Should we be concerned about the mental health of people with disabilities?

September 11, 2017


I have been running The Sensory Projects since 2010. The projects are all about spreading the knowledge and the creativity required to make inexpensive items into effective sensory tools for inclusion. So far there has been a project on stories, one on art and another on a sort of sensory mindfulness called sensory-being. There’s a fourth in development and every morning I wake up with this as my job I pinch myself to check it’s real.


So why mental health? What have projects to do with stories and art and all the fun things in life got to do with mental health?


Well, when I first began the projects I had a lot of personal experience both in my private and professional life of people with profound disabilities but I was keen that what I put into action in the projects be based on more than this. It’s great to have knowledge yourself, but you are only ever one person. It’s easy to make mistakes. So I like what I do to be founded in research, consequently I am an avid consumer of the research archives.


Since 2010 I’ve been reading the research about the lives of people with profound disabilities and even though I have not been looking for it I have been reading about their profound mental health difficulties. What we find is essentially the more disabled a person is the more likely they are to have a mental health difficulty. That’s bad enough but it gets worse, the more disabled they are the more likely they are to have that mental health difficulty overlooked or assumed to be a part of their physical condition.


What we have in the population of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities is an incredibly vulnerable group when it comes to mental health who are largely being ignored and who are certainly not being catered for.


There is only so long you can read about things like this without acting on what you’re learning and retain your humanity. After knowing I ought to be doing something about it for years, last year I finally did: I hosted the first Sensory Engagement for Mental Well Being conference. At this event I teach people simple sensory strategies they can use to promote good mental health for people with profound disabilities. Often very simple changes in how we facilitate experiences can make all the difference when it comes to mental health.


I’m not a fan of hosting my own conferences, it’s much easier to be booked to do an event by someone else and have them deal with the logistics. The part of it I am good at is the sensory stuff – not organising catering booking rooms etc! But this is what I can do, so I am doing it. What can you do?


I call people with profound and multiple learning disabilities Sensory Beings, preferring to define them by their abilities rather than their disabilities. With this term I also include other people for whom the sensory world is a big deal, for example some people with autism or later stage dementia. To me a Sensory Being is a person whose primary experience of the world, and meaning within it, is sensory. Think about the people you meet on the wards. Are any of them Sensory Beings?


If you are supporting a Sensory Being my tip would be to pause and think through each sensory system (I run to seven on the projects but I’ll let you stick to the famous five for now). What will they be seeing when they come into your room, or when they receive the treatment or when you approach? What will they hear? What will they smell? Will they taste anything? What will it feel like to them? To experience all of these new sensations in one go is terrifying. Can you find ways to offer them the experiences in isolation, so that they can practice and get used to them? I often suggest to schools and family members that they come and get some of the squibby hand soap from their local hospital and use it playfully so that Sensory Beings get used to the smell in a positive way. It is simple, but in the world of a Sensory Being it can be the difference between being terrified and being happy.

That’s just one idea, there are lots more. As you meet the Sensory Beings in your care be thinking about what you can do to address their mental health as well as their physical health.

If you want to find out more about The Sensory Projects or the Sensory Engagement for Mental Well Being day visit

Connect with me on twitter for tweet sized bites of research. @Jo3Grace

Come and find me on Facebook for simple sensory resource ideas.

Connect with me on LinkedIn if you're curious about my professional background but more so if you are looking for relevant reading materials to the topic above as from my profile I have links to over 60 articles I have written about sensory engagement work.

And if you're looking for a longer read then my books 'Sensory Stories for Children and Teens' and 'Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings' are both available on Amazon






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