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2015: The year impairment issues returned to the fore

In thinking about my round-up of the highlights of 2015 there are several events that stand out and a changing climate, culturally and politically, which are having an impact on the evolving beast that is disability arts.

Last March, and for the third year running, SICK! Festival presented its increasingly influential showcase simultaneously in Brighton and Manchester. Branded as a festival that confronts the physical, mental and social challenges of life and death this years’ theme was sex and sexuality, abuse and suicide. 

One of the pieces that stood out for me was Sue MacLaine’s ‘Can I Start Again Please?’, which was commissioned by SICK! and launched at the festival. The show received much acclaim from the press and won a Total Theatre award during its run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Presented as a duo with Nadia Nadarajah mirroring MacLaine’s poetic script in BSL, the performance was like a Vermeer painting come to life and choreographed with delicate precision. A hymn to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of abuse, the piece reflects on the paucity of a useful language to articulate traumatic experience.

Also in March, the provocatively named Awkward Bastards conference produced by DaSh at the mac in Birmingham shed light on critical issues relating to the Arts and Diversity. There are no easy answers to the problematic of identifying with any single ‘characteristic’. “How do you fit content of character into a quota?” Skinder Hundal asked, echoing a general sense of disillusion with labelling one’s work or one's self as anything. Yet still the question remains of how to make the invisible corners of Art practice visible. 

Election night in May was made memorable by a performance by Jess Thom of Touretteshero’s, ‘Backstage in Biscuitland’. If you know Jess’s work you’ll know she has a unique capacity to improvise. Learning that “Nigel Farage is at home washing his tortoise” was actually an immense comfort in the face of the misery of the inevitable outcome of the vote.

Originally an R&D commission from Unlimited in 2014, ‘BIBL’ as it’s affectionately known on Twitter, went on to receive five star reviews at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the UK tour is set to extend until May 2016. In November Jess presented a version of the show for BBC4 as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Live from Television Centre broadcast and she got 3 million views on Russell Howard’s Good News on BBC Two. I had the privilege of interviewing Jess shortly before the airing on television.

In April Dao’s own Trish Wheatley and Alice Holland worked with Liz Crow during the production of her live performance piece 'Figures' highlighting the impact of austerity on our community.  Trish interviewed the artist and Alice blogged about her involvement with the project, illustrating the power of art as activism. Perhaps Disability Arts is not dead, but like the clay figures Crow made for her performance, has been crumbled to nothing, waiting to re-emerge?

In June, I went to see Sanchita Islam’s astoundingly beautiful artwork at Rich Mix in East London. Imagine some of the most popular artists from the history of Art collaborating on producing 25 foot long scrolls using ink and pen. You’ll find elements of Da Vinci, Bosch, Breugel, Dali and a myriad of others intricately hidden amongst a seamless cacophony of elaborate detail. Using the event to launch her book 'Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too' - published under the pseudonym Q S Lam. Despite falling into a medical-model approach, the artist presents a much-needed critique of psychiatry from a personal perspective.

Four months later and I’m still recovering from my week at the Edinburgh Festival. It was hugely enjoyable and I got to see loads of amazing work, but the high octane engagement necessary to cope with the city is not conducive for someone like me, coping with ME/CFS. This year we saw Unlimited take off at Edinburgh with a plethora of artists with Unlimited awards showcasing work as part of the iF Platform and the British Council showcase within the Fringe Festival. 

My most memorable encounter was with newcomer to Disability Arts, Rowan James. A part of StopGap's iF Platform, the spoken word performer’s 'It's Easy For You To Say' was not one of the most polished or well-staged pieces in the festival, but it certainly came across with the most passion; at turns humorous, engaging and biting when it came to making comment on the impact of ‘labeling’, serving as a critique of Disability Arts in a disabling world.

The year's 'Consumption Award' for theatre riddled with disabling stereotypes goes to 'Kill Me Now' at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Displaying the most abject humour it was an example of the kind of theatre that should be shot down as soon as it rears its vituperative head. Thankfully, the theatre director Jez Bond listened to disabled people's complaints and elected to commission work from within the sector later in the year. He programmed Deafinitely Theatre for a run of their piece 'Grounded' during November, reviewed by Dao’s new-ish recruit Joe Turnbull.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Williamson at the Shape gallery during a showing of the ‘furniture’ he’s created for his Demonstrating the World Unlimited commission. When the first outing of the live performance took place in November at the Experimentica Festival in Cardiff, Chloe Phillips gave it a considered response.

Choosing a blog post of the year is tricky. There have been so many erudite, funny or touching posts from all the artists using Dao as a blogging platform. But I think the question that Sophie Partridge raised again about the emphasis on impairment rather than disability, which has been a hallmark of the work shown this year past, is something that needs further and deeper discussion.

There have been benefits. Much of what’s been shown has had a focus for attention on the creation of innovative access – partly down to some of the pioneering work done by Unlimited. Another of the Unlimited R&D Artists, Chloe Phillips was a real find. Her research into audio-description as part of the creation of a piece of work with Taking Flight theatre is going to result in some interesting if not hilarious theatre next year. 

From a small award, in part motivated by Jess Thom being refused entrance to theatres because of impairment issues, she has gone on to challenge theatre makers, directors and producers to think about the creative uses of ‘relaxed performance’. Backstage in Biscuitland has been an example of how art can be a real catalyst for change. 

On the other hand – in tandem with a plethora of performance and theatre that tells our stories of impairment – is a careering back to medical model language.

This year has seen an explosion of a return to the use of the tongue-twisting phrase ‘people with disabilities’. As though the Social Model never happened. As though we are forever doomed to be objects for scrutiny in the eyes of non-disabled people, defined as containers like Pandora’s Box – emblems of everything that’s wrong in the world. 

There was a clear end to what we saw as Disability Arts at the beginning of the 2000’s – a move from an activist phase of work that sought to challenge discrimination in a pro-active way, made by and for us. The last 15 years has seen the emergence of work looking to challenge perceptions and prejudices. In the last few years we’ve seen much professionally produced work with more money behind it to make it more presentable to wider audiences. But also there has been more of a sense of fragmentation and less of a sense of what Disability Arts is for. Disability Pride seems to have taken a fall before it even had a chance to raise its head. 

The issues Sophie raises need further questioning because we have entered a new phase. It hasn’t quite defined itself, but is marked by the closure of the ILF last June and the caps on Access to Work, which will continue to make it harder and harder for disabled people to continue paid employment. 

For Dao, we look forward to some much-needed improvements to the site next year. From the team, Trish, Joe, Alice and myself, we wish you all the best for the holiday season and look forward to engaging with you all again in 2016.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 December 2015

Last modified by Joe Turnbull, 18 December 2015

Embracing the taboos of ageing and death with Sheila Hill

Sheila Hill’s Him was a favourite in the Unlimited showcase at Summerhall in Edinburgh earlier this year. Aside from the quality of the work as a piece of art, the content seemed relevant to me, personally, partly because the panoply of impairment issues I deal with on a daily basis are steadily presenting new challenges as time goes by.  

Choreographed into short sections ‘Him’ is a portrait of actor Tim Barlow meditating on life in older age.  The short film combines the warmth and engagement of theatre with the fineness and subtlety of the visual arts.

It cuts against the grain of cultural preconceptions about ageing, presenting Barlow’s take on things in a natural and seamless series of head-shots. By observing the face from the perspective of a landscape, ‘Him’ seems to transcend age.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Hill’s follow-up film with Hugo Glendinning on camera. Glendinning’s images of disability theatre and dance will surely be the most enduring photographic record of the movement over the last 20 years or so, given their quality and dynamism.

Shown during a panel discussion on Men and Ageing in the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival, Him II takes some of the conventions in the first piece and extends the themes. As contemplation on ageing and death the film is a reassuring piece of work: a reminder that you get out of life what you put into it.

The piece strikes a series of dissonant tones, contrasting images of Barlow dancing to Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ with reflections on parental relationships and his first major encounter with death at the age of five.

Do any of us ever really grow up? Or decide who we want to be when we grow up? Him II caused me to reflect on what I’d like to do with the time spent in the country where Older people, live.

When I was younger I always imagined that it would be unlikely I’d reach a retirement age given the fragility of the circumstances I found myself in. And yet now I’m well into my 50s it seems sensible to plan for what I could be doing, given the likelihood of reaching my 70s.

Themes from the first film are taken further philosophically forcing the viewer to engage with silence through a series of frames in which we watch Barlow, watching himself, in the moment. Counter-intuitive, Him II turns the convention of film as escapism on its head and – for a short while at least – asks the viewer to contemplate the here and now.

But more than anything I loved the idea of being a ‘happy dancer’ to coin the term of an elderly member of the panel at the Southbank Centre who talked about dancing with Amici and Entelechy Dance companies.

A warm slice of Barlow’s personality shines through in the dance scenes. I think I know what I want to do when I grow up, now.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 2 December 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 December 2015

The Live Art Development Agency launch a book and DVD of Katherine Araniello's 'Dinner Party Revisited'

Image - katherine_araniello_dinner_party_revisted.jpg

There are only a few days left to view Katherine Araniello’s ‘Dinner Party Revisited’ on the Live Art Development Agencies ‘LADA Screens’ platform. The audio-described version of the Dinner Party Revisited is a good example of using creative description to add another layer within a work of art  - taking it beyond documentation and allying with the performance’s intention to use humour to convey subversive ideas.

The describer comes alive as another ‘invisible’ guest at the party, using her role to add nuances in describing the interactions between the host Katherine, her butler, the PA and the BSL interpreter. As the party unfolds, Katherine and the butler invite their ’guests’ , a series of on-screen incarnations of Katherine; conceptual portraits of disabled people.

LADA who have been producing Katherine’s work have launched a book of essays about Katherine’s work with a DVD of the live art piece, which was originally staged in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre a year ago. Sophie Partridge described the Dinner Party Revisited as “slapstick, served up with hints of past comedy genius: touches of a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore style interplay between Katherine and `the PA’!”

Mik Scarlett also reviewed the piece in the Huffington Post as: “an anarchic art performance with a serious heart. While the audience laughs as the show rushes forward at break neck speed we unconsciously find our preconceptions and stereotypes challenged by references to the real day to day experiences of disabled people. Each nightmare 'guest' is a hideous caricature of people every disabled audience member knows all too well. No one is safe. Paralympians, disability activists, professional victims, charity loving celebs…”

In an interview, Unlimited producer Jo Verrent “loved the audacity of Katharine Araniello’s piece, The Dinner Party Revisited. It’s political, in your face, raw, edgy live art.”

A 46 min edit of the AD version of the film will be live until midnight on 23rd September on the LADA Screens channel.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 September 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 20 September 2015

Disability Arts is dead! Long live Disability Arts...

In a recent Guardian blog theatre critic Lyn Gardner quotes the late Chinese Communist leader, Mao Zedong: “Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, no matter how progressive they are politically.”

Gardner goes on to talk about ‘quality’ in relation to Disability Arts, specifically Learning Disability Arts and the Creative Minds conference, which took place in Bradford recently. Posted on the Dao FB group. It provoked a fair bit of response from a few Disability Arts old-timers, asking what Disability Arts? And what 'quality'?

Disability Arts as was died over a decade ago with little sign of a younger generation of disabled people picking up the mantle. For a time from the early noughties there was a concerted effort to improve inclusive education and to remove barriers to an arts education for disabled students.

But in the last five years there have been increasing barriers to arts education generally. According to the recent Warwick Commission report on the Future of Cultural Values, between 2003 and 2013 there was a 50% drop in GCSE entries for design and technology, 23% for drama and 25% for other craft-related subjects. 

We have seen investment in the Disability Arts sector slowly whittled away over the last 15 years. The report goes on to to say that disabled people are largely invisible within the arts both as creatives and as consumers: “Only 1.6 per cent of artistic staff, 2.8% of managers and 3.9% of Board Members within the 2012–15 National Portfolio Organisations and Major partner museums consider themselves disabled.

Not surprisingly the value of the idea of organisations and projects being disabled-led has all but disappeared. We’ve seen a rise in a few individual disabled arts practitioners finding a place within the mainstream, but largely Disability Arts as an expression of our experience of disability and what it means to live in a disabling society has disappeared.

Unlimited is one of the few remaining initiatives commissioning work of artistic quality whilst holding on to a vestige of the political intent that Disability Arts set as a challenge to the discriminatory values of non-disabled society. And it appears Unlimited within its limited capacity, is having some effect. 

For over a decade I’ve complained year on year of the lack of programming of disabled artists in Brighton Festival. But this year with Ali Smith as Guest Artistic Director, there is record amount of performing and visual arts being programmed - and no pro-assisted suicide theatre, which the Brighton Fringe has showcased, in recent years.

This year, Unlimited 2012 award-winner Claire Cunningham is bringing a new show to Brighton Festival. ’Give me a reason to live’ commemorates the lives of the disabled victims of the Nazis Aktion T4 program and of those who have died under the austerity measures of current UK government’s ‘welfare reform’.

One of the rising stars from Unlimited 2014, Jess Thom, is also taking her riotous show 'Backstage in Biscuitland' to the Brighton Dome’s Studio Theatre. StopGap Dance are appearing in the Without Walls programming and Outside In have also been invited to present a showcase as part of HOUSE.

The politically driven Disability Arts movement of the 80s and 90s was, thank goodness, significantly devoid of work with ‘artistic quality’, that is If you measure 'quality' by 'what's made it' within the judgement of the likes of the Guardian. How many Damien Hirst’s or Jake and Dino Chapman's creating acclaimed masturbatory artworks, do we need?

I got involved with Disability Arts because it was about art that was about real life, not dull concepts full of cynicism and devoid of imagination. The question is, where do we go next?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 26 April 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 27 April 2015

Highlights of 2014: with thanks to DaisyFest, Together, Unlimited and DaDaFest

Firstly I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all Dao’s readers and contributors. Last year we got out and about a fair bit, spreading the word about the disabled artists who engage with the disability arts sector through being a part of events, over and above the usual work we do of reporting on events and supporting artists through networking.

Firstly last June there was DaisyFest in Guildford, which featured two of Dao’s writers Penny Pepper and Allan Sutherland. Both Penny’s intimate Lost in Spaces - a poetic, musical journey through a personal history of the Disability Arts Movement and Allan’s extract from Neglected Voices: Proud were examples of the importance of persisting to assert the human rights element of our art form.

Later that month I gave a presentation of Dao's work at the Senseability conference organised by Tanvir Bush at Bath Spa University. It was a great pleasure to talk about some of the work we’ve featured over the last 10 years and explain something of Dao’s role to assist in facilitating networks and to support emerging disabled writers and artists through our blogs and our programme of commissioning writing on the arts and disability.

Last August Dao was invited to host another poetry event at Together! in Newham, where Wendy Tongue and Bonk Bipolar took to the stage with elements of the craft they’ve been developing through their respective blogs on Dao. There was further endorsement of their talent with invitations for further performances and workshops with the grassroots disability arts organisation.

On 3 September we ran Perceptions of Difference - a poetry event at the Saison Poetry Library in programmed to coincide with the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Having had a longstanding connection with Survivors’ Poetry, it was a fantastic achievement for me personally to introduce four poets who’ve been cornerstones of the movement: Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee and Frank Bangay.

Head Librarian Chris McCabe said of the event: “It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.”

It has been an ongoing pleasure to be a named media partner for Unlimited. Dao was the seventh top referral to the Southbank Centre’s website during the festival from 2-7 September, not accounting for the drive we did through our social media and weekly bulletin.

As the Unlimited programme develops through 2015/ 16 we will see new and further embedded partnerships beginning to ensure the programmes’ influence grow beyond London showcasing disabled artists creating extraordinary work.

It was great to see many of the artists given a platform at DaDaFest who are also an Unlimited partner. Last December the festival featured one of the main commissions Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged, plus several of the research and development projects: notably Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero with Backstage in Biscuit Land, Ailís Ní Ríain  with her extraordinary cross art form Hieronymous Bosch-influenced The Drawing Rooms, and Kazzum Theatre’s promenade performance piece Where’s My Nana  

DaDaFest was particularly memorable for the International Congress that was a major part of the programme, bringing disabled artists from across the globe, to coincide with the International Day of Disabled People.

A quote from mainstream freelance writer Bella Todd who we engaged last year to help us spread the word about Unlimited to the wider press sums up something of our aspiration to keep going in 2015:

“Many national, international and mainstream publications would envy the scale, quality and consistency of community engagement Disability Arts Online fosters on both its main website and through its social media channels.

Its writers, bloggers and readers (among whom there's an important degree of crossover) engage in an ongoing discourse that's at once supportive, argumentative, personal, politicised and teeming with individuality. That's no mean editorial feat. The quality and breadth of the debate will always make Dao pertinent and provocative reading for the wider world.

As a platform for giving a community a powerful, purposeful yet individuated voice, it's also a site to which more media outlets and organisations could do with paying attention.

We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. We are under threat from measures designed by people in power who really basically don’t have a clue. Let’s come together and use Dao as  platform to get our voices heard and to challenge top-down ignorance

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 January 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 12 January 2015

Looking back: 2014 has been a mix of triumph and devastation for Disability Arts

Firstly I’d like to extend my condolences to Richard Longstaff’s family at this time. His loss last summer, as a result of cancer was a big blow to me personally. I could see a book of poetic reminiscences of growing up in a rural Northern village emerging from his poetry blog. It was a joy to work with him and he is sorely missed.

2014 has been an eventful year for us here at Disability Arts Online. There have been lots of highlights but I’ve been particularly pleased about getting out and about more - taking Dao on the road, as it were. Getting involved in being a part of arts events as well as reporting on them has been a rewarding way of providing opportunities for the artists who engage with Dao.

Dao has always been about providing a space for disabled artists putting their art into a public arena for the first time alongside established disabled artists. Dao is more than just a website, so it was great to talk about what we do as an innovator in the arts, giving a potted history of Dao as part of Bath Spa Universities' Senseability Festival. 

I’d especially like to thank John Kelly and Karl Newman of DaiSyFest. Last June they invited us to produce a poetry event at G-Live in Guildford. The captivating Penny Pepper performed an extract from her poetic memoir Lost in Spaces with riveting cello accompaniment from Jo Cox.

Allan Sutherland took to the stage with a selection from the transcription poetry cycle Proud: from the words of Jennifer Taylor. I think all of us, Allan included, were stunned by the power of Jennifer’s voice rising through the poetry to describe a fierce determination in the face of appalling discrimination. It’s one thing to read through the cycle from 'Neglected Voices' as they were published on Dao, but another to hear the words in performance. It was made all the more moving by Jennifer’s contribution to the q+a after the reading.

Both Penny and Allan progressed through the year following DaiSyFest with performances at Together in Newham along with other Dao writers/ poets Wendy Tongue, John O’Donoghue and Bonk

It was great to get more continuity with a successful application for a slot; Perceptions of Difference in the Saison Poetry Library on the Southbank, which fortuitously we were able to fit into the Unlimited Festival. In putting this event together I came full circle as my roots in Disability Arts came through having worked initially with Survivors’ Poetry from the early 90s. We programmed two of the poetry groups’ founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay alongside two other important poets/ writers within Survivors’ Poetry’s history, Debjani Chatterjee and John O’Donoghue.

What can I say about Unlimited. I think Shape and Artsadmin have done a terrific job overall. Applications will be foremost in many artists’ minds over the coming holiday and from the interview I did recently with Tony HeatonIt will be extremely competitive due to the far-reaching success of the festival at London's Southbank Centre. We did a massive job of reporting on as much of Unlimited as possible and thanks go to Bella Todd who we commissioned with a brief to get as much copy into other publications as possible.

There have been some massive successes coming out of this years’ Unlimited: the three that spring to mind are the extensive tours by the poet Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged and the performer Jess Thom's Touretteshero plus the Vacuum Cleaner’s Madlovewhich has been commissioned by FACT in Liverpool with a big development in partnership with the University of Liverpool.

Like Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities performance at the Science Museum (amongst other places) in London earlier this year, Lost in Spaces reflects on the history of our movement. I hope we see more art and performance in 2015 on this level. Disability Arts is fragile and like all historical accounts, vulnerable to a sleight of hand. It’s important that we have control over how our stories are told, so I’m looking forward to developments with NDACA (National Disability Arts Collection and Archive).

Ann Wade, Ruth Gould and their team at DaDaFest in Liverpool deserve a special mention for providing the most powerful highlight. It was the international element of DaDaFest that brought into context so much about the work Dao does as a networking organization that pulls people and ideas together.  

Listening to Leroy Moore eulogising about Krip-Hop Nation as a global force: “we, not I”, performing with Ronald Muwanga who talked about the oppression of disabled people in Uganda. We heard a rousing talk from Chris Smit who is taking elements of Art of the Lived Experiment to DisArt Festival in Chicago next Spring. And were treated to Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor exhibition, making connections with disabled artists from the Middle East. The lasting images that will stay with me were from Epic Arts dance performance of the before and after of the history of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge with the regimes’ Year Zero in 1975 in Cambodia. I hadn’t realised how much further than Hitler the dictator went. Even people needing glasses were considered too impaired to be worthy of life…

We live in precarious times. The forthcoming disbandment of the Independent Living Fund with a ridiculous promise from the Government that Local Authorities will step in and make provision, in the light of further announcements today of further incisive cuts to local services, means that for many of our talented artists who rely on ILF for PA support, there is a chasm opening.  Society, it seems, has been hoodwinked into turning its eye inwards, like a homunculus reflecting greed and self-interest at the expense of culture and civilisation.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 18 December 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 12 January 2015

Some reflections on DaDaFest International Congress 2014

Firstly, many thanks to Ruth Gould and her brilliant team at DaDaFest in Liverpool for inviting Dao to be a part of what must be one of the most important International Festivals of Disability Arts in the world. It was a powerful feeling to be part of a Congress of disabled artists from different parts of the globe coming together to share work, process, experience and ideas.

In the UK our sense of being part of a disability arts community has been fairly battered over the last decade or so with the disbandment of so many of our organisations and the whittling away of the values that were so strongly shared back in the 1990s.

One of the key things that DaDaFest 2014 gave us, aside from a reappraisal of the work that we’ve been so passionately committed to and the history of our movement over the past several decades, was a strong sense of how the messages of disabled peoples’ empowerment through the Arts, is trickling out to all quarters of the globe, to the Middle East and to Africa. It was fantastic that the British Council were able to bring representatives from the Middle East. And that artists Zahra AlDhamin from Saudi Arabia and Safiya AlBahlani from Oman whose artwork featured in Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor project, were also able to attend.

DaDaFest Chair Jane Cordell opened the Congress saying that “being disabled is being human, writ large”. Allan Sutherland gave the first speech about the journey so far, giving an impassioned critique of where we have come from as a movement and how we are slipping back in the UK with notions of disability access and disability rights being ever eroded in a backlash in attitude change prevalent as a direct result of the recession. We are living in difficult times. 

Allan reminded us of Jayne Earnscliffe’s ‘In Through the Front Door’ - an Arts Council publication about good examples of access in the visual arts first published in 1992. And how, incredibly wheelchair-users can no longer enter Arts Council’s main London office in through the front door, which carries with it a powerful symbolic message about the extent to which disability arts has failed in maintaining its relevance in the increasingly competitive climate of recent years as Arts funding becomes ever more difficult to procure.

Later during the Congress, Sir Peter Bazalgette Chair of Arts Council England gave an impassioned speech describing his sense of the value of disability arts within the context of diversity as a whole: “all forms of non-conformity are precious… for relevance and freshness of the arts”. He further advocated that the most potent arguments we can make are “by producing life-affirming art that carries important messages widely”. He implored disabled and deaf artists to apply for Arts Council funding, recognising the importance of our contribution and the will within Arts Council to fund work that advocates for social justice.

Our Art is so directly connected to our lived experience of a disabling society. And that is what makes it excellent. As Chris Smit, Director of DisArt Festival, Michigan succinctly put it; disability arts is a dialogue between personal experience and public expectation. As a global society we live within a cultural context where “we have been socialized to fear physical and mental difference. Disability is all too often painted with cultural representations in film, television and art, enshrouding us in “…mystery, pity, and confusion”.

And so it was disappointing and worrying that despite a strong presence at the Congress of representatives from Arts Council England that none of the local Liverpool-based National Portfolio Organisations were present. And only a smattering of mainstream venues and organisations were in attendance. 

And this despite the strong presence of British Council. Carole McFadden laid out the organisations’ strong agenda to support disability arts internationally. Having taken work from Unlimited to Brazil and Bahrain in 2013, they are now committed to a major disability arts festival in Qatar in March 2015. She encouraged disabled artists to apply for a further showcase next August and to submit details of work to their Disability Arts International website.

There were a host of presentations I could write about further here, but I think the talk that left the most indelible mark on me came from US Black writer and performer Leroy Moore, creator of Krip-Hop Nation and cofounder of Sins Invalid. He talked about ‘intersectionality’ and the need for disability culture and disability politics to widen its frame of reference to reach out beyond the narrow framework of ‘I’ to embrace ‘we’. 

Krip-Hop’s agenda is firmly rooted in social justice within a family of artists across the globe. His was a clear and passionate call for us to work together, to be critical in a bid for social change globally in recognising the human rights of disabled people.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 10 December 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

To define or not to define: the dirty 'disability' word

A stimulating discussion unfolded on Dao’s FB group last week in response to the Shape Open Exhibition, which was launched at Shape’s Gallery in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford last week.

The call-out for Shape’s annual Open Exhibition was for the third year opened out to disabled and to non-disabled artists specifically asking for work on the theme of [in]visible.

The question posed was whether Shape should be supporting work by artists who didn’t necessarily see themselves as disabled people?

When I got into Disability Arts in the 1990s there was a massive energy from disabled artists making work that was based on real-life situations. I was attracted by the fact that disabled artists were making work that had a correlation with the reality of stuff that happens in everyday life.

In the 1990s there was a swell of activism by disabled artists. Indeed Shape’s CEO Tony Heaton was at the centre of an agit-prop Art protest that received massive media attention.  Shaken Not Stirred had a knock-on impact on ITVs telethon and indeed that particular charity fundraiser defining disabled people as poor, needy objects of pity, was abandonned.

In the 1990s there was a lot of action by disabled people against the charities that are supposed to represent us, who largely – then as now – are very adept at playing the ‘worthy cause’ card to fundraise, but actually do little in the way of providing the kinds of services we actually need or to even employ disabled people within their workforce.

The Social Model defined ‘disability’ as the problem society has with accommodating anyone different from the ‘norm’; and it was key to a collective politicised will for change. Then around the year 2000 the climate went through a dramatic transformation.

The Disability Arts Movement had been very effective in drawing disabled people to it and creating opportunities for disabled people to take part. Disability Arts had largely been about disabled people entertaining other disabled people. In the 1990s there had been a thriving scene of Disability Arts cabaret, which gave disabled performers an opportunity to talk about discrimination. The DDA came in and the Capital Lottery Fund (with massive insistence from people like Paddy Masefield) had disability access provision enshrined into planning as a rule for any public building looking for money for new build or refurbishment.

Disability Arts was largely seen as Community Arts and key funding bodies like the Arts Council who had supported Disability Arts changed tack towards what was termed ‘excellence’ in the arts. And disabled-led organisations that had been incredibly effective in supporting and empowering disabled people were suddenly put into the position of having to think of ways to ‘mainstream’ the disabled artists they worked with, in order to survive. There was a bid to get curators and producers from wider arts organisations to recognise the ‘quality’ of the work that they were supporting.

Paul Darke saw the writing on the wall back in the late 90s when he wrote a dissertation called Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe He realised that the political will for Disability Arts to follow the Social Model and to subvert the idea of being ‘normal’, was being overturned by the idea of inclusion: that disabled people could become part of the fabric of society with a move towards an enlightened dismantling of the physical and attitudinal barriers backed by access provision.

And so a message went out that the job was done and the majority of disabled-led arts forums fell by the wayside. Shape has survived by stealth. Tony Heaton, Shape’s CEO, inspired by Adam Reynolds, saw the potential for Disability Arts to rise out of the ghetto and to take a more ‘mainstream’ focus. 

Part of Shape's aims are about getting the work of disabled artists into mainstream galleries and through programmes like Unlimited, supporting a new wave of Disability Arts that is focused on the Art and which perhaps expresses disability politics in more subtle ways. [Or less subtle, perhaps if you consider the recent Adam Reynolds bursary winner Carmen Papalia using the services of a brass band to announce his access needs.]

But there is another strain of thought of behind the principles of the Shape Open. There has always been a real difficulty in promoting the understanding that ‘disability’ is constructed by society. A significant number of disabled people have always resisted defining themselves as disabled people because of the stigma that comes with that identity. My own father, who is ageing rapidly and has become severely impaired, won’t see himself as a disabled person, because he sees it as ‘giving in’. He can’t be persuaded to use a wheelchair, because although it would obviously give him more independence and quality of life, he sees using a wheelchair as immediately defining him as ‘dependent’, as ‘less’ or as ‘other’.

And so by making the Shape Open available to disabled and non-disabled artists, there is an attempt by Shape to allow entry for artists who might define as disabled people, but are uncomfortable with framing their Art within that definition. By asking artists to respond to what [in]visible means to them, there is an opportunity to attract work that expresses what ‘disability’ means within a broad parameters and so at least to get people thinking about it.

Whatever you think of the idea of society becoming more inclusive and the agenda for inclusivity, it is perhaps the sole idea that remains – and that only in a very piecemeal way from what was a thriving movement. Unless there is a new surge of energy to organise and make some noise that rattles the cage of the status quo, then disabled peoples rights will continue to rapidly diminish, as they have done in the last four years.

By Colin Hambrook

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 27 October 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 October 2014

Should disability arts reflect society?

I very much see Dao as a bridge between the aspirations of the Disability Rights based, Disability Arts Movement of old and the current, confused notion of disability arts, which draws largely from the inclusion agenda, and seeks to encourage disabled artists to work professionally within the Arts.

Back in 1989 Allan Sutherland wrote an essay for DAIL Magazine ‘Disability Arts, Disability Politics’. He said “I don’t think disability arts would have been possible without disability politics coming first. Our politics teach us that we are oppressed, not inferior. Our politics have given us self-esteem. They have taught us, not simply to value ourselves, but to value ourselves as disabled people. 

Watching the Ian Dury biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll on tv the other night reminded me that Disability Arts, as a movement, emerged in part at least, from the anger of disabled people segregated into Special Schools and subject to intimidation, bullying and a pretty damn terrible education in equal measures. Disability arts was an outcry against the bid to isolate and to ‘cure’ us.

There has been more integrated education around for Disabled kids over the last 25 years. So the core of their relationship with the world is bound to have changed, but the voices of younger disabled people haven’t emerged as strongly. It’s not clear how that fundamental change has affected their experience, but I would suspect that their is less of a disability identity.

Meanwhile discrimination against our community, generally, is on the rise. The move to label, dismiss and demonise us as scroungers has been achieved by the media. Disabled people are dying with hardly a murmur of protest. Disability rights are being undermined left, right and centre, with the running down of the Access to Work Scheme, the dismantling of the Independent Living Fund; and doing away with Disability Living Allowance. 

As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: “And so it goes…” The dominant attitude now is that human life is measurable in terms of currency, not quality and as such, disabled peoples’ lives are at the bottom of the heap. 

In contrast the efforts of schemes like Unlimited seek to programme work by disabled artists, to create new work and to get it seen, discussed and embedded within the cultural fabric of the UK. This isn’t a politically-motivated move, nor is Unlimited about disability arts as a medium for telling issue-based stories, necessarily. It’s more about encouraging disabled people who are artists, to find a space for their work within the cultural fabric.

There are more disabled artists now, who are doing what they want to do in terms of making and performing the work they want to make, who don’t see themselves as part of a community, as such. There is a sense of them getting support from their disabled peers, but their aim is to make art that will be received by a wider audience than a disability audience. They’re doing what they want to do and using their experience to inform what they do.

As such I see what’s happening as a move to put impairment on a map where it is understood as a part of everyday experience, not something to be lamented. And surely disabled artists who are making work that talks about their experience with the intention of dispelling myths about being tragic but brave objects of fear and pity are doing something that is aligned to some of the intentions of the Disability Arts Movement of yesteryear?

But the question is how does one work as an artist in the fabric of a culture that detests any notion of human rights - and simply ignore it? For the arts to be in any way meaningful they surely have to reflect the realities of the society in which they’re produced? If not, what’s the point?

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction at the core of the oft-repeated mantra about ‘mainstreaming’ as if ‘good’ art means ‘popular’ art. If you would judge Art by whether or not it has changed the way people think, it’s probably true to say that the work has often been challenging and / or angry. I’m thinking in particular of movements like DaDaism and Surrealism and artists like Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud spent large periods of his life incarcerated in asylums and achieved minimal success as an artist within his lifetime. 

Artaud was possibly the most successful failure within the history of theatre. Without Artaud we arguably would not now have the idea of a physical theatre, or a performing arts that seeks to express ‘the body’ itself. Artaud’s battle cry was to rally against theatre that sought to ‘represent’ reality, rather than to present it, as it is, in its raw form.

And so maybe Unlimited, in looking forwards to an Art that addresses access creatively and seeks to innovate, also needs to look back at the lessons learned in the past if it seeks to reflect society?

Colin Hambrook

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 30 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 25 April 2016

Together! Pop-up Poetry Cafe in Newham host a Dao poets event

I’ve been working hard behind the scenes developing Dao’s performance poetry presence, applying to produce our own gigs and recommending Dao poets to other producers.

We did a gig last May at DAiSy Fest with Allan Sutherland and Penny Pepper. I'd like to extend a big thank you to the Together! Pop-up Poetry cafe at the amazing House Mill, on Three Mills Island, for hosting myself, Wendy Young and Bonk for an evening of poetry performance.

We performed in the cafe to 30-40 people, many of whom are regular part of Together’s ongoing programme of poetry workshops and performance managed by Sarah Hughes.

It is very impressive what Together! have nurtured in Newham with an ongoing free programme of events, which is as accessible as budgets allow. The Pop-up poetry event had Live captions and a BSL interpreter. I didn’t envy the job of Kris Pryer, particularly when it came to signing my own poetry, much of which is pretty dense, written in a visual, abstract language. Between poems I tell the stories behind the words, to illustrate how the imagery relates to lived experience of psychosis.

It was interesting to get feedback from Kris saying how important it was for the deaf people present to hear the stories in order to get where the poetry was coming from, as much of the words were difficult to translate. And it occurred to me how interesting it would be to work with a Deaf poet to create choreographed piece that fused BSL and English.

Wendy Young’s performance was gritty gut-wrenching stuff! Her words pour out with an equal measure of humour, compassion and cynicism for the kind of world and the kind of people we are supposed to emulate according the values we see in the media, in comparison with real people, and real lives, which are much more interesting and noteworthy. Wendy shines a light into some of the darkest, most unholy places with humour and humility.

Bonk did the final spot with his mate Paul who came along to play some guitar to accompany his raps and rhymes. Dressed as the Clown of Justice, complete with policeman’s helmet with blue flashing light, he presented an explosive set of poetry, talking about his experience of the mental health system. He ended the set with ‘Chameleon’ a raw, shocking evocation of his life story.

The song has an authenticity that sends tingles down your spine. Much of Bonk’s work talks about the benefit system and ATOS. ‘Are You Mad Yet?’ is another favorite, with a direct message on what’s happening politically, annotated by a catchy rousing chorus.

The reality is that the pressure on people with a history of mental health issues is growing steadily harsher. There were some very distressing stories that came through in conversation afterwards of loved ones who have committed suicide under strain of what is happening as the austerity measures hit the weakest, the hardest.

The disability community is under so much stress with the combination of media spin and benefit cuts and the kinds of ventures that Together and other community arts organisations, produce are essential lifelines - even if they have become so much harder to fund that ever before.

There’s more to come at the Southbank Centre during the first week of September. Dao has produced a ‘Special Editions’ event: ‘Perceptions of Difference’ at the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall on Wed 3 Sept 8-9.30 as part of Unlimited 2014. In collaboration with Survivors’ Poetry we’ve put together a celebration of the organisation with sets from two founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay as well as John O’Donoghue (former Chair) and Debjani Chatterjee (patron).

Together! are also producing a set for the Liberty Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London on 30 August, where you’ll have an opportunity to see the talented Wendy Young perform again.

On 11 October a further Outside In event is happening at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to celebrate World Mental Health Day

Watch this space for further news of poetry events being produced by Dao, and if you are interested in having your work promoted on Dao please get in touch with me, Colin Hambrook, via

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 23 August 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 23 August 2014

Vital Xposure produce one of their best productions yet with 'Let Me Stay', which has just received Unlimited funding

I am delighted that Julie McNamara and her company Vital Xposure have received an Unlimited award for Let Me Stay. I’ve known Julie a long time now – through thick and thin you might say. And I know her well enough to say that she puts everything into whatever she turns her attention to.

Let Me Stay is a treat. I saw Julie perform Let Me Stay in a makeshift theatre space – the sort of space that proves that you can make theatre anywhere, if you are good enough and committed enough to what you’re doing.

Okay, so it probably helped that Julie had loads of mates in the audience; so that when the stage lights stopped suddenly, she was able to improvise, calling out “somebody lend them 50p for the ‘leccy”, slipping into her mums character like a well-worn and much loved frock… or shoe, possibly. Let Me Stay involves lots of shoes.

Julie moves effortlessly between herself, her mum, and a massive cast of do-gooders, ne ‘er do wells and various motley bods.

The tempo is loud, brash and full of warmth and heart as Julie takes us into her mother Shirley’s world, before and after the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Let Me Stay lifts the lid off the taboo of Alzheimer’s and gently, good spiritedly confronts the audience with their fears to lead us into a humane space, undressing the nuts and bolts of being human and finding that when the mind unravels, yes there is darkness and despair, but there is poetry too.

If there was a weakness to the last round of Unlimited it was perhaps that much of the work was too ambitious and therefore too expensive for any but larger venues, like the Southbank Centre. This round will show a larger variety of performance for big and small venues.

Vital Xposure’s Let Me Stay engages with issues that affect people from all walks of life. It's great that the Southbank Centre is taking it, and the kind of family orientated audience you can expect there, will see it, but it has the potential to fit a range of types of theatre space and therefore to be seen by a host of different types of audience.

I’ve just found out that Let Me Stay has been selected for the PULSE festival on Thursday 5th June as well as for the ANXIETY festival running from May through June 2014. 

If you can get to see it, I'd thoroughly recommend it.


Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 April 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 January 2015

Colin discusses Unlimited asking can Art and politics be separated?

It seems to me as we enter deeper into the New Grim there is a need to question further what the role of Disability Arts is, currently. In a conversation with Mat Fraser recently we talked about why it is more pressing than ever for him to weave a discussion about the three models of disability openly and creatively into his one man show ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’.

Back in the late 1990s we always knew the Disability Discrimination Act was half-hearted. We persisted in face of barriers being removed, but failed to attract younger artists. In the early 2000’s access within new and upgraded public buildings became enshrined in law, so why should younger artists feel the need to embrace Disability Arts?

And we became more confused about our efforts to push the idea of ‘disability’ as a way of thinking about the world that does a disservice to people who don’t fit the perfect framework of what society expects, largely in order to fit our art to funding criteria. Some felt we were getting somewhere in getting mainstream recognition for work by disabled artists. Others, that we had taken a backward step.

But as Mat said in conversation: “at what point was it that we took our eyes off the ball?” For the first time since the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany we are suddenly living in a time when our lives as disabled people are being judged by the media purely in monetary terms. Politicians like Cornwall’s Collin Brewer are fine with openly declaring that "disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down."

So, in the light of how society is changing, what is the role of Disability Arts in this decade? Is it to challenge or comply with values of mainstream entertainment to support the status quo? I saw a lot of references to Unlimited 2012 as being about ‘celebration’ rather than ‘politics’. I didn’t agree with it, because what I saw of the festival contained a whole gamut, emotionally, politically and in terms of accessibility. For example Sinéad O'Donnell's 'CAUTION' was extraordinarily challenging.

But why do we so easily forget that all art and all entertainment is political: whether it is Lord Sugar extolling the virtues of a capitalist free market economy on ‘The Apprentice’ or Matthew Bourne creating an adaption of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with an all-male cast or Mat Fraser getting his kit off in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to show an audience at the Young Vic how a disabled man with shortened arms and no thumbs washes his bottom.

The context for each of those randomly chosen cultural phenomena has a political stake in affecting societies values and judgments. My choosing of those specific examples is in and of itself a political choice. As someone proud of my working class roots Sugar represents everything I hate about the working class and I’m prone to screaming fits in the unfortunate situation where I happen to be in a room when he is on the telly. Equally, I have known and loved a lot of gay people and will always support Gay rights – so would applaud Bourne for challenging notions of masculinity. Beauty and the Beast – although very adult in content – represented the most grown up piece of Disability Arts I’ve witnessed. Julie Atlas-Muz talking about encouraging her mother into the open about having discriminatory values was extremely moving. It was the first time I’ve seen a positive, compassionate spin on encouraging openness about ignorance. Attacking ignorance dismissively, has historically been a core value within Disability Arts – and although it has its place, it does little to change the attitudes of those subject to criticism, unless they actively want to be challenged.

So what is the place of Disability Arts now? Within its criteria Unlimited says that “We are looking for work that is innovative, varied, excellent, led by disabled artists. Unlimited is about art, not about disability.  Some work may reference disability, some may not.”

I’ve seen interpretations of that statement declaring that it means Unlimited is "not for disabled people". I disagree. ‘Disability’ is a role (as much for disabled people as for non-disabled people); it is a journey and where an artist is in relationship to their impairment will define whether or not they are at a point where they are comfortable with referencing ‘disability’. There is no getting away from the fact that Unlimited has a social and political context. It is born out of decades of disabled people striving for a voice in the world – a part of that being the struggle for artistic freedom. Whether or not the work that comes through Unlimited 2014 references disability or not – there will be a judgment of that work from the perspective of a disability arts aesthetic, simply because of its context.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not Art and politics cannot be separated. As a painter I know how key self-delusion is to the process of making Art. Traditionally, painting has always been about creating a 3 dimensional illusion of reality on a 2-D surface. The question is whether Unlimited 2014 can break out of a narrow idea of what is Art to present something that has meaning for disabled people?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 February 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 6 February 2014

Colin Hambrook asks where do we find Disability Arts and activism?

The Disability, Arts & Diversity Symposium: 'From the Personal to the Universal' at Salisbury Arts Centre last week, promised to be "an in depth look at Disability Arts and activism from the viewpoints of artists, producers, presenters and policy makers."

There are myriad implications for Disability Arts and its activist role in the wider social context, but to my mind the Symposium itself did little to address the issues. I wonder if somewhere along the way, the glory of Unlimited has gone to our heads? Many of those commissions address discrimination through talking about marginalisation, through telling personal stories and creating social engagement - through for example asking a wider public about their attitudes to the wheelchair - and all in all, like most art on public display, through entertainment.

But to my mind none of those works are actively challenging the status quo. All of the work comes from a middle-class elitist response to the barriers placed in front of disabled people. If it wasn't would it find a home in the Southbank Centre, or Salisbury Arts Centre?

In his address at the symposium Hassan Mahamdallie (Senior Strategy Officer, Arts Council England) talked about Standpoint Theory - based on the idea that those who are marginalised have more to give because we have to understand the centre as well as our own position in the scheme of things, whilst those at the centre don't have to understand anything beyond their own viewpoint.

We are seeing this now with the clash of class consciousness over the decision to spend £10 million on Thatcher's funeral - as if the whole country has a duty to mourn this one person. For those in the ruling classes there is no consideration of the worth of the millions whose lives were destroyed in one way or another through policies that directly demeaned and challenged our very existence.

Mahamdallie went on to talk about work that makes a virtue of being an outsider. Yes, I would say the work of Outside In, the work shown in the People Like You exhibition does that. But does it have an activist role? Who is art as activism for? We have the Disability Movement to thank for galvanising us to find artistic ways to protest through organisations like the London Disability Arts Forum in the 80s and 90s. The clarion call of disabled artists like Johnny Crescendo and Ian Stanton were a lynchpin for activism. Where and who do we have to turn to, now?

Liz Crow's 'Bedding In' to my mind, took an activist stance in giving a voice to those disabled people who are not seen and not heard. But where was the context in looking at how we develop approaches to giving a platform for the dispossessed? I would have cited the cartoons of Crippen or the visual poetry of Vince Laws in taking an agit-prop look at what's going on in the real world. I would have talked about the work of the Atos Stories Collective who are attempting to challenge the media and by writing plays about individuals experiences and getting the monologues out there.

Who would you cite?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 April 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 16 April 2013

Here's wishing all DAO readers love and peace over the festive season from the Criptarts and all of us at Disability Arts Online

Trish and I would like to take this opportunity to wish all DAO readers a very happy, peaceful holiday and to thank all our contributors and trainees for their continued support and engagement this year.

It's been an exciting 2012 with some fabulous work produced as a result of our Diverse Perspectives commissions from Crippen and John O'Donoghue, Ivan Riches, Liz Crow, Gini and Aaron Williamson.

We had a tremendous time covering the work resulting from the Unlimited commissions and the Cultural Olympiad. There was a huge amount of excitement once all the commissions reached the Southbank Centre, as reflected on the Unlimited @ Southbank blog.

There are more treats to come with further developments from some of the existing work!

Plus we are planning a new look DAO to be unveiled in early 2013!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 20 December 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 20 December 2012

Colin Hambrook with an update on DAOs programme to cover Unlimited

It's been an eventful year for DAO so far, gathering responses to the Unlimited commissions by disabled and deaf artists that have been wending their way across the country, culminating in the Festival at the Southbank Centre which ended just over a week ago.

Since then I've been at a Disability Studies conference in Lancaster University in which the ideas that originally spawned the Disability Arts movement are still celebrated - even though those ideas have perhaps become fragmented in the movements struggle to validate the agenda for inclusion and inclusive practice.

I wonder if we are at a cross roads where Disability Arts has had possibly the biggest profile ever - in terms of Unlimited - but is equally in danger of sinking? What will the legacy of Unlimited be? We hope to investigate this further in the coming weeks with comment and interviews with some of the key artists and movers' n' shakers.

One of the themes of discussions at the Southbank Centre ranged around the question of whether or not to identify as a disabled artist and whether companies should market their work as Disability Arts? Clearly the divergent views on the limitations of identification, versus supporting the cultural values of interrogation and subversiveness implicit within Disability Arts are arguments which will carry on. Personally I think what is exciting is the challenge of using a disability lens through which to analyse arts practice deeper.

For DAO over the coming months there are still several more Diverse Perspectives commissions to catch up on. We've published three of the eight commissions so far with Crippen and John O'Donoghue's collaboration on producing the O'Crypes cartoon and text. Aaron Williamson's The Eavesdropper - delving into the stories behind the stories of the paintings in The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, is under way. Coming up are further commissions from Liz Crow, Dolly Sen, Gini, Ivan Riches and Aidan Moesby. 

DAO is also going through a redesign. This move has been inspired by several things. Firstly that since the current format was launched in 2006 we've realised that people have never quite got their heads around the left-hand navigation. Although when we user-tested our design disabled people felt there were advantages access-wise, the feedback we've had subsequently is that because left-hand menu for navigation isn't standard, generally internet-users find it confusing.

We are also going to redesign the navigation around artform rather than content-type, which seems to have been a sticking point with DAO readers because framing everything around the feature categories of review, discussion etc. makes it harder to find old copy. Because DAO is dedicated to citizen journalism there are also often difficulties in that sometimes the copy we publish could fit into several of the categories.

Meanwhile, in the run up to a redesign of DAO, which will happen later this year, we have introduced a mobile phone app which you can now download by going to

That's all for now. I look forward to updating you, dear reader…

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Trish Wheatley looks forward to the Channel 4 film about the Great British Paraorchestra

Showing on Channel 4 at 5.25pm on Sunday 9th September 2012 is a documentary tracking the development of the Great British Paraorchestra. The idea for it was conceived by internationally renowned conductor Charles Hazlewood, inspired by his disabled daughter and the Paralympics. The initiative is described as "a global movement to recognise and showcase disabled musicians with extraordinary abilities. Its mission is to end the limitations placed on them, not by their physical ability but by lack of opportunity." The documentary will plot the formation of the orchestra, its members and their relationship to music. 
One of the points of interest in this orchestra is that the range of instruments do not reflect that of a traditional classical orchestra. Some of the instruments have been developed specially for the musicians and others play instruments from all over the world. Combined, the Great British Paraorchestra is developing its own musical aesthetic that is fresh, interesting and original. Lloyd Coleman, Clarinettist explained: "Musically I'm really excited about it because of the range of cultures and musical styles that we have in this group and it's a group of musicians that you will never have seen together before.... I think people will appreciate the different elements that come to the fore during any one performance. We do anything from Indian Raga to Western Classical Music to electronic sounds. These elements all in one big mix is very exciting." 

After seeing the orchestra perform at Glastonbury earlier this year I will be interested to see how they've developed following a summer of performances including a very well received concert as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre last week.

It would be easy to suspect there's probably a reason that Channel 4 have programmed this on the same evening as the Paralympic Closing Ceremony. The 65 minute documentary might not be the only time we see the Great British Paraorchestra on TV this Sunday!

Posted by Trish Wheatley, 8 September 2012

Last modified by Trish Wheatley, 8 September 2012

Colin Hambrook asks will the Paralympic opening ceremony provide more of a laugh than Katherine Araniello's take on the 'Superhuman' ideal being proselytised by Channel 4?

The London 2012 Paralympics, which will be broadcast in over 100 countries, with a count down to the opening ceremony being broadcast on Channel 4 tonight. After months of top level secrecy I got an email earlier from an excited disabled performer saying "it's all tantrums & tiaras back-stage". I can just imagine! All those 'superhumans' in the background getting ready to flex some bicep.

Personally I find the whole malarky about how 'inspiring' we are - as disabled people - to be deeply offensive. It's as if it's suddenly okay to patronise us. And now of course that we can do everything and be everything, it's perfectly okay to do away with benefits and let us die.

Last April a investigation by Penman and Sommerlad estimated "an average of 32 people  are dying each week despite them being ruled not sick enough in the medical test for the new incapacity benefit." More recently undercover Dr Steven Bick reporting on Channel 4’s Dispatches claimed the Government has issued targets for 7 out of 8 to be reclassified as eligible for work. The Daily Mirror reported, earlier this summer that "Atos boss Thierry Breton received a bonus of nearly £1million to help slash the benefits bill." Another report in the Guardian yesterday said that "the government have outsourced more than £3bn of public services to the firm."

It seems we are in a state of rapid change. Perhaps the dream of the the Disability Movement to challenge the charity model of disability has been more successful than perhaps we might have wanted. We're no longer the worthy cause that demanded tick-box recognition. It's hard to predict what's around the corner, but it seems some disabled people are fighting back.

And perhaps some of the messages from the Unlimited commissions will get through. For example Simon Mckeown's 'Motion Disabled Unlimited' animation is a graceful take on the ordinariness of the impaired body. Claire Cunningham charts her lifelong relationship with her crutches and its impact on her love life in 'Ménage à Trois'. Kaite O'Reilly's 'In Water I'm Weightless' gives a textured portrayal of individuals relationship to their impairments.

However, performance can be interpreted in many different ways so whether or not the disability messages of challenging preconceptions about who and what is 'normal' get through, remains to be seen in how the press cover the events.

However entertaining a spectacle Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings pull off for the opening ceremony tonight - in my mind nothing could beat Katherine Araniello's spoof on the Channel 4 Paralympics 'Superhuman' advert. Ready to do battle with fags and chocky cake, Katherine performs the amazing feat of balancing an imitation bar-bell on her finger, in the form of a cotton bud.

We can't match up to the aesthetics of the Paralympians however much we might try. Or kill ourselves trying...
The opening ceremony is being televised tonight on Channel 4 at 8pm

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 29 August 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Colin Hambrook on the launch of Unlimited at the Southbank Centre

DAO Editor Colin Hambrook had the pleasure of visiting the launch of the Unlimited commissions yesterday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London's Southbank Centre.

Bringing together all 29 Unlimited commissions, Unlimited: the Revelation starts here is a showcase for a platform of new works spanning dance and performance, visual arts, comedy, circus, music and theatre. The 11-day celebration is the finale of Southbank Centre’s summer-long Festival of the World, which presents projects from around the world that demonstrate the power of art to transform lives.

Alongside Southbank Centre's Artistic Director Jude Kelly, who said she hopes Unlimited will mark "a milestone step change across the arts community and audience development" were Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad talking about the aim of Unlimited to create work of scale and ambition and Carole McFadden, Drama and Dance Advisor at the British Council talking about the range of international connections the commissions have involved.

We were treated to Claire Cunningham speaking about her dance/ theatre piece Ménage a Trois, made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland. She said the idea for the piece initially came from putting a jacket on a pair of crutches, which became like a scarecrow and led her to think about her relationship with her crutches. Having lasted 20 years, she talking about them being "like a partner" - one she initially hated, but has come to learn to love. Talking further she said Ménage a Trois is " not about disability, but neither is it about ignoring disability; rather it is about identity as a whole."

We saw several of the artists' Push Me Please films four of which have now been uploaded onto The Space.

Rachel Gadsden's 90 second film reminds me that no matter how different our experience across impairment groups, that there can be a commonality. She speaks about how her own breathing difficulties led her to find kindred spirits amongst a group of HIV/AIDS survivors in South Africa.

For Sue Austin her development of the underwater wheelchair has taken her on a journey from wanting initially to transform preconceptions about the wheelchair to thinking about the issues that everyone has to transcend in their lives.

For disabled people as a community - however much Unlimited promises to challenge old prejudices and awareness of issues, I wonder about how far and how much we are actually moving backwards in terms of how we are perceived and treated in the wider world? I've absolutely no doubt that all 29 of the Unlimited commissions - having become so acquainted with them over the past two months - are going to be fabulous. And I hope they will spark debates about real issues. Certainly there will be opportunity for debate at Unlimited Voices - a series of discussions on disability, art, labels and life - hosted in Level 5 Function Room at the Royal Festival Hall on 1-2 September.

Lastly, if you haven't been to The Festival of the World Museum on display in the Spirit Level of Festival Hall, I'd recommend a trip down memory lane to see footage of some key moments in Disability Arts history, from Mik Scarlett's archives from BBC's 'Over the Edge', alongside Chris Ledger's 1996 film 'Moving from Within'.

The display hasn't been presented accessibly, unfortunately, but hearing Ian Stanton's anthemic 'Rolling Thunder' and Johnny Crescendo's 'Choices and Rights' - albeit on a tiny, tinny hand-held speaker, in the Royal Festival Hall, brought something of a lump to my throat.

Something has shifted in terms of attitudes and recognition. An exhibition of archive pieces from disability arts culture, wouldn't have happened a few years ago. But the question still remains as to what has shifted? It has taken a lot of disabled people to make the shift, but how much have things really changed?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 11 July 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Colin Hambrook, reports on news about DAO, past, present and future

the disability arts on line logo

We've had an exciting time recently finishing off DAO’s New Voices project. Our 2012 group of New Voices writers have been fully engage with DAO. During the project, their blog entries, reviews and interviews have delivered lots of interaction from our readership.

In preparation for our next project, Diverse Perspectives, we’ve been awarded a significant Grants for the Arts award by Arts Council England (ACE) to do a range of things.

Firstly, we are commissioning eight disabled artists to work with arts venues nationally to produce new works over the period of a year for online presentation on DAO, and we hope beyond. These commissions will offer a wide range of artistic engagements with key arts and cultural organisations across the country.

Secondly, DAO's writers, will be out in full force during the Cultural Olympiad to capture the debate and critique the events involving disabled artists and audiences. This includes the 29 Unlimited commissions which will be toured around the country from now until the end of August and will then be part of Southbank’s Unlimited Festival, part of the Festival of the World from 31 August to 9 September 2012.

Thirdly, to help everyone keep track of what is going on, DAO will also be launching a special DAO Guide to 2012 app which will provide a comprehensive listings service with links to artists, venues, events and festivals.

We will also be continuing to work with the Creative Case for Diversity so keep up with this website for dialogue, comment and debate.

DAO will also be getting a facelift! Through our recent reader survey, as well as through general communication with our readership over the past few years, it has been clear that using a side-menu navigation bar hasn't been as successful as we'd have liked in signposting our readers to the massive range, breadth and depth of copy published within the journal.

So to that effect we will be developing a top menu, with a focus on art form rather than content type. This means you’ll more easily find copy on the particular types of content that you are interested in reading about and discussing on our pages. So thank you to everyone who took part in feeding back comment, the good, the bad and the ugly, and please look out for more reader surveys in the future.

These improvements have been taking up a lot of time! And to help us deliver what we do to a higher standard we have taken on a freelance sub-editor, Marian Cleary, who is a welcome addition to DAOs small but committed part-time staff team.

This is a really exciting time for DAO and everyone involved in Disability Arts. There are so many disabled artists aiming for great things this year and DAO will be providing a platform for celebrating, examining and debating all that emerges from this.

So with that combined with our own new commissions, we are really looking forward to what promises to be fascinating times for everyone involved. And that includes you, the readers, artists, commentators, critics, bloggers, venues, programmers and all the people involved in creating the case for not just diversity but entertainment with attitude, debate and discussion, and taking forward what all that those presenting their ideas on DAO, in so many ways, have to say.

Posted by Anonymous, 18 May 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 September 2012

Colin Hambrook discusses a recent paper on the social model of disability

It feels like things are coming inexorably to a head. Running alongside a year of arts events being rolled out under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad, there is a growing sense of foreboding as the current tide of political changes threatens to change the state of play for disabled people in the struggle to maintain quality of life.

It seems that the vision of a society where everyone with lived experience of disability or health conditions can participate equally as full citizens, is being undermined as we look at changes happening with The Independent Living Fund (ILF), Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Incapacity Benefit, Access to Work and Direct Payments - all measures that came into play as a result of the Disability Movements' campaigns for a fairer society.

Disabled People Against the Cuts has recently published an academic paper by Debbie Jolly, which I would urge everyone to read. At the core of 'A Tale of Two Models' is a history of the influence of the Social Model of Disability. Jolly reaffirms our understanding of Disability as a social construct; a power relationship between those who have self-determination and those who don't. She outlines how our understanding has become muddied in arguments pitting the medical model against the social model - and essentially how the bio-psychosocial model - currently in favour amongst influential bodies such as the big Disability Charities - is being used to support welfare reform.

How things play out over the course of this year is both exciting and worrying, in equal measure. Can Disability Arts continue to play a role that allows disabled peoples' voices and concerns to be heard? We've a plethora of Unlimited events, and Disability Arts Festivals in Liverpool and London. For example DaSH's M21, DaDaFest 2012 and Together 2012 all promise events by Disability Artists that challenge, as well as entertain. At the core of these arts is an ethos that looks at the barriers to disabled peoples' participation in society. At the end of the day it's about changing attitudes. Debbie Jolly explains in academic terms how we've much further to go than perhaps we imagined. I think we need more communication that spells the issues out in plainer english - and which offers paths to sharing experience.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 April 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 April 2012

Colin wishes all DAO's contributors and readers all the best for the festive season

DAO is preparing to wind down for the end of year break. Firstly I'd like to give a warm thanks to all our contributors and to wish all our readers all the best over the festive season. It has been an exciting year for DAO, with its readership having gone up by a fifth since the summer.

We have recently come to the end of our New Voices programme in Brighton and are now looking forward to a fresh start running the course in London in partnership with New Writing South and with Shape.

There have been lots of highlights this year. The time we spent in Manchester at the decibel performing arts showcase with our New Voices Brighton writers – and alongside having the task of launching the Creative Case website – has given us lots to think about in terms of how we evolve as creative practitioners and as disabled people working in the arts.

Decibel gave us a wonderful opportunity to be working up in the moment, writing up reviews and interviews with the artists and delegates at the festival. It was an energising experience to see the freedom that can come from labeling work under a ‘diversity’ banner, encompassing ‘disability’ as a key component. I’m not convinced that’s the answer. All labels are problematic. But it gave a broader sense to the notion of how difference can inform and uplift the quality of arts practice.

A big part of the argument for the Creative Case is that we need to be talking more about the Art itself - rather than focusing on the barriers to being creative – as the starting point. [Not that we don't challenge lack of access and barriers to becoming paid artists. But that if we are to become more professional we need to find ways of getting professional feedback on what we produce.]

Aaron Williamson wrote an interesting piece of polemic in Serpentine Galleries 'Parallel Lines'. I don't agree with his comments on Unlimited and Liberty, but he makes a crucial point about the importance of professional critique. There has been a dearth of a critical voice when it comes to giving disabled artists the feedback necessary to develop as artists. Alan McLean reviewing Dash's 'Defying Definitions: disability arts in the mainstream', commented on how going beyond the Disability Arts label is essential to engagement with mainstream art galleries. As long as there is a precedent for an understanding of disability as meaning 'disabled by impairment' rather than 'disabled by society' we will continue to fight a losing battle.

DAO has tended to concentrate on giving support to emerging, rather than established writers, which is why there has been more of an emphasis on producing blogs on the DAO journal in the last two years. I spend a lot of time giving feedback to individuals on the clarity of their writing, rather than emphasising a need to be critical. But I wonder if this emphasis should change?

Next year we are hoping to showcase more Art on DAO - alongside your discussion. Two valued pieces of work that have become embedded within DAO this year have been Anne Teahan's brilliant piece of research on attitudes towards disability arts here and in the US. 'Sharing Cultures: disability and visability' was a multi-layered piece of research with a blog, galleries, a series of essays and a research document with a Q&A with a wide range of artists engaging in work exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington in 2010

The other extensive piece of work I've been proud to showcase has been Allan Sutherland's Neglected Voices. As an aspiring poet I am fascinated by the transcription poetry process; reformatting spoken language directly into a poetic format. Neglected Voices is most powerful where the words relay the strength of the human spirit in challenging disabling barriers.

On a last note, please do keep on uploading your listings via the online forms at - this year has seen a bigger emphasis on getting information about jobs, opportunities and events out to you via our weekly bulletins. If you haven't done so yet, please sign up for these at

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 December 2011

Last modified by Trish Wheatley, 17 December 2011