Books Beyond Words

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Books Beyond Words is an imaginative series of books for people "who can understand pictures better than words", devised by Sheila Hollins, to tell stories about important or difficult events that happen to people in their lives. "As a psychiatrist working with people with learning disabilities, I know that it can be difficult to explain about life experiences," she says.

The 30-plus books cover health issues such as having a smear test, or dealing with epilepsy, as well as emotional issues such as coping with the loss of a parent, dealing with sexual abuse and falling in love. Still others cover issues such as being arrested and standing trial, or moving to live independently in a group home.

The books tell deceptively simply picture stories. In Looking After My Balls, a young man finds a lump in one of his testicles when he has a shower. A friend accompanies him to the doctor, who sends him to hospital for screening. In the end, the news is good. The lump isn't cancer. In Jenny Speaks Out, a girl reluctantly discloses to friends how her father has abused her in the past.

But the pictures use expressions, body language and colours to spell out clear, unambiguous messages. A throbbing lump is shown with red strokes all round it; terrible anger is portrayed with a jagged purple aura.

Each book is carefully devised and road-tested. "Our son (who has a learning disability) advises on most, and we have meetings where we ask people: 'Can you tell us what this picture says?'"

As a result, an artist may have to redraw something a dozen times, and each book costs pound;35,000 to produce, with the funding coming from a variety of sources, depending on the individual subject.

Another book, by Sheila Hollins, along with Katherine Owen and Gary Butler, explores the possibility of people with learning disabilities helping to train professionals to deal with people like themselves by telling the story of how Gary has settled into his job as a trainer at St George's Hospital, in London.

Books Beyond Words, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 17 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PG. Tel: 020 7235 2351 ext 146. A New Kind of Trainer, by Katherine Owen, Gary Butler and Sheila Hollins, (Gaskell and St George's Hospital Medical School, pound;10)

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