Staff Spotlight – Wendy Yeomans

3 September 2021

Wendy Yeomans, Intensive Interaction & Sensory Support Specialist, explains what she does in her role here at Norwood.

I originally went to art school at Goldsmith’s College, after which, as well as producing my own art, I taught adults. I then went into textile conservation, initially employed at Hampton Court Palace for 11 years, where I worked on items including tapestries, embroidery and costumes at Hampton Court Palace, the Palace of Westminster and other historic buildings, before I went freelance, working in the same field.

Eventually I resumed teaching on a part-time basis, beginning with young people aged 11-19 years with profound and multiple learning difficulties at The Annie Lawson School at Ravenswood, where I stayed for 8 years. That was the start of my second career at Norwood and I felt like I’d found my real vocation. Although it was completely different to anything I’d done before, I was interested in the different approaches to communicating with people we support – particularly those that are non-verbal – using various means – both sensory and creative. I further developed my experience, working first for a Special Needs school in Reading, as well as a college for people with Learning Disabilities.

When a post opened up in what was then the Lifelong Learning and later Complementary Services team at Norwood, I took the opportunity to support tutors and the Lifelong Learning team to set up accreditation courses for the people we support. I missed working directly with the people we support, however, so I continued developing sensory stories, looking at our provision of activities for people with physical and multiple learning disabilities and ways of making it more comprehensive.

As my contract drew to an end, I moved into what was then the Health & Wellbeing team, working directly with people, offering intensive interaction and sensory activities, going in to homes and working 1:1 and in groups in Ravenswood and London homes. When that team was restructured, as I had previously worked with the Assistive Technology team using sensory equipment, I continued my work under their wing.

I am especially interested in building communication bridges with people we support through sensory activities. My work in homes led to creating a sensory environment space in the Village, which we could dress along different themes, such as space and under the sea. Using funds secured through a grant from the Karten Network, we used magic carpets (an interactive projection system), as well as a lot of other tactile and auditory stimulus to totally dress the space to each different theme to create an immersive experience, which showcases cause and effect, taking people to a totally different world and encouraging them to interact with it. Once the environment has been created, I create stories around each dressed space – such as going on a space adventure – and integrate sensory equipment with real things, from fragrance to instruments for people we support to play with.

For both the people we support who are able to follow a narrative and for those without the ability to alike, they have an interesting and stimulating experiencing, full of tactile interaction and exploration. By taking people out of their normal environment, they become more open to communicating with me, as well as with their peers.

When Covid hit, because the sessions were intimate, held in small groups in darkened rooms, initially they were stopped. I then worked to produce various ideas that I circulated to our homes of sensory projects that staff could do in-house. As lockdown was prolonged, I looked at how I could continue to reach people without 1:1 contact. I began converting the sensory stories I’d built up to
visual stories, initially filming myself alone when no contact was allowed, to facilitate some element of interaction with me for the people we support. As lockdowns eased, looked at ways of involving people in a safe way – using a green screen, staff at The Green collaborated with me to film people we support acting out roles in-house, which I then integrated with my own filming.

The first film had a great response from people we support, particularly when we held a premiere to launch it to them for the first time, and they wanted to film more. After that, I worked with the people we support to support them to film their own content, either individually or in small groups of two or three, in front of a green screen, which resulted in the seaside film.

I am now working on a circus-themed film, which is almost finished, and was specifically requested by residents of The Green. Since the popularity of the initial films, people we support from other services have asked to be involved and I’ve filmed with horses from The Stables, as well as people from different homes in Ravenswood.

I think one of the reasons the films have been so popular with the people we support is that they love seeing themselves in fantastical situations. Previously, in-person sessions were very private and they couldn’t see how their performances were received. Sometimes our residents can surprise us with their ability and staff have also seen them in a different light having seen their performances. Increasingly, staff have also got involved in my films – it’s a nice, fun thing to be involved in, even if they might at times think I’ve bullied them into it.

Although in-person sessions work really well, they’re transitory and can’t be revisited like films. Families can engage with them too, which helps them see their relatives in a different light. What motivates me is seeing people’s responses and positive feedback always keeps you going. A lot of my work involves using observation skills to monitor small visual responses. Someone once said to me ‘listen with your eyes’ – that encapsulates my philosophy.

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