Innovate To Integrate

With the Paralympics only a month away, and Wimbledon’s Para Championship starting today, I remembered Paraorchestra, an ensemble I heard of recently for the first time, and thought I would focus my blog post on this.

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Paraorchestra was founded ten years ago by Charles Hazlewood, with the goal of integrating disabled musicians further into the world of music and the performing arts. Ever since then it has gone on growing, and earlier this year signed on 12 new players. Still the world’s “only large-scale virtuoso ensemble of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians”, Paraorchestra now has almost 40 disabled musicians in its ranks.It is this cooperation of disabled and non-disabled musicians playing side by side which is key to Paraorchestra’s commitment to integration.

Integrating disabled musicians is far from Paraorchestra’s only innovation, however. It refuses to be limited by musical style, so that it combines traditional and contemporary repertoire & instruments alike, with considerable use of electronics. The orchestra performs at a wide range of events, from festivals to more formal occasions. Looking through some recent projects demonstrates the diversity of Paraorchestra’s sound: from Minimalism Changed My Life (September 2019) to a project on the music of Barry White (June 2019) to the most recent, Death Songbook (March 2021). One of Charles Hazlewood’s priorities is to “prove that you can love rap, folk and Sibelius!” Paraorchestra absolutely embodies this.

The Barry White project’s full title was The Love Unlimited Synth Orchestra: Celebrating The Music Of Barry White, and it premiered at Glastonbury in 2019 with special guests. Death Songbook once again featured special guests. This was a one-off performance broadcast online by BBC Cymru Wales, focusing on acoustic music by Suede, David Bowie and others.

Founder and artistic director Charles Hazlewood is a well-known conductor who works with different orchestras across the world. His commitment to diversity in musical styles sees him perform at classical concerts like the BBC Proms as well as such highlights of the rock calendar as Glastonbury. Earlier this year Paraorchestra’s Beethoven And Me project (featured on a Sky Arts programme) focused on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The programme also explored Hazlewood’s belief that Beethoven’s powerful music reflects the composer’s response to the abuse he endured as a child: maybe the only way he could express his trauma. Hazlewwod connected this with his own childhood experience of abuse, which he revealed recently to highlight the importance of expressing and talking about abuse and mental health. His involvement with musicians who have disabilities is also personally rooted, as the youngest of his children has cerebral palsy.

Paraorchestra says it is “Re-inventing the orchestra for the 21st century”, and it seems to me to be all about liberation and opportunity. The Paraorchestra story illustrates the many ways music opens up life – for people with disabilities and for those without.

Would you like to share any thoughts or comments – maybe on Paraorchestra itself, on opportunities for disabled musicians, or on music and trauma – on Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

In More Ways Than One

As I’m writing during Deafblind Awareness Week, this blog post seemed an opportunity to reflect how people living with sight and hearing loss might find nature, art and music helpful in all different ways.

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Running this year from 27 June to 3 July, Deafblind Awareness Week is focusing on telling other people, sharing the experiences of the 400,000 people in the UK who have sight and hearing loss. Deafblind UK has videos to watch and share online, presenting three people’s experiences.

Degrees of sight and hearing loss differ widely. Some people have no sight or hearing. Others may have no sight but some hearing, or may be partially sighted but have no hearing. Some have lower levels of sight and hearing loss.

This is clearly integral to how people might experience art, music or nature. Someone with no sight or hearing could still experience all three, but differently, in new ways. They might enjoy music through beat and vibration, or by learning the Makaton form of sign language to sign and sing along to songs. Organizations like Sense share music with deafblind children in this way, and there are Makaton choirs and music groups: opening up ways to communicate and respond. For someone with only partial hearing loss, on the other hand, music might become an opportunity to play instruments. The RNIB supports people with sight loss to play music using braille music or other techniques.

Onc eagain, art’s impact depends on people’s situations. Tactile art forms, like modelling with clay, fabric art or flower arranging, could be enjoyable ways for people to be creative. Many people who are partially sighted do paint or draw, maybe using strong, bright colours or else drawing in black and white as colour contrasts can be helpful.

Nature also opens up different experiences. Sensory gardens have plants grown for their scents and feel – and for their sound as well for those with some hearing. Time spent outdoors in the wind, the sunshine or in a storm can be a sensory stimulus, boosting mood, calming and enthralling people.

So many of the ways art, nature and music improve anyone’s wellbeing are all the more important for people with sight and hearing loss: connecting with other people, easing depression, creating mental stimulus and calming anxiety. While people of all ages experience sight and hearing loss, acquired loss tends to be more common in older people. Some people of any age may also have other disabilities or mobility issues, sometimes connected to their sight or hearing loss. All this can limit opportunities to keep busy, so that nature, music and art are important ways to spend time, absorbed by diverse stimuli.

People may need to be imaginative to connect with art, music and nature while living with hearing and sight loss. But all three can be so helpful and positive that this will be worthwhile.

Do you have any experiences or thoughts you might like to share in response to this blog post, in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

Picture A Story

Thinking how art boosts wellbeing, I recently heard an interview with Charlie Mackesy, whose first book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse (2019) has become a bestseller, particularly during the pandemic. Charlie has worked as an artist and illustrator and his work features in other writers’ books but also in private collections and locations like churches, hospitals and safe houses for women. His own book spoke to readers of all ages worldwide, many as they struggled with lockdowns, and many have written to Charlie to share their reactions.

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The loose, expressive illustrations partner the book’s ink writing, which itself becomes an artwork. Weaving a narrative (in words and pictures alike) around mainly animal characters also seems integral to the book’s impact. Investing animals with human experiences, emotions and feelings can be helpful to us, as an indirect way of exploring our own reactions. One example in the book comes when one of the animals says that the bravest word he has ever spoken is “Help”. That’s about openness, letting go, allowing others to see our need.

But many kinds of illustration help us work through our thoughts and feelings. Illustration enhances writing’s power and adds another layer to any book, making it more memorable. It enables the reader to visualize the narrative as it unfolds. It helps us think more about the words we read and makes us spend more time with them. In turn the writing enhances the artwork’s impact, as it creates background so that we get to know the characters or settings portrayed. This lets us respond on different levels.

Book illustration is a long tradition, and is still common in children’s books – but illustration can add to books for any age range. It would be great to see it featured more widely throughout books, when it is mainly now seen only on the cover. On the other hand, if illustration remains quite rare, it can be more striking and stand out from the crowd.

Recently I came across research into the many positive impacts of reading. One study from the University of Sussex found it can be more calming even than music. By transporting us to a different place or time, books can be liberating – although obviously it depends on the book, as some are very disturbing. Books may be restful and a way to ease anxiety and depression. When all this is combined with illustration, it can be even more helpful. Illustration can literally draw people into a book and encourage them to read.

Book adaptations on stage or screen are popular because readers want to see a familiar narrative take form before their eyes. Illustrating a book in the first place mirrors this. Some readers might like to draw or paint their own illustrations of a book they enjoy as a way to make characters come to life.

Art and narrative are two of the most important stimuli any of us encounter. When they work together, they can be a powerful boost to wellbeing, lifting spirits or striking a chord with many of us. Charlie Mackesy’s book is now being produced as an animation – another artform.

Do you find book illustrations enhance what you read or improve wellbeing? Maybe you’ve read The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse? It would be great if you have thoughts or experiences to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

Creative Company

Maybe one of the main ways music, art and nature can boost wellbeing is by drawing people together, creating common ground to share. This can help combat loneliness: and this is Loneliness Awareness Week (14-18 June).

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This year’s theme is Acceptance, highlighting that everyone feels lonely sometimes. The idea is that by talking more openly about loneliness, it will be seen not as some remote condition, a cause of stigma and shame, but rather as an experience common to us all. Loneliness Awareness Week is run by Marmalade Trust, which I recently learned is the world’s only charity focusing on loneliness awareness.

That focus is so important. Stigma tends to be fuelled by ignorance, and the more people open up and recognize loneliness as part of life, the less stigma should surround it.

Loneliness can be deeply disabling, making people question themselves and making life seem blank or pointless. Loneliness is not simply being alone. Someone could be surrounded by others and still feel lonely. Research by Brunel University found that elderly people living in care homes – a communal environment – are two or three times more likely to feel lonely than elderly people who live alone. Sharing a common interest is a helpful way to truly connect with others, and this is where nature, art and music come in.

All three can help us meet and get to know like-minded people. We’re more likely to feel we understand someone else, and to feel understood ourselves, if we share common ground. Music, art and nature can help start a conversation or become a way to spend time together. Many people find art classes, walking groups or choirs and other music groups can be supportive and welcoming. Singing in particular has a strong community element. Shaing an interest can also enable connection with others online, in Facebook groups or virtual events, a lifeline for many during lockdown. It all helps us see the world through others’ eyes and share how we too see the world. And while nature, music and art mainly reduce loneliness by connecting us with other people, they also do this by focusing our minds on these interests, so that we feel less need of other people’s company.

The Loneliness Experiment which the BBC ran in 2018 found that most of the 55,000 respondants identified loneliness as being unable to talk with others, feeling disconnected and not feeling understood. Thes eare all experiences where music, art or nature could help, for example as we see that others understand and share our response to a song or to a wildlife sighting. The BBC’s Experiment also revealed that the highest rates of loneliness were found among young people aged 16-24. Sharing interests could be a welcome distraction from common causes of loneliness in younger people such as pressure to conform and the need to find their own path in the world. And while once connecting with others was built more on place, now fewer local areas have a strong community feel, so that sharing interests is all the more important to unite people.

So maybe as well as boosting awareness and acceptance of loneliness, Loneliness Awareness Week can also be an opportunity to see nature and creativity as glimmers of new connection.

Maybe you have thoughts or experiences to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

Opportunities To Recharge?

Caring for a family member or other loved one is one situation where art, music and nature could all open up life. But if nature, music and art are to become ways for carers to recharge, then it’s important to see not only how and why they might help, but also how and why they might seem impossible.

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This is National Carers’ Week, running from 7 to 13 June. Make Caring Visible And Valued is the theme this year, highlighting how Britain’s millions of unpaid carers have struggled through the pandemic. Losing a lot of the support upon which they previously depended – from other family or friends or from the social care system – has proved very difficult. Learn more about the campaign to help at https://www.carersuk.org

Caring is so diverse an experience andmusic, art and nature could help on different levels. Caring can be physically exhausting and time intensive, but it can also be emotional and saddening, as carers and loved ones alike may have to adjust to a new, more dependant relationship and to the everyday impact of their needs. Some 2 million people in Britain now care for someone who has dementia, and this is only one of so many different conditions. There are also many, many parent carers, and young carers.

Art, for one, improves wellbeing in some specific ways. It can make people feel calmer, partly by clearing their minds – maybe a welcome escape for carers. It can brighten life as a colourful, creative stimulus, which could boost mood for carers whose morale may be sapped by caring’s endless demands. It can help people work through their feelings, responses and emotions, which might prove a release for carers. And it’s flexible. One important way art helps people is by absorbing them, allowing them to set aside the everyday and focus just on art. Losing themselves in their artwork is unlikely to be possible for long for many carers, who need to be alert to their loved one’s needs. But people can be creative in quick bursts – drawing is particularly flexible and simple with no need for preparation or clearing away, and still a way to focus just on art for a while.

Many carers would be unable to leave their loved one to go out and attend a choir rehearsal or art class: so the growth of Zoom and of more virtual events could now help create more opportunities for carers to join in from home, so they are less excluded.

Art, music and nature are also all areas where carers and loved ones could connect and share, maybe by drawing, painting or colouring together, enjoying the wealth of music on YouTube, or watching birds. If spoken language is an issue then these could become ways to communicate; and they can become common ground where carer and loved one can for a time forget the need for care, if and where possible.

It is difficult – sometimes impossible – for carers to find the time or motivation to make art, music or nature a regular part of their lives. But even occasionally, they can be liberating. I really hope that as it grows, Medley will reach out to carers (and their loved ones) and share & learn how music, nature and art might have a part to play in opning a door.

Do you have thoughts or experiences you might like to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

Restore

What an irony it is that at a time when we are turning to nature more and more to boost wellbeing, nature’s own predicament is itself contributing to many people’s anxiety and depression. It’s an irony which mirrors this year’s World Environment Day theme.

World Environment Day falls on 5 June each year, run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to build awareness and spur action. And the theme this year, Generation Restoration, is a striking one. It encourages us all to “get active, not anxious”, to remember that while there are many environmental threats, there are also many practical ways we can respond, from planting a tree to letting a patch of garden go wild.

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These last few years have seen far wider awareness of pollution, species loss and urbanisation. Climate emergency has become a buzzword. With this awareness comes reaction: fear, uncertainty, sadness and even despair.

Experiencing nature has such power to improve mood and to calm us. But for some people now, simple enjoyment of nature is overshadowed by feelings of doom. If absence and scarcity are what we notice most in nature, then the positive impacts can be lost. This can be particularly true for older people, who remember a time when places were different, when there were more insects, more birds. Even where nature still seems abundant, people might feel its time is running out.

Eco grief, as it is called, may have different triggers. For some, these will be images or news of melting ice sheets, of floods and droughts aross the globe. For others, these will be closer to home, maybe seeing local open space built on or a stream polluted.

Some people liken eco grief to a form of bereavement. They cite the different stages bereavement can follow, maybe from disbelief to anger, fear and some form of acceptance. But it is too early here for acceptance. To some degree nature’s future is still in the balance. There remains a window of opportunity to make a difference, to slow or halt decline, to turn the tide. That can make it all the more distressing for people to see time drifting by and that opportunity squandered.

Maybe it is this which has inspired World Environment Day 2021’s theme, with its focus on getting “active not anxious”. It seems like a call to do what we can even while the scale of need overwhelms us. It seems like a call to harness our anxiety or sadness for action, to draw on these feelings themselves to encourage us to act.

Supppressing or denying feelings of fear or depression can erode mwental wellbeing and only defer the time when those feelings will come to a head – although everyone’s experience is different. So recognizing that there’s still a place for action could be helpful. And while the theme Generation Restoration might seem to highlight the role of the next generation, of younger people, restoring nature depends on all of us.

Maybe, as we find even small and simple ways to try to restore nature, we will feel nature’s power to restore us in turn renewed all the more.

Do you have reactions or ideas you might like to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

Strike A Chord

Different music genres’ own unique contributions to wellbeing have been the focus of recent Medley blog posts on music, from musicals to folk to ballet – and I hope to return to this theme to explore other genres. But this time I want to look at music for wellbeing from another angle, by concentrating on a particular situation where music can make a proven difference.

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28th May is Stroke Awareness Day, an opportunity to act and to share but also an opportunity to reflect how arts and creativity can have a positive impact on people following a stroke. I want particularly here to focus on music and singing, which are widely known to help. They’re even highlighted by a Stroke Association fundraising campaign at the moment featuring soprano Laura Wright, who says how she has seen music help stroke survivors. The Stroke Association is drawing attention to the way research funds hav edeclined during the pandemic, limiting their progress.

Music and singing can be specific tools for use in stroke rehabilitation, or they can simply be a haven for people to enjoy themselves as they adjust to life following a stroke. A lot will depend on the severity of the stroke, the pace of the person’s recovery, and aso what opportunities they come across to try music therapy.

The Stroke Association is one of many organisations which demonstrate the power of music. The American Stroke Association says that music therapy can improve movement, balance and memory as well as speech. It is these wider impacts which have been more unexpected. Scientists have long seen clear links betweem speech, language and music, which all involve one part of the brain. Impacts on motor functioning and movement have only come to light more recently. For example, a report in Neurology Times in 2018 quoted studies of music’s impact on motor recovery, such as a 2016 review of research entitled “Improvement in Stroke-Induced Motor Dysfunction By Music-Supported Therapy”. All this underlines the importance of music.

Research focuses more on specific music therapy, but many people recovering from a stroke find other experiences of music and singing helpful as well. Choirs and other singing groups set up and run for, with or by stroke survivors may or may not involve actual music therapy, but have a very positive impact, particularly on people whose strokes have left them with aphasia (speech issues).

Singing can simply be liberating. It may free people to respond as they are drawn in by the music instead of focusing on the difficulties of forming words. Also, as vocabulary can be an issue in aphasia, singing may be easier than talking as you sing the lyrics rather than having to find your own words. Moreover, some people lose confidence or become more isolated following a stroke, particularly if they are not able to work or to continue with hobbies they previously enjoyed. Communication issues like aphasia only add to this, as it can seem easier just to be alone. This is where choirs and other music groups can come into play and open life up again in a new way.

In raising awareness of stroke, then, it’s really important to be aware of the causes, yes, and treatments – but also of the great and growing need for stroke survivors to have opportunities to share music and song.

Common Ground

Hearing the theme of Creativity And Wellbeing Week 2021 reminded me of the striking Banksy artwork which was first seen in Southampton last year. It shows a boy casting aside his superhero dolls for a doll dressed as a nurse: the true superheroes of the pandemic. Creativity recognizing the importance of care. So what then is the Creativity And Wellbeing Week this year, running from 17-23 May? Care: Care For Each Other, Care For The Environment and Caring Economies. Still so timely as vaccines and variants dominate the news and as we emerge from more than a year of lockdowns and adjust to the new and to the familiar.

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And creativity has obviously gone on being a way to Care For Each Other (the first thread of the CWW theme) throughout the pandemic, just as it was before. Sharing songs and music, dance, arts and crafts remotely has connected many people so they have felt less alone. All the different ways we use creativity to care for each other are as diverse as the art forms themselves. By their very nature and name, the performing arts look outwards to other people, although they also impact on the performers’ own wellbeing. But all creativity can feed and become care for others. I’ve come to see arts and crafts more and more as common ground connecting people in positive ways, as well as a tool for self-expression. As we respond to others’ creativity in any art form, and as we share our own, we connect with someone else, maybe only fleetingly, maybe in a more lasting way.

Then there’s Care For The Environment. Climate emergency and biodiversity loss leave a lot of people feeling powerless, but creativity is a new focus. It becomes an opportunity to rekindle out imaginations, to think differently and to tell new stories. It can also be a tool for sharing environmental awareness with others. Organisations like the charity Julie’s Bicycle and its Season For Change creativity and climate initiative are acting on all this. Extinction Rebellion has its own art group. Nature has inspired so much creativity through the ages that it is no wonder that people respond creatively now as they see nature threatened. Creativity will not solve these issues, but it is a way to respond and to draw attention. And the more people connect with nature through creativity, the more they will care what becomes of nature.

And the third thread of Creativity And Wellbeing week’s theme is Caring Economies: an opportunity to remember all the people employed within the health, social care and not-for-profit sectors whose jobs focus on sharing arts for health and wellbeing. It’s also about the huge part played by volunteers and people who simply share creativity informally in community groups or with their neighbours. It sets me wondering how the immense scope for arts in health and wellbeing could be more fully realized through the long-delayed review of social care. It also sets me wondering what part arts in health could play in possible future economic trends, away from infinite growth and the focus on GDP, towards more sustainable, steady-state models. These models tend to reprioritise care – not only the formal care sector but also informal care roles within the home – and could open up new opportunities and freedoms.

Do you have reactions or ideas you might like to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.

Free To Connect

By opening people’s eyes to nature and the great outdoors, lockdown’s new perspective throws up questions about how and why people respond to nature so strongly and why it can have such a positive impact on our mental health. So it is no wonder that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May) is Connect With Nature.

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For there’s more to people’s new motivation to spend time outdoors than simply exercising or escaping their own four walls for a while. Nature is known to calm us, to reduce stress hormones and to slow heart rates. Nature moves at such a different pace, following a set cycle, patterns of growth, gradual change as the year moves on. So it can calm us by slowing us down, as a counterbalance to the pressured pace of life, and can instil in us patience and new priorities.

Mental Health Awareness Week is run each year by the Mental Health Foundation, and this year the Foundation has two goals for its Nature theme. One is promoting new ways of connecting with nature. The other? Lobbying politicians and other authorities to consider access to nature not just an environmental issue but also an issue of mental health and social justice.

This set me thinking about access. In the UK we’ve come a long way from the mass trespasses of the 1930s, held by citydwellers opposed to landowners’ refusal to allow access to their moors. Their actions led to an opening up of the countryside and the creation of far more footpaths and bridleways. But other, more insidious barriers have emerged. Urbanisation is one, as urban sprawl creeps on, sometimes even over greenbelt. Then there’s crime, with many urban green spaces in particular unsafe. With little public transport in rural areas, getting to the countryside is difficult for non-drivers. Accessing nature can be impossible for disabled people. Age also limits people’s freedom to experience nature for themselves. Not all care homes have accessible gardens, but even in those which do many residents rarely or never go outside, particularly those who have dementia.

One solution is for people to enjoy nature virtually. The Mental Health Foundation found that webcam live streams of wildlife and wild places proved very popular during lockdowns. I’ve just heard that Swansea Botanic Garden has started running virtual walks. And technology could be a way to engage more younger people with nature to improve their mental health too.

So the virtual has a great part to play, but experiencing nature directly is irreplaceable. The surge of enthusiasm for nature must partly be a reaction to the virtual, to all the time people have to spend online. At some point nature needs to become real and actual, even if only in simple encounters people might overlook: growing indoor houseplants or watching a spider’s web. And don’t forget the sky. Light pollution deprives many people of a clear sight of the night sky, but in daytime watching the sky as clouds form and move across is a simple but striking way to experience nature, and one which is possible for most people.

Maybe you would like to share nature’s impact on your mental health, or how you think barriers to access might be overcome, in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Eyes And Ears

While Medley highlights how art, music and nature can improve wellbeing for anyone and everyone, I also want to focus on specific ways they can help people in particular circumstances, like hearing loss. We’re now in the middle of Deaf Awareness Week (4-9 May), which is run every year across all different organisations involved with hearing loss. While these organisations all mark the Week in different ways, there’s always a common theme, which this year is Coming Through It Together: recognising how people have pulled together throughout this last year. So the Week seemed an opportunity to explore how art in particular can help people living with hearing loss, either lifelong or acquired.

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Art’s visual focus can level the playing field for people with hearing loss, so that when they stand at an easel or experiment with printing, their hearing isues become irrelevant: which must be truly liberating.

Art could become another language for people with hearing loss who might struggle to communicate or depend on sign language or Makaton. In paint, clay and pencil, people can all express themselves with no need for speech or hearing. People might turn to art as a tool to express their experience of hearing loss or their emotional response to it: to rage, to lament, or to celebrate. Or they might simply enjoy art as anyone would, maybe to calm down and relax, to clear their minds, to play around with colour and line.

Art’s impact could depend on age as well. Children with hearing loss have been found to benefit particularly from sensory activities to develop and draw out their other senses. Many people with acquired hearing loss will be older, and might find art reconnects them with other people and eases isolation. Of course, hearing loss can isolate people of any age, as easy everyday interaction can seem impossible and people can become withdrawn. Art can be one way for people to share common ground with others.

Living with hearing loss may even strengthen some people’s creative flair, as their focus on the visual will be more absolute.

Another way art can help is by raising awareness and as an opportunity to share experiences of being deaf. US-based artist Priscila Soares (https://myluckyears.com) is someone who uses her art to do just that. She herself has lived with hearing loss since her teens and now also has a son with a different form of hearing loss. Her artwork is bold, striking and varied. Not only has she painted a series of portraits called Stories Of Hearing Loss Through Painting, but she has also illustrated two children’s books about hearing loss, and produces sculptures, puppets and comics. I particularly like her paintings of musicians wearing hearing aids.Being positive about living with hearing loss is one of Priscila’s goals for her art.

Creativity could also be a way for people who have hearing loss to respond to nature, with all its own proven impacts on wellbeing. People might be unable to hear outdoor sounds, but time spent in nature is known to be a beneficial sensory experience for hearing and non-hearing people alike, and art can make all of us more observant.

It would be great if you would like to share your own or others’ experiences of art and hearing loss on Medley’s Facebook group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!