DaDaFest's two-day International Congress on Disability & Human Rights was one of the best events I’ve attended. It brought together some amazing talented disabled people from within and beyond the UK.
Arriving late on day one, I stumbled up the auditorium steps (no hand rail) during a presentation that worried me so much I’m keeping quiet. Suffice it to say that charity is alive and well and doubtless always will be.
For where you see oppression you will find opportunities.
Once upon a time professional and volunteer do-gooders were recognizable by their Liberty paisley. Since learning the social model lingo they’re more incognito.
Congress day two was ably chaired by Liz Carr and Mandy Colleran. These two home-grown, funny disabled women are super-stars in my opinion. Both are naturally weird and witty. They’ve been making me laugh for two decades. I hope they never stop.
The debate about who should lead disability arts organizations - disabled people or the other sort - was a bit of a distraction and could have turned nasty. Some useful issues were raised, however, and it gave me the chance to congratulate DAO’s editor on his leadership skills.
Simon Raven said: What an awful word ‘disabled’ is.
He has a point. It rhymes with labeled. He continued: Winston Churchill was a leader; he was disabled due to mental health issues.
Terry Galloway from the USA was a huge hit. She co-founded the Mickee Faust Club in Florida, a non-profit theatre company for the queer, disabled, minority community teaching writing, performing and production. Please, I want to go there.
Chris Smit from Grand Rapids USA is something else. He’s convinced that disability art can change perceptions of disability. He could be right.
The biggest barriers stopping disabled people going about their business are non-disabled people's (negative) thoughts and perceptions on disability. The roots of oppression grow deep.
20 years ago disability equality training was the way (we thought) to bring about systemic change. I still have the overhead transparencies making it crystal clear what the problems were.
But whatever happened to all their action plans, I wonder.
I think the only way for disabled people to change perceptions is, perhaps paradoxically, not to go out of our way to change minds or thinking, but to go about doing what we do. Find a way and just do it.
Pointing out the problems to non-disabled people is a time-consuming distraction, it turns out. By itself awareness rarely, if ever, leads to action.
Because most of the time the action needed is for other people to stop it. Stop staring, stop sneering, stop being greedy, thoughtless and selfish. And stop being stupid.
Yet the system encourages all these traits. So good luck!
I’m not going to dis the DisArt (though I hate the title) festival in Michigan. It might make a lasting impact on the local townsfolk. They’ve got until April to flatten the pavements and fill the voids in expectations and understanding. Hey, The Mayor’s on board! (Their mayors have more mileage than ours, which isn’t saying much, but I admit it’s a start.)
I didn’t hear anyone at DaDaFest claiming to want to change either the whole world or their tiny bit of it. Simply doing the show, getting people there, was an achievement. The achievement.
That DaDaFest 2014 was a success is due to the incredibly hard work and determination of a few people who were crazy and committed enough to create a space for disabled artists to do and celebrate their stuff.
No apology, no gratitude, and for no reason higher than just wanting to, because we can, and because we’re bloody well going to.
Because we have something to say. Or maybe we don’t. Who cares!
Look, the world isn’t asking (never mind demanding) for more inclusion and better access for disabled people. If we want it, we have to take it.
More crips on television, eg the Paralympics, hasn’t changed anything. Disability equality isn’t even a sideshow any more.
However, if anyone can stop DisArt becoming a peep/freak-show, gawp-fest or non-event that the folk-in-the-street don't know or give a shit about, that man is Smit. He’s smart, he's articulate, and he has friends. People seem to listen to him.
But has he got a gun?
This poem was inspired by the picture on the right.
The picture was inspired by a recent DaDaFest poetry event where I experienced problems processing the performance, because of the large screen that showed very powerful images, against an accompaniment of classical music.
At one point I had to close my eyes so that I could hear the poems.
This might have concerned me less had I not been asked to write a review of the performance. Sitting down to write the review, I was faced with a near-blank recollection of the poetry.
I’m not claiming to be any kind of genius, but the reason for my problem, I think, is that my right and left brains are well-connected. That is, I do words and pictures equally.
However, the whole left and right brain thing turns out to be rubbish.
But politics is a right-left issue that is still fairly current. Or is it?
Here’s the poem.
Choose right or leftOverkill is expectedwhen two entitiesthat are separate yetwell-connectedare made to choosebetween oppositesthat are otherwiseequal in all respectsestrangementfrom silenceis upsettingI miss herin springwhen the morningwind nibbles my earlobesand puffs at my lashesmy tastebudsand fingernails gaspat the cloudsabove and beyondlife's fleeting horizonthe mind is one world ina two-handed hold onwords that demand adeep understanding toknow it's true meaningmeanwhilethe eye delightsand sighsat the night time sightsthe heart suppliesthat signon the rightlooks invitingit mightbe salvationbeckoningfrom behind the glow inthat bright green greeting
After a lifetime of political and organisational activity and activism, I'm reconnecting, touching base with the basics, giving proper attention to art at last, becoming an artist.
Being an artist.
By the way, why do I need to keep announcing this? I first did it 15 years ago. This has to stop. Just do it!
So I'm here at DaDaFest 2014 and I've been listening and watching; enjoying a kind of immersion in other people's experiences and ideas, exposure to different ways and other worlds. There's so much art being created. Finding out about it is an emotional experience, as well as educational.
Becoming aware of the diversity and quality of arts practice and activism happening around the world, as well as here in the UK, has amazed and affected me.
And shocked me.
Disabled artists from Uganda were here. Astonishing, given that most Ugandan disabled children are rejected and neglected. Access to education, aids and equipment is extremely rare. Hostility towards disabled people is overt; exclusion is endemic and entrenched and no one apologises.
In Cambodia the situation for disabled people is appalling, we heard. It's a place where the choice between rights or charity doesn't apply. It's charity or nothing.
Meanwhile, back in the UK ...
At yesterday's Disability Culture and Human Rights Congress there was a motion proposing that only disabled people should be leaders in disability arts. The motion was carried, but more than a third of attendees voted against.
Questions of leadership styles and skills weren't raised in the debate, only afterwards, privately. In secret, as it were. Leadership in the disability rights movement is an issue that's rarely exposed to the light of honest discussion, in my experience.
During the debate I spoke briefly about power and control in organisations. The key questions are, who makes the big decisions, what is the decision making process, whose voice is being heard and whose views and experiences are being articulated.
I didn't say this: The key question about a decision or action taken by people in power is, in whose interest?
I did say this: Nothing about us without us.
I felt a lot of warmth and friendliness around me at the Congress.