Changemakers: Using tech so disabled people can feel the power of the arts

Clary Saddler uses assistive technology to let disabled people write songs, perform in theatre and express themselves through visual art

“The arts change lives,” Clary Saddler says. “But disabled people miss out.” The 39-year-old is artistic director of Forget-Me-Not Productions, a company combining music, theatre and visual arts with the latest in assistive technology. Working alongside her wife and company co-director Mel, an assistive tech specialist, Saddler turned a small post-university venture into a one-of-a-kind initiative that has given hundreds of disadvantaged people the chance to get creative. 

Saddler graduated from Hertfordshire Theatre School in 2002, going on to work as an actor and musician in the area for five years. She developed a specialism in interactive reminiscence theatre – using music, props and visuals from eras past to help people with dementia. It was through this work that Forget-Me-Not first came to be; in its earliest form, a theatre company touring care homes. 

She was offered an increasing amount of work with younger people, working with school pupils to create their own plays and musical performances. Saddler eventually moved to Cardiff where, in 2011, she gained a teaching degree in drama and media. She kept Forget-Me-Not going during evenings and at weekends even while working towards her degree.

They still find themselves marginalised even within special education

Working in special needs schools, she had grown frustrated with the lack of decent arts teaching for disabled children. “The turning point was during a school project, the same one I met Mel on,” she explains. The pair had been tasked with facilitating a whole-school production, and together they were
determined that the pupils with the most complex disabilities would be as involved as their peers. 

“Sometimes people in wheelchairs or people with profound disabilities are given roles that are, at best, totally passive,” Saddler explains. Teachers, often without resources or adequate training, don’t know how to include pupils with the most profound disabilities, so they won’t try. 

But Saddler decided she’s had enough. “We filmed them narrating the story using Eyegaze [eye-tracking software that generates speech] and used green-screen technology to put them in a castle. They went from being people who were shoved in the back to being narrators, leading the story forward.”

After four years of teaching, Saddler was tired of poor arts provision for disabled kids but all too aware of the ever-tightening purse strings of local councils and schools. So she and Mel pledged to make a difference through a new incarnation of Forget-Me-Not Productions that brings assistive tech to disabled people in education and in private sessions. Together they set out to prove that the arts could make a difference to everyone, without exception. 

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Saddler found that it’s a greater challenge to motivate some disabled people to engage with assistive tech than it is for them to master it. So for some people, Forget-Me-Not will use music to get them on board with the technology.

It could be as simple as pushing a switch that makes an on-screen keyboard play, or pressing a button to change instruments according to what they feel like. Agency and independence are themes running throughout every Forget-Me-Not operation.

For others, the main issue is access. “They can’t take part in the arts in their mainstream schools and instead are forced to passively watch on,” Saddler says. “It allows them to explore interests they hadn’t allowed themselves to have before. But those interests are life-enriching.” They can use technology
to write their own music.

The responses to Forget-Me-Not – from the public, from the education sector and from the disabled community – have been “overwhelmingly positive”. Saddler thinks this is partly because of their focus on people with the most complex disabilities. She explains: “They still find themselves marginalised even within special education. The widely-accepted bar for what activities they should have access to is
very low.”

They’ve never been given the opportunity to participate in their heritage

But, true to her mission to bring opportunity to the most vulnerable people in Wales and west England, Saddler works with other minority groups. Forget-Me-Not teamed up with charity Race Equality First to work with pupils to produce plays which investigated the “magic, wonder and potential harm” of words and prejudice. Other recent projects have used the arts to improve lives in the LGBTQ and Irish traveller communities. 

Saddler estimates the pair have worked with more than 600 people in the past five years. She echoes a plethora of charity, social enterprise and third sector workers who have said Brexit uncertainty is making funding even more difficult to come by, meaning the UK’s vulnerable people are the first to miss out. 

But Forget-Me-Not’s ambition is in no short supply: their next project will be to fund an arts festival and documentary for disabled young people. “They’ve never been given the opportunity to create their own culture or participate in their heritage,” Saddler explains. “We’re going to let them show what they
can do.”