It’s 2017. We are the UK City of Culture, and aside from all that, we are living in an incredibly creative time. Disability-focused arts initiatives such as our own Square Peg (more on that soon) have been working all year to tackle the stigma around disability and the arts through high-quality exhibitions and events.
Over the past few years, there have been many positive developments in terms of how disability is represented in the arts in Hull, but also around the UK. Following the London 2012 Paralympics (and the surrounding Cultural Olympiad), fantastic initiatives including Unlimited (scroll down for more on them…), and Ramps On The Moon are popping up all the time, and working really hard to create new, challenging and innovative opportunities for people, making the arts more accessible for everyone.
GREAT STUFF HAPPENING NATIONALLY
London’s Graeae has been championing creativity in theatre for more than 30 years. Artistic director Jenny Sealey discusses the challenges currently facing arts initiatives, and how Graeae has managed to overcome them: “For us, everything keeps evolving, changing and developing – also, there are lots of challenges with regards to economics, fundraising and the Arts Council, we can’t allow ourselves to ever stop, we just have to keep moving, and evolving.”
One of the greatest challenges for any theatre or creative company specialising in disability is finding spaces suitable for use, and that are adaptable to the needs of performers. Jenny says: “One of the things we’ve always campaigned for is equality in venues, and as they became steadily more physically and attitudinally accessible, we were able to access bigger spaces, and make more connections. Now, the Arts Council on a national scale is funding disability arts very well – more so, than ever before, and so there are many more companies out there.
“We are not a community that just sits back, we are all still fighting for full change. It’s happening in theatre, but what we really need is for film and TV to embrace it properly.”
Now, the Arts Council on a national scale is funding disability arts very well – more so, than ever before, and so there are many more companies out there.
– Jenny Sealey, Graeae
While positive changes are clearly being made, there are definitely developments needing to be implemented with the way disability is represented on the big and small screens. Even with the likes of Yorkshire’s own comedic genius Jack Carroll (who has cerebral palsy), and CBeebies’ Cerrie Burnell (who was born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow) leading the charge, pushing disability into the forefront of popular culture with their stellar contributions to the entertainment world, there are still certain stigmas attached, that need to be addressed.
What’s the point of having seasons? It should be an everyday, across the year, thing where disabled people are on air.
– Mohammed Salim Patel, BBC North West Tonight
BBC North West Tonight journalist, Mohammed Salim Patel, who is registered blind, talks about some of the preconceptions attached to casting disabled people in prominent roles in broadcasting. “While we are arguably better than many other countries [at supporting people with disabilities, within a range of professions] a lot more still needs to be done,” says Mohammed. “We’ve seen the likes of BBC Three do special disability seasons, a mixture of dramas and documentaries. These received great praise at the time but where are those actors and programmes now? What’s the point of having seasons? It should be an everyday, across the year, thing where disabled people are on air.
“People are too scared to try and delve into doing this. Whether it is a fear of getting it wrong, and offending people or thinking it’ll be too costly and easier to have ‘normal’ folk do the role.”
Bradford’s Mind The Gap (which recently bought its show, Mia, to Hull Truck Theatre) is pushing its own focus towards changing these types of outdated perceptions with many televisual opportunities coming to their performers.
Mind The Gap’s audience development coordinator Rob Abbey says there is an increasing number of opportunities for disabled artists to take their skills into further avenues in visual media. “At Mind the Gap, we have seen some fantastic developments in opportunities for people with learning disabilities over the past few years,” says Rob. “One of our artists, Liam Bairstow, was cast in the role of Alex Warner on Coronation Street back in 2015, thanks to a ground-breaking audition process by ITV. Two of our artists have also received funding through Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts programme to make and tour their own work.”
One of our artists, Liam Bairstow, was cast in the role of Alex Warner on Coronation Street back in 2015, thanks to a ground-breaking audition process by ITV.
– Rob Abbey, Mind The Gap
BUT WHAT ABOUT ON A LOCAL LEVEL?
Daniel Watts of Hull Fringe, and Elephant in The Room says his main goal since starting these projects has been to create a profound change where disability is no longer an afterthought when large-scale events are planned. Daniel, who is deaf, discusses things from Hull’s perspective, saying that despite fears with regards to funding going forward post-2017, there’s some excellent work going on. He also believes that Hull’s ever-powerful work ethic should once again shine through.
“For a long time, Hull has suffered a lack of funding across the board. In 2017, organisations such as Artlink have been creating and supporting some amazing work, I would hate for the disabled creative community to go back to square one next year, and would love to see the galleries and the Art Council step up to prevent this from happening.”
In 2017, organisations such as Artlink have been creating and supporting some amazing work.
– Daniel Watts, Hull Fringe, Elephant In The Room
Indeed, the aforementioned Artlink has been doing an incredible job at supporting people involved in the arts and disability, in the city and Square Peg has been instrumental in that. There has been a brilliant series of exhibitions, and other events tackling the stigma around disability arts, while also examining Artlink’s overall legacy as an arts centre dedicated to access for all.
So far, it’s created a bunch of fantastic opportunities for disabled artists to showcase their work, and provide a voice for audiences who have disabilities of their own.
In terms of plans for the rest of this year, currently, Square Peg is collaborating with Engage, (a leading advocacy and training network for gallery education, to host a conference rethinking diversity) at the end of November, which will look at various debates on equality and diversity.
In terms of opportunities available, if you are a disabled creative working in the media, general arts, theatre or any other business, Unlimited exists to fund artists, and creatives to craft work with real value, on a national and international scale. The overall mission statement is to incite real change around the perception, and development of new creative talent within the wider disabled community.
We are working at a scale to ensure that old excuses from venues and programmers such as there isn’t enough high-quality work out there, just don’t hold water any more.
– Jo Verrent, Unlimited
Jo Verrent, senior producer at Unlimited, says: “We shouldn’t really have to exist, but we do, as disabled artists and companies led by disabled people still face discrimination within the cultural sector. We are a short-term initiative designed to address that – and to showcase incredible work by incredible artists.”
As further proof of the incredible success that Unlimited has achieved, in March 2017, it awarded more than £945,000 to 24 projects. And on 1 Sept, Unlimited opened the call out for this year’s awards, which include a new partnership with Wellcome Trust for a research and development piece.
Jo adds: “We are working at a scale to ensure that old excuses from venues and programmers such as there isn’t enough high-quality work out there, just don’t hold water any more. Not only is the work out there – funded by ourselves and others – but it’s some of the most dynamic, exciting, interesting and controversial work in the arts sector as a whole.”
In the short-term, Unlimited’s goals are to support the artists that it funds, and those who make their award shortlists.
“We must offer support in as many ways as we can,” says Jo, “to ensure they are embedded within the cultural sector and have their access needs fully met. The more partners we work with, the more likely it is that when we stop, currently planned for 2020, that disabled artists continue to work equally and without barriers.”
In the long-term, for Unlimited (and many companies at the forefront of this new wave of positive change), the aim is to reframe disability, in the cultural sector and beyond.
It is important to remember that gaining, or coping with an impairment is often just part of life. It’s not always something that should be viewed as a tragedy and for many determined disabled creatives, it’s not seen as a barrier to working in the cultural sector at any level. Jo sums up the current development, and how things are going to continue to change for the better going forwards: “[For people outside of our community], it’s about seeing disability in a more rounded way, and getting everyone to accept that they are the ones who need to remove barriers and make adjustments to include all. Unlimited is part of a global shift to use the arts as a way to ensure this happens. We’ve waited long enough.”
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