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4 December 2009

photo of an oblong piece of paper, one of hundreds, suspended high in the air from a wire Jon Adams

Jon Adams suspended hundreds of fragments from rail timetables across the Dome foyer. Photo by Jon Pratty/dao

Image: Jon Adams

Accentuate was launched on 3 December 2009 at the Dome, Brighton with a sparkle of disability arts excellence from South-East-based performers and artists. The International Day of Disabled People marked 1000 days to go until the Paralympics.

Accentuate is an ambitious programme of 15 projects to be launched in the South East over the next three years. The idea behind the programme is to engage with the South East's heritage as the birthplace of the Paralympic Games, to create a legacy which ensures disabled people have the potential to be among tomorrows’ cultural leaders.

AMI Award winners Signdance Collective were there, entertaining the troops with a development of Here, one of the dance pieces that features in Dances for a Lost Traveller. I am sure we will see a lot more of Signdance during the Accentuate programme. They excel in making work for outdoor spaces, interacting with their audiences; using dance for camera and live film as part of the dynamic of their performances.

Signdance Collective were performing under a Jon Adams installation. Jon gave the Dome a Christmassy feel with rows of what looked like decorative bunting arranged across the ceiling. The tinsel-like strands, which were hung in rows, were each a single fragment of a railway timetable charting various journeys the artists had made.

It is a very Jon Adams thing to do, to make something aesthetically pleasing which is layered with obscure references. You don’t necessarily need to get the ideas behind his objects to appreciate what he makes. However the ideas are nonetheless strangely compelling. Jon will be evaluating the Accentuate process with creative responses to some of the developments. So I am looking forward with anticipation to following his efforts on dao.

a male performer dressed in black lies on a white floor surface, his hands around his head photo (c) Jon Pratty/dao

Signdance Collective performed 'Here' at the Accentuate launch. Photo (c) Jon Pratty/dao

Image: photo (c) Jon Pratty/dao

Project Artworks had a piece of film work on show titled Sensory Soundings. It was a dramatic and lively piece of work which looked at how a group of people with neurological impairments experienced the cavernous and difficult architecture posed by a visit to Fort Brockhurst, an English Heritage site in Gosport. The installation was highly charged emotionally, presenting a unique disability perspective on the world.

I understand that Project Artworks will be working with an Accentuate project being led by English Heritage entitled Creative Landscapes. This is another exciting development which promises some rewarding work in the pipeline.

Somewhere in the cloisters of the Brighton Dome visual artist Rachel Gadsden was making a live action painting responding to what was going on. There were also some huge posters for Accentuate made by Caroline Cardus. The design has a 1930s feel to it. It subtly asks the question about whether or not we are entering a new era in which impairment is no longer seen as a drawback or a lack of something.

Aside from the artwork on show at the event, the main thrust of the day was an introduction to some of the work in the programme, followed by a debate about disability, identity and what it would take to change the value of disabled people in societies’ eyes.

Accentuate aims to create a cultural shift in the way society views disability. There is a lot of exciting work on the agenda. Amongst the 15 projects, Dada-South will be delivering a series of showcasing opportunities for Disabled and Deaf artists. Youth Screens will be a gateway for young Disabled and Deaf people from the South East to share their stories and ideas through screen Media. Creative Landscapes will be explore new and creative approaches to increasing access to the historic environment.

At the heart of it all is a will to engage with young people to ensure that the legacy lives on. One project is dedicated to designing new, inclusive, interactive games, which will no doubt be a winner. However I think there will be big challenges for all the Accentuate project partners. I doubt all the partners have an understanding of the barriers that will be encountered in bringing young people on board - not least the unwillingness of large numbers of young disabled people to identify as being ‘disabled.’

I know this barrier intimately - having worked on developing disability arts culture in the South East for nearly ten years. Why should young – or older people for that matter – be cool with the idea of being ‘disabled’ when the word is so linked with the notion of worthy, tragic but brave causes. It just isn’t considered sexy!

artwork showing a series of cogs including a wheelchair symbol Caroline Cardus

Accentuate poster artwork by Caroline Cardus

Image: Caroline Cardus

Definition and disability identity are key issues – and ones which the debate encompassed. Chaired by Radio and Television presenter and journalist Jill Cochrane - the debate revolved around questions to the panel on how they thought influence might happen? How will Accentuate change the perception of disabled people from one of pity to one of ‘being equal?’ If there is to be change how is it possible to measure that cultural shift in attitude?

Taking part on the panel were film and television actor Mat Fraser, visual artist Caroline Cardus, television drama producer and director Ewan Marshall, and Paralympic athlete Danny Crates.

Danny emphasised the Paralympics as an opportunity to put disability at the forefront and show people what disabled people can achieve at the highest levels of professional engagement. He went on to say that “The general public understand that Paralympians are full-time professional sports people and are fully supportive of our achievements.”

Ewan followed on with a comment about how good the media coverage of the Paralympics is in UK in comparison to the US. He recalled watching a television debate with a mix of disabled and non-disabled athletes talking about the merits of disabled runners wearing one or two blades. The Paralympics are taken seriously by the media.

Caroline Cardus suggested that Jimmy Carr’s recent jokes – no matter how bad taste - about Paralympians and disabled soldiers, shows that disability culture and popular culture are no longer mutually exclusive. It was talked about a lot within the press but there was a complete lack of critical debate. Nobody in the media dissected what happened from a disability perspective. There still needs to be a massive change in understanding what the disability perspective is; what it is that makes us unique and our experience valuable?

There is a danger of conflict in agenda between arts and sports. As Ewan joked “Athletes tend to look good when they take their clothes off, so they tend not to be my favorite people.” Paralympians have a viable career, whereas few disabled actors are able to make a career from the profession.

Disability can be a confusing word. As Danny said most sports people would not say they are disabled. They would say that they achieve no matter what. But Paralympians aren’t ordinary people and it is difficult to measure the lot of the majority of people who are disabled by societies’ attitudes.

Mat followed up by talking about the importance of Paralympians talking about disabling barriers; how difficult it is for them to get to the training ground, or whatever the obstacles are.

Of course disability arts doesn’t have the same level of profile in the media as disability sports. Caroline talked about the need for new work that continues to engage society at eye level. We will only create demand by delivering something people want to see.

Mat went on to say he became a performing artist because he wanted to create art that life can imitate. He went on to say that “The majority of disabled people want to live an average life and be treated equally. That’s where the real challenge is. If we don’t want disability to slip off the agenda we have to ensure that organisations like Dada-South get the funding to commission artists to make work that holds up a message to society.”

There has been a shift though. Mat talked about tabling a motion in 1996 that put forward the rule that non-disabled actors should not be allowed to take on the roles of disabled characters in film and television. This was recently talked about it in the Guardian – and it’s clear that some bodies are taking it seriously.

Ewan Marshall said that he was recently rung by a producer from BBCs Grange Hill. They needed an actor with one arm – immediately. The producer admitted that he had written himself into a corner. He never thought the BBC would insist the part be played by a disabled actor – but they did.

Caroline went on to say that “for developing equality it is important that disabled people who are in the limelight talk about the barriers they have had to face to get where they are.” Disability doesn’t mean you can’t be as talented as anyone else – but it does often come with a price.

Mat joked that maybe the way forward might be to disable 10 per cent of the population of the UK. “It’s unlikely and perhaps a little unfair but it would wake people up.”

Measuring any cultural shift in attitudes is going to happen by looking at the amount of media attention that disability receives. It also depends on the quality of the attention. Most disability representation on television is still freak show stuff packaged as worthy documentary journalism. And it is mostly pretty voyeuristic and patronising.

two panelists at the launch of accentuate Sarah Pickthall

Mat Fraser and Danny Crates on the panel of the Accentuate launch debate. Photo (c) Sarah Pickthall

Image: Sarah Pickthall

The debate finished by the panel talking about what having an impairment meant to them. Most talked about it as a combination of help and hindrance in developing their careers.

When Ewan Marshall was 18 his surgeon told him his ambition to be an actor wasn’t a good idea, but that he would make a good radio operator for the police. He made an interesting point that “disability becomes such a major part of your life that it becomes hard to unpick what the differences are. Some barriers are self-inflicted and some are obvious barriers placed on you by society.”

For Mat his impairment has been the making of his – yet his agent still talks about the 5 auditions a month that Mat is not put up for because they don’t want a disabled actor.

Caroline talked about how her impairment had affected her education and the development of her career. Disabling barriers are still a big deal in the world of contemporary art galleries

Danny said quite categorically that impairment hadn’t been a hindrance for him. “When I had the accident I was offered the job of car park attendant. But if I hadn’t acquired a disability I would probably be up to my kneck in grease working as engineer.”

After the debate Culture South East Director Sarah Dance finished off the presentation by saying how strongly she felt that the capacity for new collaborations that the programme offers, will make Accentuate greater than the sum of its parts.

Personally I didn’t come away with a complete understanding of what the 15 projects are. Many of the descriptions of the projects are still fairly obscure and I guess those partners are still working out they are going to be able to deliver. However I couldn’t help but get caught up with excitement around what this programme is going to mean for the South East region.

Dao will be a part of making that shift happen; bringing disability culture to the forefront. We are doing it and it is working!

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