Agnes Fletcher, an expert in the field of disability equality, law and practice, was a trustee of Shape Arts for 6 years in the 2000s. As part of Shape Arts’ 40th Anniversary celebrations, Agnes spoke to Georgia Macqueen Black about her 25 years of experience on disability issues and her personal connection to the Disability Arts Movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Georgia Macqueen Black: I wondered if you could tell me about your journey building a career as a disabled person. Do you have any positive experiences of particular employers? And do you have any of your own memories of disabled people who have felt supported and recognised during their time at Shape?
Agnes Fletcher: It was a great pleasure for me to be a trustee at Shape for six years. I enjoyed being part of a crucial and creative organisation working to promote disabled people’s access to the arts.
I have worked on disability issues for almost all of the 25 years of my working life and with some fantastic colleagues, disabled and non-disabled. A sense of shared values and purpose is a wonderful motivator. I have found working in the sector mostly very positive as someone with physical and mental health impairments. I had lots of brilliant employers. I suppose I would single out two.
Rachel Hurst, who was my first disabled employer and first employer on disability issues. Rachel is and was a powerhouse of activism, influence and inspiration. She introduced me to the social model of disability, which changed my life forever. The second was the Disability Rights Commission, where I worked for six years. It was a non-departmental public body. We were sort-of civil servants. It was an effective organisation and an inclusive employer – 40 per cent of the staff at all levels were disabled people. That’s four times as many as the proportion of disabled people working overall.
Those six years were incredible. There were resources. There was the impetus to promote and enforce the Disability Discrimination Act as successive parts of it came into force. There was the excitement of promoting the idea that disability equality is good for everyone and that it should be central to law, policy, the economy and culture.
Georgia Macqueen Black: Although this might go against common opinion, I actually think disabled people can perform better and be far more resilient than people often expect. I wonder if you could speak a bit more about your work to achieve disability equality in the public sector. Do organisations need a lot of persuading about the potential of disabled employees? Are there any lessons or anecdotes you learnt as a Trustee of Shape that you’ve applied to your work as an expert on Equality?
Agnes Fletcher: I think disabled people – and it’s not a term for various reasons that everyone chooses to use about themselves – are endlessly diverse. Like anyone, we can be more or less resilient, vulnerable, overbearing, shy, selfish or altruistic at different times in our lives. That said, the experience of managing barriers, indifference, aggression can mean that some people develop particular strengths and useful strategies that apply elsewhere in their lives.
Each of us has strengths and weaknesses that vary over time and according to the support around us, the people close to us, the opportunities that we meet. Perhaps like you, I have the sense that I’ve battled on, making an effort to stay in work, make as big a contribution as I can in circumstances where perhaps others without the experience of impairment in their early life might not.
But I’m also very aware of my own privileges as a disabled person – with lots of support from family and friends, good employers and a decent income. It’s in every employer’s interest to create the culture, processes and systems to support everyone to give of their best.
Georgia Macqueen Black: Why do you think art and creativity has such close links with the experience of being disabled?
Agnes Fletcher: I know growing up that, like many children and adolescents, I felt “different”. Like lots of people, whether because of ethnic background, sexual orientation or appearance, there was a secret, at the time, shameful part of me that I didn’t see represented either at all or in a neutral or positive way in mainstream culture.
I think although our experiences of ill health or disability can seem isolating and individual, there is strength to be drawn from “being heard” through the art we produce and from finding resonance with our own experiences and feelings in the ways others find to make sense of the world through art. Of course, art is more than this representation of lives but I think this is perhaps a dimension that is relevant.
Georgia Macqueen Black: Tony Heaton, the current CEO of Shape, explained the ‘Pure Disability Art’ movement of the 1980s/90s as a place ‘where politics and art were fused together and there was a clear purpose to get Civil Rights’. What are your memories of distinctly political pieces of artwork from the Disability Arts Movement?
Agnes Fletcher: The 1980s and 1990s were an incredibly exciting time politically and in disability arts. Whether it was Johnny Crescendo singing protest songs or David Hevey’s photographs ‘The Creatures That Time Forgot’ or his productions for the BBC’s Disability Programmes Unit, there was a richness of output that fused politics and art in a way that galvanised action and made people feel a part of a larger whole.
Georgia Macqueen Black: Do you think the arts and culture sector has been more accepting than the public sector in recognising disabled people’s contribution as worker and employees? If so, why?
Agnes Fletcher: I’m not sure about this. Certainly, there is a higher proportion of disabled people working in the public sector than the private sector. I don’t have a view on the arts and culture sector specifically. It may be that it is more open to different ways of getting a job done and on the cultural case for diversity – but this is a supposition, not based on fact.
Georgia Macqueen Black: What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far in changing policy towards the social model of disability?
Agnes Fletcher: I think it’s everything that I was part of at the Disability Rights Commission. It was a privilege to work with such a diverse range of wonderful people.
Georgia Macqueen Black: Can you tell me more about your early experiences protesting as part of the Disability Rights Movement?
Agnes Fletcher: I had a wonderful time. It was exciting, euphoric at times. The camaraderie, the sense of smashing stereotypes and demonstrating the power of disabled people on direct action demos was amazing. I remember sometimes passers-by just pausing with their mouths open when they saw 15-20 disabled people on the ground, stopping the traffic, some of them handcuffed to buses.
Georgia Macqueen Black: Is there a specific memory of this period that relates to the difficulty of changing people's attitudes towards the disabled and disability rights?
Agnes Fletcher: I think my big regret is that it’s become clear how dependent we are on the prevailing political and economic climate for lasting change. The 2000s saw a huge move forward in understanding that what works for disabled people is beneficial for everyone. At the moment, everyone feels less secure for various reasons. Benefit cuts and the rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ have a greater purchase.
Georgia Macqueen Black: If you could predict one big achievement for Shape in the next 40 years, what would it be? More disabled leaders in the arts and culture sector? Or a huge arts event produced by Shape, such as an exhibition at the Tate Modern about disabled art?
Agnes Fletcher: I’d like to think that Shape will be supporting and promoting disabled artists and access to the arts for many years to come – and that through its influence many more major arts organisations will ensure that disability equality is an integral part of what it means for them to be successful. Good luck, Shape!
To support Shape's 40th Anniversary campaign and ensure their work continues to make positive change, please visit here or contact them with Shape memories, images and stories of your own via firstname.lastname@example.org.