’s perspectives.

The company, based in London, is passionate about learning disabled and autistic people having leadership roles.

Without such voices being involved in leadership decisions and discussions about what type of art should be made, there will continue to be a lack of genuine representation in the arts.

In 2020-22, the company’s Transforming Leadership programme trained nine new learning disabled and autistic cultural leaders.

I’m a freelance actor, musician, facilitator and composer and I was on that Transforming Leadership programme in 2020. I learned what my type of facilitation style is.

I grew in confidence and got to know other people and drama groups. I learnt how to become flexible with how I adapt in the room.

Now, Access All Areas has come together with seven disability arts organisations and venues in eight regions to take the programme across England.

This involves leadership training for 14 learning disabled and autistic creatives, focusing on directing skills, how to lead community arts programmes, governance and advocacy skills.

My role as an associate director is to co-direct projects with Access All Areas staff who do not have a learning disability.

Recently, I have been co-leading a new creative programme for local learning disabled and autistic people at Battersea Arts Centre. This involves a weekly creative workshop where people use drama to build resilience, improve wellbeing and manage difficult situations.

Seeing someone like me

There hasn’t been a creative programme like this in Battersea before so we’re very excited. It’s been especially meaningful to local people who struggled with isolation after the pandemic. I think it means something to them to see a peer – someone like me who shares some of their experiences – leading a workshop.

This is necessary as we have lived experience and can help contribute towards final decisions. We deserve to have our voices heard; we should be listened to and our talent should be shown to the world.

This programme is unique because it provides one-to-one creative support that guides us into work. You learn on the job and receive training on leadership styles.

People think learning disabled and autistic people are not suited to leadership roles due to difficulties we may have mentally or physically. The lack of awareness puts people off working with us. This programme is proving them wrong.

The biggest barriers to becoming leaders are dealing with our confidence and feeling others doubt us or think we cannot reach our full potential.

Adam Smith is an associate director of Access All Areas