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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

In Memoriam: For Dao Poet Richard Longstaff

On Saturday 6 September Richard Longstaff’s wife Rachel rang to say that he had passed away, peacefully with his family beside him.

Richard first told me the devastating news of the cancer at the beginning of last June. And it was soon evident that it was terminal. The last time we spoke was just over four weeks ago. He hoped to write some more for Dao, but the pain and exhaustion from the illness had made it impossible. 

My sincerest condolences go out to Rachel and to their daughters. Richard was a trooper; dedicated to his family and his passing is a sad loss for many, including us here at Dao, enriched and entertained by his poetry and the stories attached to his words.

In November 2013 I wrote to Richard having discovered he¹d sent me a wodge of poems, buried like a jewel in amongst a mess of emails. There was a refreshing depth and an honesty in his words, never shy of searching for the truth of human relationships. 

The selection Richard sent described the end of a working day in a northern town, time spent in hospital, a friend’s struggles with alcoholism, a family funeral and his own love for nature (his doctor had encouraged him to go for country walks and he found a love for wildlife photography) and for poetry (George McKay Brown was one of Richard’s favourites. He loved the descriptive power and simplicity of Brown’s language and so Dao commissioned an article as part of our Dao Poets on Poetry series).

Poetry was dear to Richard’s heart, but he¹d never shared his own efforts with anyone except his wife and daughters. “I found your site and chanced my arm” he wrote. “I take inspiration from nature, a world that offers me a escape from the pressures of this ‘Normal’ world in which we live. I find comfort in the beauty of simple things all around. I also use my disability to find things that inspire me. I find the autistic mind sees things that others miss.”

We never met, but Richard and I built a friendship through email and lengthy conversations on the phone. I encouraged him to contribute a poetry blog to Dao: 'Beyond Watford' he wanted to call it. He took up the mantle and the second poetry blog A Natural End to Things told the story of the ‘loss’ of his son. We shared our grief: both of our families victims to the scourge of home-farmed ‘skunk’ that has swept across the country over the last fifteen years, filling mental hospitals everywhere with our young men.

Following those exchanges, aided on the computer by his daughter Laura, Richard sent in a steady stream of work, always inspiring, he described his favoured method for writing poetry: deciding on a theme and then building a word list. His work delved back into his youth in the seventies, and the realities of life for those of us who came along in the shadow of the second world war.

There is a power in the straightforward, honed detail in Richard¹s words. The confidence in the blogs he sent in grew at a pace with a depth of humanity and humour in his storytelling. One of my favourites was the story of Old Joe the scrap merchant, a bitter man, feared by all in the village Richard grew up in. 

Over the course of a summer, young Richard and his brother sold Joe back his own lead, until he cottoned on and that was that. ‘Mad Dogs’ tells Joe’s story: a man held in contempt and isolated by narrow-minded attitudes that judged him for his lack of war service.

And that was Richard’s gift, to be able to think through a story and find a deeper truth than what that which lies on the surface.

Thanks for those conversations mate.
May you rest in peace.

Colin Hambrook


For Richard Longstaff
I never quite believed you¹d be leaving us
though you said the cancer was terminal.
You said you hoped to be able
to put a few thoughts down on the computer
if you found enough strength.

We never met, but talked on the phone
about our families, our fathers and sons
our daughters and wives, cherished;
the line of hopes and joys that move us forwards;
the losses that held us to the earth.

And now you¹ve gone, it¹s like being transported
at speed to a place where life looks map-like
distant, far from the self on a thin chord of poetic licence
defined by the depth of words shared
a love for nature, poetry and truth.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 15 September 2014