Stepping into the light

Saba Salman’s collection of the stories of high-achieving people with learning disabilities is an essential and humbling read, says Michael Baron.

Made Possible: Stories of Success by People with Learning Disabilities – in their own words

Edited by:

Saba Salman




222 pp, £9.99 rrp



There is no question that this is an essential, invaluable new book. The social affairs journalist and campaigner Saba Salman invited nine people with learning disabilities to tell their own stories for Made Possible. They describe how they overcame the prejudices and obstacles that have for too long barred the way to the world of work.  The odds were stacked against these authors, but they have found their vocations and their place and this inspiring book is a testimony to their achievement.

Salman has edited together nine autobiographical accounts and at times the stories are both sad and shaming. Generations of men and women and women with learning disabilities have been mistreated or ignored. Too long regarded as second-class citizens, their lives have been lived in the shadows of society, but here they step forward into the light. Saba Salman, herself the sibling of Rana, a woman with learning disabilities, reminds us all of the fact that we must never leave disabled people on the outskirts again.

A study commissioned by the NHS found that ‘28 per cent of people with learning disabilities die before they reach fifty, compared with 5 per cent of the general population ‘. That study was published in May 2018 – only two years ago. It is a sorry feature of the numerous commissions and enquiries into institutions catering for people with learning disabilities, that they repeat the same disgraceful stories; physical restraint, excessive medication dependency, confinement, abuse from inadequately trained staff,  social exclusion, and the spurning of parents and siblings in decision making processes,

All too often the authorities good intentions to provide meaningful work are sacrificed because of cost. It’s a reason why the personal stories gathered here which tell how determined individuals have gamed the system and won, are so very valuable.  ‘Made Possible’ is not another account of the role played by loving relatives and well-meaning agencies, but what people with learning disabilities have achieved for themselves.

Praise should go to Gary Bourlet who set up ‘Learning Disability England’ and reminds us that it is essential to involve people like him if we are to have ‘a multi-cultural, multi-ability society’. The life stories here relayed to Salman, demonstrate ambitions and sheer determination to overcome countless obstacles. We meet Lizzie Emeh, the singer-songwriter whose music has enchanted audiences via YouTube and the BBC. Emeh’s work with the creative arts organisation Heart ‘n Soul is inspirational.

We also hear the life story of Shaun Webster, now an international project worker at Change but who grew up with a father who was ‘embarrassed that I went to a special school’. Sarah Gordy, one of the stars of Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey, provides a fascinating account of how she became an award-winning actor despite having Down syndrome. ‘That’s not all I am’ she writes, ‘there is so much more to me than my disability’.  ‘No one should be afraid of achieving their goals’ says Mathew Hellett  from Brighton who has made award winning films, performs as a drag artist and also runs the campaign group, ‘Creative Minds’.

Many struggle with literacy and numeracy but are superb sportspeople, like Dan Pepper, a Paralympic athlete and award-winning élite swimmer.  Laura Broughton was born with hydrocephalus and knows that led to learning difficulties at school. She writes ‘ I struggle to keep up with conversations or follow directions’, but none of those challenges have stopped her from becoming an artist, social care consultant and trainer.

Three of the eight authors here have been awarded MBE’s for their ground-breaking work and their stories are humbling. The book provides us a glimpse into a world of achievement that neuro-typical  people rarely see. Over the course of reading ‘Made Possible’, we become vividly aware of the battles behind every individual achievement.