Funky feet: a disco for people with learning difficulties in Merton, London

Anabel Unity Sale takes to the dance floor to find out how a disco called Funky Feet is providing a night of grooves and tunes for people with learning difficulties in south London

“Agadoo doo doo, push pineapple shake a tree!” blares from a room in Morden Hall. It is not the sort of music you would expect to echo from this grade two listed building, which dates to the late 1700s and is in beautiful parkland in Merton, south west London.

But on this September evening the disco the hall is hosting is in full swing. Funky Feet is packed with people dancing to such classics as Oops Upside Your Head and YMCA and propping up the bar as they chat with friends. As the multi-coloured
disco lights swirl around the ornately decorated room, the DJ changes the mood and puts on a song for people to smooch
to. Funky Feet is like any other disco on a Friday evening – except all its clubbers and the DJ have learning difficulties.

The lives of people with learning difficulties have been increasingly in the spotlight since the white paper Valuing People was published in 2001. Although it did not advocate nightly discos with free champagne, it did emphasise the need for
local authorities to include this client group in all decisions about their lives.

A few organisations around the country have operated similar events, including arts development company Inspire’s Funky Flamingo Club in Cambridgeshire and Brent Mencap in London. Andrew Lee, director of People First Self-Advocacy, says he knows of only two other discos run like Funky Feet. He wants to see more local authorities provide club nights and social activities for people with learning difficulties but that it must be done on their terms.

He says: “There is an issue about local authorities setting things up and saying to people with learning difficulties ‘you can choose from these three choices’. It should be about people with learning difficulties saying what they want to do in their local area.”

Lee adds that recent legislation is geared towards local authorities consulting people with learning difficulties about what they want, and some have been more successful than others. “Local authorities have to make sure they leave enough  consultation time. If a user group meets once a month, a consultation of 12 weeks is not enough.”

Funky Feet was created by the London Borough of Merton after a survey of its clients with learning difficulties revealed they
wanted a disco they could attend regularly. Zoey O’Brien, the council’s community development officer who spearheaded the
event, has worked with people with learning difficulties for 12 years, including three in her current role, and has noted their love of music and dancing.

Launched in April this year, Funky Feet was such a hit that plans for another night started immediately. O’Brien says the disco gives people with learning difficulties the chance to do something they would not normally do. “It is important we are at somewhere like Morden Hall as we aim to get people out into the community, so people with learning difficulties are involved in their own community and have a presence.

They meet other people, make friends and learn to mix. It’s heartening when you see people meet when they’ve not seen each
other for years.”

She wants Funky Feet to give people the confidence to meet their own friends socially in their local areas. “We would like
them to meet up without being supported so they can develop a social life that is not in a segregated environment.”

Grooving behind O’Brien is her boss Helen Cook, head of services for people with disabilities. She says she was happy to launch Funky Feet as she knew O’Brien’s “get on and do it” attitude would make sure it happened the way clients wanted it to.

Cook says she can understand why some clients want to reserve the disco solely for people with learning difficulties while others do not.

“Minority spaces exist for a lot of different people. Being in a minority group means people can congregate but it doesn’t
mean they won’t do it in an integrated way,” she says.

Russell, 39: “I like the disco because I meet people I used to know from school. I’m happy to be with people like me, we make friends. On Mondays and Thursdays I go to the gym, and I like to go to the cinema by myself.”

Sandra, 41: “I came with my friends, it’s always fun. I like songs by Kylie and Michael Jackson.”

Steve, 39: “When I came here I felt nervous but the songs make me feel relaxed. I adore Cliff Richard, especially Summer Holiday; and I like Madness and Suggs. I think the disco should only be for disabled people. I get to meet girls here.”

Lesley, 48: “This is my first time here. The music they play is not too bad. I like records from the 1970s like Grease; and I like the Beatles and the Shadows. It’s right good to come to the disco; it’s boring at home. I’ve nothing else to do apart from gohorse riding on Wednesdays.”

Bridget Pinaman, support worker for Threshold Housing and Support: “When Zoey told me about this I thought ‘Wow!’, as it hadn’t been done before. It’s important for people with learning difficulties to associate with other people and make  friends; it helps them feel more confident. The benefit is they talk to people and the dancing makes them fit.

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This article appeared on page 32 (issue 28/9 – 4/10) under the headline: Movers and shakers

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