Artlinks Ideas Team, Cherry Road Centre

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‘It’s an exploration of human relationships built upon mutual trust and equality. All parties involved are learning and exploring their environment and sensory world, listening and observing together.

Liz Davidson, Cherry Road Centre Manager, 2017

The world of someone with profound and multiple learning disabilities is often dictated by the people who care for them, with almost every detail of their world determined by someone else. This can include what activities they get involved in, where they sit, when they eat and where they sleep.

This means that the individual’s independent enjoyment is often found within the detail of sensory actions and interactions – the sensation of scratching a finger nail on a wheelchair arm, a whisper or the intensity of light cast on the back of a hand.

At Cherry Road Centre in Bonnyrigg Midlothian, artists from Artlink Edinburgh’s Ideas Team & Sensory Workshops take these independent actions as starting points in weekly sensory workshops which explore the details and nuances of these sensory worlds, opening them up, exaggerating them, creating objects and environments which further enhance the experiences of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. In working this way it aims to establish an alternate and more informed understanding of each individual.

‘What you do is provide somebody with something that inspires them enough to be part of it and engage with it and have the curiosity to reach out for more, because if your world’s never interesting and always predictable, eventually you will keep your eyes shut and you don’t need to see it because you know exactly what’s going on round about you, you become almost totally desensitised to everything. It’s a kind of learned dis-engagement’.

Liz Davidson, Cherry Road Centre Manager

Midlothian Health and Social Care Partnership’s Cherry Road Centre is a day centre for adults with complex developmental disabilities and autism and is an integral part of Midlothian Council’s health and social care services.  Artlink provide weekly sensory workshops using a wide range of techniques and approaches. Ambient sound, vibration, projectors, lasers and mirror balls are used to create beautiful and stimulating environments.

Ideas Team is a programme launched by Artlink in 2010. The programme sought to add a new dimension through exploring the role of contemporary arts practice in supporting greater agency of people with complex cognitive disabilities. It established environments where an artist and a care staff member have the time to collaborate closely with the person with disabilities within spaces of creative experimentation.

That space may also include family members, psychologists, engineers, and anyone and everyone who might be able to progress emerging ideas.  Together they share perspectives, learn from interactions and over time unearth new and exciting potentials.

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We began to establish our own sensory vocabulary; it became our lingua franca…People with (complex learning disabilities) are perfectly capable of learning new experiences if they are given the time and are motivated through sustained interactions. Ben has rewritten his personal narrative and those around him see him in a more positive light.’

Steve Hollingsworth, Artist 2017

The service users, artists and staff are working alongside each other. Theres a completely different expectation of people when they are in a sensory workshop with artists than there would be in a traditional activity. Sharing and learning from each other is key so that the workers are challenged to think about care in a different way.

John Connell, Cherry Road Team Leader

Artlink is an inclusive arts organisation based in Scotland. Over the last thirty-five years its practice has evolved in response to the needs of service users, care providers, and the ever-changing political and social climate of the United Kingdom. Artlink works within systems of care, in collaboration with individuals with profound cognitive disabilities, and enduring mental ill health. 

A report on the project by Dr Susan Levy and Dr Hanna Young of the University of Dundee found that: ‘The work of Artlink and Cherry Road recognises that meaningful experiences are achieved through slowly building authentic and genuine connections. Working with the artist inspires creative thinking which motivates to create a ‘safe’ space where all can work together equitably, learning from each other; opening themselves, and those they work with, up to new experiences and perspectives’

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We have achieved things that nobody thought wed be able to achieve, we make a big difference to people that traditional services really struggle to support because were doing things that are really meaningful and make a difference to peoples lives.

John Connell, Cherry Road Team Leader

 The partnership between the Artlink Ideas Team and Cherry Road has changed attitudes as staff witness the impact on people with complex needs.

‘Lots of staff couldnt quite understand why we were doing this arty fartystuff, because they see art as something you paint or draw or sculpt. Then you show them how art can be an experience we share, and that people have their own pace of development and change. Its changed us, the service users, families, and wider social care.

Liz Davidson, Cherry Road Learning Centre Manager

Key to this work is a willingness to share and learn from each other and, as a result, to challenge assumptions of ability and think about how we care in a more creative way.

Art is about offering something different to the world, offering something back. The people we work with do that as well because they have experiences we cant imagine.’

Steven Hollingsworth, artist

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The Ideas Team is an Artlink Edinburgh & the Lothians initiative.  Artlink strongly believe that involvement in the arts can make positive change within the lives of all the people who take part in its projects, creating learning experiences for all involved.

‘Its a space thats just really fascinating to us and it has fed our practices. Its not a one-way street, theres a lot we get back from the people that we work with.’

Steven Hollingsworth, artist.

Watch the film: a film has been produced to accompany this written case study – click here to view.

To find out more:

The Ripple Effect – research report on the impact of contemporary arts practices on people with profound and multiple learning disabilities by The University of Dundee and Pamis.




Acknowledgements: SCAN would like to thank Artlink, Cherry Road Learning Centre, and colleagues for taking part in this case study, including Steven Hollingsworth and Jim Colquhoun (Artists) Liz Davidson (Centre Manager) and John Connell (Cherry Road Team Leader).

Pictures: Colin Hattersley