Sensory stories are a wonderful way to engage differently abled people in narrative. For some people they provide access to narrative that would not be there if stories could not be told through the senses.For other people they remove barriers to accessing narrative, and for everyone they make stories more fun. People say a picture speaks a thousand words, well a sensory story may have very few words in its text but by including smells, touches, sights, sounds and even tastes and movements it must surely count for thousands upon thousands of words.
Beyond removing barriers to accessing narrative, sensory stories can be used in practical ways to remove barriers to accessing places and experiences in the real world.
People who processing sensory information in different ways and people with sensory impairments and cognitive impairments can find coming into a new sensory landscape very disorientating. This is not because they have a learning disability, it is because they are human! We all find sensory landscapes that are unfamiliar to us distressing. The difference is our exposure to different landscapes and our processing of sensation, essentially our measure of when something is different.
People with complex disabilities often do not have access to as varied a range of sensory landscapes as someone who is physically able does, so for them there are more ‘new’ sensory landscapes than for the next person.
People with sensory differences may register more information about the sensory world, and so for them places seem ‘different’ when to the next person they might seem similar to another experience they have had.
People with sensory impairments have a greater need to have sensory information about the places they are in in order to feel secure. Again, this is not an added disability associated with the impairment of the senses it is just an expression of being human. If I were to blindfold you, you would suddenly be a lot more interested in what you can feel. Despite what some may think people with sensory impairments do not get gifted extra abilities in their other sensory systems as a result of those impairments. Losing your vision, does NOT make your hearing better. What happens is you concentrate more on your hearing, your touch, on your other senses, because you need more information to orientate you because of the information lost by not being able to access visual information.
The people I described above: people with complex disabilities, people with sensory differences and people with sensory impairments are examples of groups of people who may benefit from sensory access to a new event or experience. There are other groups, for example autistic people and people with high anxiety who may also benefit. Sensory stories are a great tool for creating access.
A sensory access story tells people what sensations to expect when entering a new place or when taking part in a new experience. In the past I have created sensory access stories to explain the experience of going into a cathedral, going to a swimming pool, going kayaking and going to a circus performance. Each of these stories focuses on accuracy, what will I sense first as I cross the threshold, and then what?
Sharing the story ahead of the visit or experience helps people to prepare for what they will experience, when they are there familiarity with the story will help them to orientate themselves and feel less anxious. After their visit or after the event they can use the story to re-tell and re-live their experiences.
For a wonderful example of a sensory access story in action watch my friend Rosa go to the circus:
Joanna Grace is a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk
Thanks to Joanna for this blog.