National

Skydiving Welsh grandma brings the power of touch to people with disabilities in Japan

by Imogen Pullan

Kyodo

Since retiring 25 years ago, Dilys Price has founded a successful charity, been honored by Queen Elizabeth II, modeled for a top fashion line and set a world record for being the oldest female skydiver.

Now, the 86-year-old grandmother’s great ambition is to show Japan how to enrich the lives of people with disabilities and the elderly through the power of touch.

After concluding successful careers in both dance and disability work, Price developed a dance-inspired program designed to encourage isolated people to relax and open up to physical contact through movement and praise.

She eventually turned the program into a charity called the Touch Trust, which has a permanent center in Cardiff running movement sessions and training therapists to conduct their own programs. It operates throughout Wales and helps over one thousand people each week.

Despite stepping back from the daily operations of the charity in 2015, Price remains involved with its activities. She was inspired to take the program to Japan after a Japanese boy with cerebral palsy named Yuki and his mother took part in sessions in Wales.

During her visit to Japan at the end of October, a trip that was partly funded by the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation, she conducted sessions at care homes for the elderly and at day care centers.

“The care staff and parents were so open and receptive — more so than I had ever envisaged, given the cultural differences,” Price, who has a son and two young grandchildren, said in a recent interview.

In the sessions, participants pair up with their care givers in circles as they go through each step. The class slowly builds up in tempo, beginning with bell-ringing and breathing exercises before moving on to touch, dance and movement practice.

If the participants are uncomfortable being touched, their partners will pretend to stroke the space around them until they are relaxed enough to permit physical contact.

“There’s such isolation if you’ve got severe cerebral palsy or autism. The program that I evolved helps connection and stops isolation. It is revolutionary,” Price said.

As well as benefiting children and adults with severe disabilities or autism, Price said it can also be used to help people suffering from dementia and even those living in social isolation.

The program reduces the anxiety of dementia patients to a level where they can temporarily re-establish a connection with their spouses or partners, Price explained.

She said the reaction to the home care sessions demonstrates a need for the program in Japan, and she hopes the format will be adopted by practitioners in the country in the future.

During her trip, Price also gave a lecture to more than 500 children at a junior high school in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, after being invited by a parent who had seen videos discussing her skydiving and charity work online.

Having first jumped out of a plane in her mid-50s, Price has since completed more than 1,100 skydives, and obtained the world record for being the oldest female skydiver before being forced to stop in 2015 after breaking her ankle.

She told the children how skydiving helped her find the courage to start her own charity, as well as raise crucial funds to keep the Touch Trust going.

Price was accompanied by arts consultant Bet Davies, who previously helped establish the permanent center for the Touch Trust and has extensive experience working with Japan.

In addition to demonstrating the charity’s work in the country, Davies said she hoped the trip could be used “to celebrate disability and create awareness of diversity and inclusion in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.”

She added that the program had already been a success among students when it was introduced at the Japanese school Yuki previously attended in Cardiff.

“(It) enabled the whole school to suddenly be aware that Yuki may be different but was also the same as them … it was the first time those children had embraced him,” Davies said.

The program could perhaps help to combat the traditional views of disability still prevalent in Japan, she added.

In messages from the junior high school students, one wrote that Price’s talk about her work had shown them how children born with disabilities could also lead happy lives, while another said they were inspired by Price’s words to help those with disabilities.

Price firmly believes the program should be open to all. “We work with those who are turned away by everywhere else. We don’t give up on anyone, ever. We know that everyone wants to belong,” she said.

“We’ve all got a beautiful soul, but we’ve all got different shells. Some people have the bad luck of a shell that doesn’t work very well for them. (My aim is) to bring out and make the whole soul feel happy and understood.”