Jemma is currently the poster girl for HELM Talent Hub, a large dance project aiming to help people with learning disabilities and/or autism find a professional career in dance. She works for Northern Ballet and is the first person with autism to perform her role in the organisation, and the first to lead their own artistic project.
As well as her dance and her art, she is passionate about raising awareness of the difficulties faced by people with learning disabilities and the importance of fair treatment.
“My safe place.”
“I started dancing when I was really young. I don’t actually remember starting, it has just always been part of my life. More than something I want to do, it’s always been something I felt like I needed to do.
“It makes me happy; the feeling of moving, but also all the people I’ve got to meet and the experiences I’ve had because of dance. I know my life is infinitely richer because of it and when I am teaching, or making dance.
“It’s about connecting and communicating. It’s about learning about yourself and others, finding confidence and value as dancers, but also as people. Dance class has always been my safe place, the one place where I could be myself without apology. When I am teaching or dancing with others, I have a purpose.
“It’s like I have a voice and people listen and they see me and I am an equal. That’s just not my normal experience, and I know it’s not for so many people who have a learning disability and/or autism. So that is an additional reason why I treasure dance and moving, especially with others. It’s my opportunity to show that I can be more than others think I can and sometimes even more than myself.”
“I am no-one special, but I try to have a special impact every day.”
“I used to think that being successful meant being not autistic because that was what I was taught. They meant well, but it was hard always thinking that I was broken and wrong.
“They encouraged me to hide my differences. There were no autistic dancers. I didn’t know anyone with autism at the time actually, successful or not.
“Last year I won a commission, which meant I was given some money to make my own dance piece. There was no-one telling me what to do. This was my chance to make work in my way. The autistic way. I wasn’t hiding anymore!
“My autism is my creative advantage and my life advantage. It makes me kind, determined and resourceful. I made people happy, I helped people improve their dancing and together we all started to think differently about ourselves.
“My colleagues and other professionals heard about my work. Some came to watch, some asked me questions and things have started to change.
“Every time I am successful, and sometimes when I am not, it makes me more determined. And it grows. I grow in confidence and with more confidence, I am able to do more things and reach more people. That is so exciting! I am no-one special, but I try to have a special impact every day.”
“We have to fight because if we don’t then nothing will change.”
“I do not want special treatment, I want fair treatment. Despite having some successes, I still find sometimes I am disadvantaged. I recently volunteered at an event outside of work. I was doing the same job as everyone else, but as a disabled person I was not seen as a professional and therefore was not paid.
“It is great to see more opportunities for disabled people now, but there is still a gap not just in money, but also in respect, and that makes everything harder. I don’t want people to include me because it is good to have diversity, I want to earn my opportunities.
“Experiencing fair treatment in my current job has given me more confidence to find out about my rights, but also to fight for them. And it’s not just about money, I think one of the most important lessons I am learning is simply to respect myself.
“I have had lots of bad things said to me and done to me because I am different. Because I am autistic. When I started working I had no confidence. I rarely left the house. I was really scared of everything.
“There was an advert for the commission and I applied. It changed my life by giving me an opportunity to help myself. I have learned that people will always do bad things, but when I gave up they won. When I started trying again, I won. When bad things happen we have to fight because if we don’t then nothing will change.
“I have learned that my life is important and it has given me lots of motivation. It is really important to me that I work hard so that one day I can help others, who felt like me, recover too.”
How does it feel to be a Learning Disability and Autism Leader?
“I am thrilled my story was chosen and so excited to be named a 2019 Learning Disability and Autism Leader.
“I loved reading last year’s stories. To know that there were all these people like me and doing all these amazing things really inspired me. They made me want to be braver. I was always embarrassed before to talk about my autism because of the negative reactions I had received in the past. But of course if we never challenge the negativity, it will never change. So I am excited to have the opportunity to share my story and on such a big scale. Thank you so much!”
“Extremely well presented. So much contribution, it was a joy to read.” – Leaders’ List 2019 Judge
“Jemma makes me feel anything is possible. She will carry on to do greater things.” – Leaders’ List 2019 Judge
In the press
- Celebrating disabilities – Letter To The Editor
Read Jemma’s letter on independent.co.uk