The Brotherhood of the Wordless (BOW) is a unique group of writers and poets with assorted disabilities that impair their ability to communicate. But that hasn’t prevented them from publishing two anthologies and performing their works regularly in the Queensland Poetry festival and other events and venues around Brisbane, including regular gigs at the Woodford Folk Festival and Queensland State Library.

Members of the Brotherhood, with their facilitators, celebrate after their 2010 performance of ‘Air for the Birds’ at the State Library in Brisbane.

How we evolved

The Brotherhood of the Wordless evolved from a similar group that began in 1995 known as the Voiceless Wonders. At the time, Alice Owen was working as a speech pathologist with the Department of Families and Disabilities, which had encouraged its workers to get involved in activities for the disabled. Alice met with members of the group and their facilitators every week in a Sandgate cafe to write and communicate together. She was also able to train others in the techniques required for facilitation. However in 2003 the group was forced to cease functioning due to loss of Department support.

Fortunately a group of Sandgate poets (Poets in the Park) was producing an illustrated anthology, Images of Bramble Bay, with a grant from the Brisbane City Council.Writing workshops were part of the project and when Alice attended these with three members of Voiceless Wonders, their works were included in the anthology. ‘Poets on the Park’ also decided to devote the proceeds from sales of their anthology to writing activities for people using Facilitated Communication.  The money funded two more workshops entitled ‘Words from Within’ conducted later that year by Brisbane writer/filmmaker Krissy Kneen. It was from these workshops that the ‘Brotherhood of the Wordless’ was formed in 2004.

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How the group works

The Brotherhood of the Wordless meets on the third Wednesday of the month at the Sandgate Community Centre, with participants travelling from as far afield as Goodna and the Sunshine Coast. Each writer needs the assistance of a facilitator and a scribe and is dependent on family or staff for transport, so the group can number 30+ and acts as an extended family, enabling parents, siblings, support workers and carers of the participants to connect and support each other in the process.

Writing activities are suggested to the group to keep them on task, but there are no prerequisites or judgements made. Individuals participate to the level of their ability and receive great encouragement and support.

The Brotherhood is fortunate to have Alice Owen who has vast experience in speech therapy and Facilitated Communication and a grassroots knowledge of Queensland’s disability services. She is now working privately as a consultant speech therapist and trainer in facilitated communication. Joan Beddoe, a retired special education teacher, takes responsibility for the management of the group and coordinates the writing activities.

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About the writers

All of the writers who participate in the Brotherhood of the Wordless have problems connected to Autism, Down syndrome or other disabilities which preclude speech and the muscle co-ordination required for handwriting or unassisted use of a keyboard. Some also have behaviour problems that make their life, particularly social acceptance and engagement, difficult. Despite their high levels of intelligence and a keen intuition, the members have had to educate themselves because their schooling has been very basic and failed to recognise their talents.

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Changing lives

The Brotherhood of the Wordless is probably the only group of its kind in Australia and the benefits for its members are far reaching. For most of the participants it is their only means of group communication and provides valuable support for them in communication issues associated with their disabilities. The group encourages and assists with their creative expression and has made a dramatic difference to their lives as individuals and as writers.

Most experience severe isolation and loneliness from being unable to join in normal activities, but the group has helped them become aware of their talents and potential. Many are more willing to modify their behaviour in response to the support of their fellow writers whom they see as friends. Members often feel frustrated by the lack of power over their lives, but have now been empowered to voice their views, concerns and hopes for the future.

In the longer term there has been a dramatic improvement in their writing skills, behaviour and self-esteem. This has given many the confidence to give presentations at public fuctions. All members are working towards taking responsibility for their lives and their behaviour and the support and empathy of the group is very important in this process.


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Getting it out there

This unique community group is completely autonomous and is increasingly sought out by enthusiastic supporters of facilitated communication, as well as musicians, performers, artists and volunteers from the community keen to work with the writers.

For example, in the last couple of years the group has been working with Brisbane performance poet David ‘Ghostboy’ Stavenger in preparing new material for their public performances. David leads their regular creative writing activities and the poems that result are selectively incorporated into the latest production, with David directing rehearsals and preparing the writers and their facilitators for each performance.

Where participants’ disabilities or behaviour once created barriers to community acceptance, through the ongoing creative activities of the Brotherhood of the Wordless, a wider section of the public now has the opportunity to recognise its members’ skills, high intelligence and amazing insights into life.

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Achievements & Events

Since its inception in 2004, the Brotherhood has continued to flourish and grow in its artistic endeavours, with assistance from a variety of sources.

Check out their activities over the past ten years …

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The following is a poem Peter wrote about the Brotherhood at the ‘Words Within’ workshop in 2003 …

The Brotherhood of the Wordless

My friends, I see you in Golden Light.

You shine in a place of darkness.

The troubles we have been through,

the pains we have felt,

do not pale this Golden Light.

 

We are the Brotherhood of the Wordless ?

a band of misfits, in a not so perfect world.

We are the ones who are overlooked,

but soon they will not be able to look away.

 

We are without words,

but our conversation is full of wit, laced in humour

and powerful to the ears of those who are voiced ?

the ones whose tongues can easily roll the language off.

 

Come away with me to the Brotherhood ?

a place where voices get in the way

and tapping is a sound of unity.

 

How long before we are together again?

How long before we can blend

our words into poems, stories and songs

that the children will read about in years to come?

 

I can’t wait to meet you again by the river,

and in the flesh,

and I’m tapping, tapping with you again –

where the words within,

can come out once more.

 

The Brotherhood of the Wordless is here to stay!

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