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.
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
- 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
- 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
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.
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
From my Wheels on Fire series of six digital
prints, taken from wheelchairs in the Wellcome Trust's collection
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