Colour photograph of a white caravan from outside the wooden orchard gates, framed by trees, with a red brick tiled cottage behind it. If you look very carefully, you can see a Westie immediately behind the gate.


Holton Lee

Is there a future for Disability Arts?

There has been a lot of discussion over the past year or so about whether or not there is a future for Disability Arts. The following are some of my thoughts about this.

Ghettoising Disabled artists

Many Disabled artists feel increasingly unsure about being defined as disabled. They are questioning whether identifying - or being identified - as part of the Disability Arts movement is ghettoising them and is denying them mainstream recognition. Surely, they say, we should simply be seen as 'artists'?

This is a question that has already been discussed for many years by the Feminist Art Movement. The Feminist Art Movement peaked in the 1980s, with women artists today rarely identifying as part of it. Only the American artists' collective The Guerrilla Girls continues to campaign actively around feminist issues in the art world, and all of its members disguise their identities behind gorilla masks and the names of dead women artists. (Visit the Tate Modern's new room devoted to the Guerrilla Girls for more information about them.)

But despite today's lack of interest in feminism as it affects the arts, women artists - both disabled and non-disabled - are still very heavily discriminated against in the art world. Only about 5% of work in exhibitions and collections is by women, and women artists still earn far less than men. For example, women 'Brit' artists such as Tracey Emin may receive £100,000 for a significant piece of their work, but their male colleagues such as Damien Hirst will receive £5 million. Contemporary women artists like Tracey are now beginning to question whether feminism is actually just as significant to them as it was 20 years ago, as Tracey discussed in her recent film for Channel 4.

So, the fact that women artists today simply identify as 'artists' has not prevented them from being discriminated against throughout the art world for being women. If they had continued to support the Feminist Art Movement, they might actually have come closer to achieving their goal of being recognised as equal to men.

In the same way, Disabled artists will be treated by the art world as being disabled whether or not we identify as such. Opting for invisibility is more likely to increase the discrimination that we face, rather than lessening it.

Throughout history, many male artists have of course been disabled, although this is no longer acknowledged. But they lived during a period when the division between disabled and non-disabled people was much less important - we do not. And Disabled women artists will be identified as and be discriminated against for being women too, whether or not we ignore this fact.

Having Pride in who we are, and being part of an art movement which challenges definitions of 'normality' and 'disability', is in still the only way to achieve equality.

Falling audiences

Another reason why the future of Disability Arts is being debated is that disabled actors and other performance artists are reporting falling audiences for their work. However:

  • There is no research to show that audiences are falling, only anecdotal evidence. Many Disability Arts productions have very large audiences, particularly for artists like Mat Fraser and for companies like Graeae Theatre Company. So audiences may not in fact be declining at all.
  • In the early days of Disability Arts, in the 1980s, social services departments would organise group visits to our performances and productions. Today, far fewer disabled people take part in these group activities because of the widespread closure of day centres etc. Social workers are also far more aware now of the radical content of Disability Arts, and often find it deeply threatening (as it is supposed to be!). So social workers are far less likely now to support and fund group visits to performances and productions than they were previously.
  • According to the Government's Equalities Review - and in contrast to what most people believe - disabled people are less equal in society now than we were 20 years ago. This means that, in comparison to 20 years ago, disabled people are less likely to be able to fund visits to performances and productions than we used to be. This is heightened by the fact that we often have to fund taxi and personal assistance costs on top of ticket prices, and may have to pay full price for a ticket for a personal assistant or companion to come with us too.
  • At the same time, ticket prices for performances and productions by disabled people have risen sharply, whereas in the early days of Disability Arts, many were free. This is partly due to fewer grants and other subsidies being available, and partly because Disabled artists have felt that their work is more likely to be regarded as being professional if they charge a commercial rate to see it.
  • So if audiences are declining, it is more likely to be due to disabled people being unable to afford to attend rather than disabled people choosing not to come. As Disabled artists, we must remember this when arguing for grant subsidy and when setting ticket prices.

Disability rights

Another reason why the future of Disability Arts is being debated is that disabled people now have the right to access mainstream training, performances and productions. Before 1999, we had no right to attend courses or productions, nor did anyone have to make arrangements to meet our access needs. Before 2005, training providers, theatres and other venues did not have to alter their premises to remove physical barriers against disabled people, like unnecessary steps. Now we have a theoretical right to attend all courses and performances, which might make Disability Arts training, performances and productions irelevant. However:

  • In reality, many theatres and other venues are still not physically accessible. Although they have known since 1995 that they need to be accessible by now, they have not allocated any money or conducted any fundraising to ensure that this is the case. Now they say that they cannot afford to make the improvements necessary in order to create good access.
  • Many new publicly funded arts buildings are accessible in theory only: the access may be very poor in reality even when the venue claims to be a model of good access. The building regulations on disabled access only provide for a minimum standard that can still cause signficant problems for many disabled people. Many venues fail to understand that this is a minimum standard, and regard it instead as a standard of best practice that it is therefore unrealistic to expect to achieve in full.
  • Many arts training providers are still only making the most basic or token attempts to include disabled trainees, and are in fact therefore inaccessible to the majority of disabled people.
  • So-called accessible venues may still have a strict quota on how many disabled people can attend. For example, the National Film Theatre (NFT) only allocates two spaces for wheelchair users in two of the three cinemas used for the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. I am co-chair of Regard, the national disabled Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) organisation, and we have nine wheelchair users on our executive committee alone. We want to go out as a group of friends to events like this - and, of course, many LGBT couples where one or both are disabled want to attend too. This year, Regard wrote to the NFT to ask them to provide the same number of wheelchair user spaces at the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival as they do at the Disability Film Festival, as well as duplicating other access arrangements like having audio description available. And we wanted them to stop official festival cars from using the Blue Badge parking spaces and so preventing disabled people from attending. The NFT did not even bother to reply to us. This is despite the festival receiving Arts Council funding.
  • So-called accessible venues may also have a policy of restricting disabled people to the most expensive seats. For example, spaces for wheelchair users may be at the front of the stalls, with no access to the cheaper seats behind and above. Venues may also refuse to discount seats for people who need to sit at the front, such as people with visual and hearing impairments. Since disabled people have the lowest incomes of any group in society, this makes it very difficult to afford to go out, particularly as we often have to fund taxi and personal assistance costs on top of ticket prices, and may also have to pay full price for a ticket for a personal assistant or companion to come with us in order to attend.
  • Staff and audience members can also make going out a difficult and unpleasant experience for disabled people. They may believe that the presence of disabled people spoils the training experience for non-disabled people, or spoils their own enjoyment of a performance or a production, or spoils the image of a venue, and so do everything they can to make disabled people feel unwelcome. Or they may simply be ignorant about how their behaviour affects disabled people's experience, for example by preventing disabled people from using an accessible toilet by using it themselves, or by failing to ensure that non-disabled trainees or audience members do not use it.
  • So although we now have equal rights in theory to access the mainstream, the reality is very different. This is a good-enough reason on its own for Disability Arts performances and productions to continue.

Focussing on making the mainstream accessible

As there are still considerable barriers for disabled people within the mainstream, some people in the Disability Arts movement argue that we should now turn our attentions to helping the mainstream to improve disability access and inclusion, rather than providing an alternative. It is also argued by funders that the time has come to stop funding Disability Arts, and instead to encourage disabled artists to access mainstream provision. However:

  • Many disabled people have never been to an arts exhibition, performance or film festival, or believe this is not something they can continue to do now that they have become disabled. Few disabled people have considered that it is possible for them to become artists. Attending Disability Arts exhibitions, film screenings and productions acts as an introduction to the mainstream for disabled people who have been isolated from it, while the artists represented within these act as role models. Disability Arts therefore enable disabled people to access mainstream arts activities, both as audience members and as artists.
  • Disabled arts trainees may find that the way a course is structured makes it inaccessible to them, however accessible the venue and teaching methods might be.
  • Two-thirds of disabled adults have acquired their impairments. Many wish to retrain at this point, as do disabled people whose access needs change with age. They often feel that they need to discover their potential and limitations in a fully accessible, supportive environment, where everyone present has personal experience of disability, before considering a return to the mainstream.
  • Disabled trainees often feel isolated within a mainstream arts environment where everyone treats them as being exotic and different, and no one fully understands their life experiences or access needs. Many drop out as a result, or are put off from applying in the first place. Arts training where everyone present is disabled allows trainees to focus on being artists rather than on their impairments and access needs.
  • Disabled people have fewer educational and training opportunities than non-disabled people. For example, half of all disabled 16-year-olds are not in work, education or training, and half of all disabled adults do not have any qualifications at all. This means that disabled people are disadvantaged when applying to mainstream courses, even when the appplication process itself has been made accessible (which it quite often isn't).
  • So if we don't provide arts training specifically for disabled people, many disabled artists will not be able to access training at all. Of course we should support disabled artists' right to enter mainstream training, but we have to recognise that this will not always be possible or appropriate.
  • The same applies to grant funding opportunities. As well as being disadvantaged in accessing training, Disabled Artists are also disadvantaged in accessing networking opportunities. For example, we may not be able to get into a gallery opening, or may not be able to see who is there, or may not be able to hear against background noise, or may not have access to a BSL interpreter to enable us to communicate with the other people there. We may also be isolated in other ways too from non-disabled artists who pass on information to each other, because their studios are inaccessible to us and/or because they regard us as being exotic and different.
  • And we are discriminated against in the workplace, meaning that we have less access to residencies and commissions. On top of this, many mid-career disabled artists are forced for various reasons to remain on state benefits and so are unable to take up paid residencies or commissions or to sell their work. So our CVs will often be less good than non-disabled artists when applying for mainstream grant funding. This means that it is important to continue with bespoke grants for Disabled artists, as well as encouraging artists to apply for mainstream opportunities.
  • Venues, trainers, performers, producers and directors all have a legal responsibility to ensure that their courses and productions are accessible to everyone, and that they do not discriminate against the people they employ. Many also receive public funding, which everyone including disabled people contributes towards, and are legally bound by their funders to cater for all audiences. We shoud not encourage them to believe that they are doing us a favour by opening out access, nor that it is disabled people's responsibility to do this for them, nor that they have a choice.
  • If trainers, venues and staff need training and support to fulfil their legal responsibilities, then there are plenty of disabled consultants and trainers available that they can pay to provide this. We should not be taking away work from these consultants and trainers by offering free provision. Venues do not expect free training and support to be available to fulfil other aspects of their legal responsibilities.
  • As a society, we do not believe that it is the duty of Black and Minority Ethnic groups to challenge white people's racism. Instead, we believe that people should take responsibility for their own racism and for changing this, and that it is society's responsibility as a whole to create the conditions where this can happen. In the same way, it is not the duty of disabled people to challenge non-disabled people's disabilism.
  • What we can do to improve mainstream provision is to ensure that our own courses, productions etc are models of best practice. This provides an example to the mainstream of what they should be doing, and increases their understanding of access provision as something that enhances the training or performance experience for everyone instead of detracting from it. Models of best practice are essential for improving mainstream provision, but it would be very difficult to create these outside of Disability Arts courses, performances and productions, as they are still the only ones that are controlled by disabled people.
  • We should also focus any efforts to work alongside mainstream venues on commercial venues who do not receive any public subsidy themselves, and whose productions also do not receive any subsidy. And we should make efforts to promote disabled artists central to this, with any subsidy being used solely to benefit artists. The Attitude is Everything campaign, which works with the music business to improve access at the same time as promoting the employment of disabled musicians, is a great example of this. Attitude also finds that paying for advice makes venues and companies take disability access issues much more seriously than they would otherwise.


The issue that seems to be left out of the debate altogether is the lack of opportunities for disabled artists within the mainstream, and the lack of representation of disabled people's lives. Disabled people are not cast in 'ordinary' roles, despite the fact that in reality we are just ordinary people. Where our lives are represented, they are usually stereotyped, showing us as 'tragic but brave', or as a burden to non-disabled people, or as child-like and dependent, or as untrustworthy and/or as having our characters warped by our impairments.

As a result of the lack of representation of our lives within the mainstream, roles for disabled actors and performers are still few and far between. This leaves many talented, highly trained disabled artists without work, especially as non-disabled actors are often employed to play disabled people where roles do exist. Deaf actors are also finding that non-BSL users are being cast as BSL users when deaf actors are used, rather than casting BSL users themselves. This makes the BSL content unintelligible to its own language community, as well as misrepresenting BSL as being clumsy and basic rather than the fluent, sophisticated and complex language that is really is.

This means that accurate representations of disabled people's lives, including disabled people portraying 'ordinary' characters, are still mostly confined to Disability Arts. Most work opportunities for Disabled artists are also confined to the Disability Arts world. Since the arts reflect society as a whole, it will take a very long time to change this, particularly as the Government does not even aim to achieve disability equality until 2025. And as Disability Arts is an important means of achieving disability equality, the Government's aim will fail if the movement decides to give up now.

The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive is intended to document a living, vibrant international fine art movement. It is not intended to be a coffin.

Please note that these are my personal views, developed through ongoing contact with a wide range of other Disabled artists including through my work as a training and careers adviser to Disabled artists at Shape. Many other Disabled artists have written about the future of Disability Arts. As the NDACA website is developed, we will be including links to their work online, as well as including it in the archive for study.

Photograph of an old-fashioned 'bath' (wheel)chair, made from wicker. The colours have been distorted to become bright purples and greens.
From my Wheels on Fire series of six digital prints, taken from wheelchairs in the Wellcome Trust's collection

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