Earlier this month I attended a Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University. One of the papers that has stayed with me was a piece of work-in-progress on ‘Disability in Cultural Spaces’ by Nancy Hansen from Manitoba University. She'd been to The Lowry Museum in Salford, where one of her favourite paintings 'The Cripples' is displayed.
I've never been a particular fan of LS Lowry's work. I’ve always felt a certain discomfort with the atmosphere of nostalgia evoked by his scenes of the industrial north in the first half of the 20th century, peopled by ‘matchstick’ figures. But then, Lowry has always been painted by the media as a sad, romantic, figure and perhaps at least some of my perception has been coloured by the copy I’ve read about him.
What Hansen brought alive in her talk was the extent to which how art and the artist is perceived, is so much about the curation of work and the focus on the way it is interpreted. She homed in on a later painting by Lowry - one of her favourites - 'The Cripples (1949). She talked about her own immediate response being one of liberation and a sense of being "amongst my people for the first time” in stark contrast to how the media and The Lowry Museum write about the painting.
One of the key things for Hansen is how the Disability aesthetic is misunderstood, through a cultural insistence that it is per se a metaphor for an ugly or defective aspect of society. For instance the painting is consistently talked about as presenting its panoply of disabled people ‘as figures in isolation' when, rather, if you look closely, there is a lot of interaction and inter-relating happening between the individuals depicted on the canvas. Hansen expressed wonder that they were indeed looking at the same painting she was seeing.
The teachers pack in The Lowry talks about the painting as being 'cruel and ugly', and of a 'disturbing, violent, voyeuristic nature.' Then with incredibly leading questions it goes on to ask: 'How does it make you feel? Is it meant to be a funny painting; a cruel painting, or both?'
In further references to 'The Cripples' quoted by Hansen, it is seen as a 'metaphor for all that is going wrong in the world'. Each of the impairments of the characters is often explored in full, reducing Lowry’s art to a medical model fascination with his subjects. There is a general assumption made, that disability is always a miserable state of being. The Lowry itself purports a reluctance to have copies of 'The Cripples' on postcards, for fear it might be in bad taste.
What is missed out, often, is context and analysis of the time it was painted, both in terms of The Cripples' being a post-war urban scene, when many war-amputees would have been seen on the streets of Manchester. Indeed at least ten of the characters in the painting were well-known individuals.
Meanwhile the painting meant much to Lowry as an expression of his own sense of being disabled by society. He said of it: “I feel strongly about these people. I am attracted to the sadness. I feel like them.”
The picture that emerges through Hansen's research highlights how what is written about 'The Cripples' says more about the attitudes of the media and the art education sector, than perhaps it does about the painting itself. Could the perception of 'The Cripples as 'a voyage into the grotesque' be merely a projection of the fears and prejudices of those interpreting the painting in this way?
I’m fascinated by the ways that disability is portrayed. Reference to disability in museums is so often ranged around access, failing to consider deeper implications of what the ways it is talked about (or not talked about) might mean. I look forward to finding more about Hansen’s research when it is ready for publication.
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 www.disabilityartsonline.org/events-mobile
That's all for now. I look forward to updating you, dear reader…
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!
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 Mirror.co.uk 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
I was drawn into the world of Disability Arts four months after Adam Reynolds passed away. Consequently I never got to meet the man that lives on so fondly in the memories of his contemporaries.
I worked at Holton Lee, where I saw his work displayed in the buildings on a daily basis. His major legacy, aside from his wonderfully insightful and at times humourous sculpture, is the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary. Its fifth recipient, Simon Raven is currently in residence at Camden Arts Centre.
One of the events I’m most looking forward to during my time at DaDaFest in ‘The First Four’ symposium, a Shape and DaDaFest collaboration which sees the first cycle of four bursarists talking about their experiences and the impact that winning the award has had on their practice. Chaired by Shape’s CEO, himself a disabled artist and sculptor, Tony Heaton, the four artists Noemi Lakmaier, Sally Booth, Aaron Williamson and Caroline Cardus, will engage in a conversation about their very differing practices and the commonalities of the experiences and opportunities provided by the residencies.
Tony explains that “Something we never really get time to do is sit down and listen to visual artists talk about their work, this is a fantastic opportunity to do that.” For me, this is a really exciting prospect because I personally find that the arts is always made more interesting if we know context in which it is made.
That’s another reason why I found the DaDaFest Evelyn Glennie performance and talk a so much more fulfilling experience than a performance on its own.
If you’re around in Liverpool at 1:30pm on Wednesday 22nd August why not pop into the Bluecoat for this FREE event as part of DaDaFest? I hope to see you there.
The O’Crypes have whet the appetites of many DAO readers with over a 1000 pageviews since episode one which we published on 9 July.
Many of you have left messages saying how much you’ve enjoyed the characters and have followed the dilemmas they are facing in the plight of dramatic cutbacks to services whilst huge amounts of money are being spent on the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad.
Each episode is set to represent a different storyline about each member of the family cutting across age, gender and race. However it seems that publishing the strip separately from the blog was confusing a lot of readers. Click here to find the latest O'Crypes strip in our gallery section.
It has been a strength of the commission that it has caused some controversy.
Some commentators have left messages expressing concern that our family of disabled people are too prescriptive in their attitudes: others that they are not dogmatic enough.
Episode five saw Brad in conflict between his sense of the injustice at the rough treatment of disabled people in the current climate and his admiration for the blade runner Pistorius.
Many of us are torn between a love for watching the sport and a sense of what they mean politically. If you were brought up in a special school and swimming at Stoke Mandeville was a highlight of your youth; who could blame you for wanting to see those games.
On the other hand the cynical move of ATOS to sponsor the Paralympics whilst chopping peoples’ benefits is an obscenity. Paul Silson of 'Workers Power' recenty reported that “In the last three years 32 people, deemed fit for work by Atos and therefore having their benefit axed, have died within weeks of the decision.”
Last weeks episode saw Nabs reflecting on the BBCs Written World poetry project.
This weeks episode sees Jood missing her dance classes as the pinch of the cutbacks takes its toll on the family. Click here to see episode seven of the O’Crypes
What a cracking night for DaDaFest! One act from the Olympic Opening ceremony and one from the closing ceremony, it was as if it had all been planned! Ruth Gould, CEO of DaDaFest introduced it as the biggest night in the history of the twelve-year-old festival. Hosted by the iconic Liverpool Royal Philharmonic and sitting in anticipation to watch Dame Evelyn Glennie, Britain’s most successful percussionist, I totally agreed.
I'm not going to detail the actual performance here, except to mention how well programmed it was with the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra and the Liverpool Signing Choir. An excellent introduction to an event that had at it’s heart the intention to inspire people to try something new, realise the possibilities for inclusion and that “we can all participate in making sound”. Glennie’s programme of percussion pieces was excellent. It was an encyclopaedic exploration of the senses that left the audience spellbound.
For me, it was the second part of the show that was the real revelation. We were treated to a fascinating insight into Glennie’s musical process. She started by explaining the very beginning of her journey as a musician when at twelve she had her first percussion lesson. She was given a snare drum to take away with her, no sticks, beaters or instruction. What an inspired way to teach.
She had a whole week to explore the instrument, placing it on different surfaces, getting to know the feel of it. This word ‘feel’ was central to the whole talk. Glennie, through working with her teacher, eventually rejected the use of hearing aids because they would only boost the sound levels but not the clarity which is so key to accomplishing the level of musicianship Glennie aspired to and has since without question achieved.
As a current student of the cello the most insightful and helpful advice that she gave was in explaining that the room in which she plays is part of the instrument. Where you sit, your posture, the number of people and importantly how you listen all affect the way in which the music is experienced. Rather than simply practicing the notes, rhythms and phrasing, she rehearses. By that she means that she imagines the space in which she is going to perform and plays for that space whether it’s a cathedral, concert hall, outdoors or chamber setting.
In answering a question about how performance techniques might be applied to other situations such as a job interview or presentation she explained that when she plays, in that moment, that piece and that instrument are her favourite, she puts everything into them. This really interested me and I’m keen to apply the knowledge that she shared to my own musical and professional journey. For me, the intentions of the evening were brilliantly achieved and I hope that many others in the audience left feeling as inspired as I did.
DAO Editor Colin Hambrook has been getting about a bit lately. And care of a train journey sponsored by Virgin, he managed to make it to the launch of DaDaFest at The Bluecoat in Liverpool yesterday afternoon.
There was hilarity in the air. A team of volunteers dressed in white coats and armed with clipboards mingled to ask whether or not we considered ourselves to be normal. Apparently they had been at it all day, outside Lime Street station, questioning Scousers about their view of how normal they think they are? Those conversations were filmed and will be edited and uploaded on to the DaDaFest website at a later date. So that’s one to watch out for!
This years DaDaFest, which is happening between now and 2 September promises some great visual arts, performance, dance theatre etc. on the theme of how identity is bound up with our changing, ageing bodies, ever prone to impairment, as the clock ticks away.
There has been a shifting emphasis as DaDaFest has developed over the past eleven years. It has retained elements of the traditional Disability Arts Festival by and for disabled people, offering a space for discussion about choices and rights.
But its ambitions have become much bigger and its focus wider as it has expanded from a community festival to a national and internationally recognised Arts Festival (DaDaFest Patron Sir Bert Massie reckoned the organization will soon be reaching out to Mars looking for artistic disabled aliens to take part! And what’s more, compere for the evening Mik Scarlett volunteered to be part of the scouting party. Now there’s an adventure!)
DaDaFest brought 60,000 visitors to Liverpool last year, as part of an ongoing legacy that has developed since the city was the European Capital of Culture in 2008. To build on that success DaDaFest aims to use the arts to spark a conversation with a wider audience; one that might well be alienated by ‘disability’ from the perspective of the Disability Arts movement.
To do that, it has changed the focus away from ‘being about disability’ to a subtler frame of reference, asking people how they relate to the idea of ‘normality’ in a life where our bodies change and our sense of identity shifts as a natural part of the process.
The main exhibition at this years’ festival – ‘Niet Normaal: Difference on Display’ (which also forms part of the London 2012 Festival programme) is an extraordinary attempt to move on the debate about how impairment and disability affects the lives of everyone.
As one of the Niet Normaal commissions Live Artist Aaron Williamson will be in residency at the Walker Art Gallery, ‘eavesdropping’ on the collection of paintings in the gallery: exploring a secretive dialogue, which plays on the assumption of his supposed ability as a deaf person to overhear and mishear the unvoiced.
DAO is proud to have been able to offer Aaron Williamson (who blogged on DAO about his residency at Spike Island in Bristol in 2009) a Diverse Perspectives commission to blog about the reality behind the façade, as the residency unfolds.
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."
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?
DAO Editor Colin Hambrook attended Shape's debate on media representation of disability at the Southbank Centre yesterday.
Predicated on the idea that there is a change happening… and that disabled people are leading in that process, an audience of 150 or so were treated to an afternoon of debate from some key disabled professionals within the world of arts, sports and media.
The main attraction of the afternoon's event was a debate between University lecturer Mike Shamash and self-confessed "bad" media person Will Self. They discussed the ins and outs of identity politics and representation of disability, on the television, in particular.
No matter how much we um and ah over wanting to see our lives presented back to us through the arts and through media (and yes, as Channel 4s Alison Walsh pointed out, there is more incidental casting of disabled people) 'difference' will always have a symbolic function. As Will Self said: "the problem with the media is that television will always have an enormous capacity to masquerade as being sympathetic when in reality it's being voyeuristic. It will always dress one thing up as something else as long as the editor is delivering what the public want.”
He went on to talk about the "unhelpfulness" of Disability Sport; not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with Disability Sports people or people who like watching impairment or non-impairment-related sports; but how it fudges everything in the realms of the "idiocy of identity politics." Talking about celebrities like Tanni Grey Thompson, for example, Self said that within the context of a media appearance, she’s not a disabled person, she’s an elite athlete. The fact is that these kinds of representations of disabled people influence whether we belong to the suburb of "good people with impairments" who are seen as ‘normal’, or the "bad ghetto of disabled people" who are seen as ‘freaks’.
The problem that we have to own up to as artists, producers and commentators working within the disability arts movement is how the striving for integration, at any cost, has lead to this sense that you are either a ‘normal’ or a ‘freak’. To paraphrase Will Self: "we've had 25 years of identity politics being subverted by successive governments who have used the agenda to uphold their political sense of 'fairness in society.'”
In focussing on the idea of integration we've created a template for exposing complexity, but obscuring the bigger picture. And somewhere along the line the media and the tabloids in particular have interpreted a message that a vast majority of us are faking it, especially when asking for access needs or basic living costs, to be met. If we are ‘normal’ then we are not entitled to the ‘perks’. In the current climate many of us who simply struggle daily because of impairment - as well as individuals in need of 24 hour care, or who are weeks away from dying, even - are being told that we are fit for work. And that's the reality.
A parallel discussion about race accompanied the debate with comment on the fact that while we have a rising black middle class in the country, we still have a situation where 50 per cent of young black men are unemployed - and are pushed out because they don't fit.
Lastly the audience were presented with a challenge. WIll Self asked us to imagine a world where prejudice and stigma were suddenly, overnight banished. How would that look? Who or what would you become? How would that impact on your idea of an equal society? One person said – in jest – that they’d be 'a banker'; another said they'd like to see 'a wobbly man icon around town' in appropriate places; another that they’d like to see their life reflected back to them as it is. For me it would mean more in-depth exposure of the challenges that M.E. presents. Will Self invited us to leave comments on his website at will-self.com/.
I’d also like to see the history of the Disability Arts Movement over the last 25 years and more preserved. YOU can play a part by leaving a comment on DAO on the kinds of things you would like to see a National Disability Arts Collection and Archive at http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/support-NDACA
Liz Carr wrote recently in an interview with Richard Downes on DAO that what bothers her is how worked up the media gets with lambasting comics like Ricky Gervais over 'mong gate' when the reality is that nobody gives a shit about the real issues affecting disabled people’s lives.
You can be declared fit for work by Atos just six weeks before you die - and it might just about make the Guardian's letters page!
Nicky Clark has recently written an insightful piece for the New Statesman looking at the hypocrisies of how the media works. Celebrities like Frankie Boyle will ignore disability hate crime for sake of a laugh, and will then appear on Comic Relief bigging up the worthy cause of helping the poor deserving disabled children.
Having grown up through the disability movement of the past 20 years I've learnt to see how media phenomena like Comic Relief are an extension of disabilty hate crime; set up to make the 'normals' feel better about themselves through patronising projects which support charities run by non-disabled people and rarely if ever directly empower disabled people.
Nicky has recently set up The Don't Play Me Pay Me campaign which seeks to actively encourage disabled people to follow their chosen creative career path.
I'd recommend endorsing the campaign which has similar aims to DAO in, amongst other things, providing a forum for all disabled actors to encourage debate and empower them to have their voice heard and listened to. She has taken up the challenge of engaging with the likes of Ofcom and Channel 4 and has received a fair bit of press coverage in her efforts to make her campaign known.
You can add your support by going to to http://www.dontplaymepayme.com
DAO sub-editor Marian Cleary asks how we can become more accessible when it comes to content on the site
As Colin Hambrook reported recently, DAO is soon to have a facelift. As well as responding to your comments made via our recent reader survey, we are also keen to build on our previous successes regarding accessibility to the site.
After the site was last overhauled in 2008, DAO received a Commendation for digital access in the prestigious 2009 Jodi Awards. It’s no surprise really since the web company DAO works with - Surface Impression – have long and established relationships with many organisations who prize accessibility to their web content as much as valuing what they are putting out there.
You though, the readers of and audience for our content, are the ones who can really give us an extra layer of insight into the process of making our journal more accessible. And for that reason, we are asking you for comments about how you think we can make things even better.
Bear in mind, we aren’t so much talking about the current site, but we need to know about the niggly things that bug you about accessing things on the web generally, perhaps with a screen reader, or when engaging with images or navigating external links. It might be that you would like some extra ways of opening content or you have a bit of computer kit that doesn’t work with the way DAO currently does things. Or perhaps you simply want more video and audio.
From my point of view, as sub-editor at DAO, speaking as someone who didn’t cry when she saw her babies for the first time after giving birth, but did boo tears of joy when I scored over 80% in my National Council for the Training of Journalists subbing exam, I’d like to know a bit about what works for you specifically when it comes to how text is presented.
It might be that you want more things in bold, such as titles and names, or you think that single quote marks for speech and quotes works better than double quote marks. Should we cap up acronyms like ATOS or should we follow Guardian Style and present them like this: Atos? Are our paragraphs too short? Too long? Do we present the inevitable mix of styles and tones of our writers effectively so you know what to expect? Do you want more text on a page or less?
We aren’t doing a formal survey on this but I would really appreciate your thoughts. You can either comment below this item or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are emailing, can you put DAO SUGGESTION in capitals (just like that) so I can keep your ideas together and so I don’t miss anything?
Once I’ve had a good look at what you have to say, I will be feeding this back to Surface Impression where appropriate.
Then I will be completing my own current work in progress: The DAO Style Guide! This will outline where we are currently in terms of making DAO as accessible as possible and will also be a good reference point, I hope, for all the writers and contributors to the site and all those who are engaged in publishing content. This guide will be another way in which we move towards our goal of becoming as accessible as possible.
So whether you are a regular reader of the content on the site or an occasional visitor to DAO, if you have an opinion on all of this, let me know.
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.
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.
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.
Judging by the numbers of disabled people I saw at the Royal Academy's David Hockney exhibition last Saturday, there is a will that goes beyond simply paying lip service to accessibility, to market the gallery to include disabled people.
The huge scale of the work on show, and the use of vivid colour means this exhibition is largely accessible for visitors with a range of sight impairments. The audio-guides provided had some clear, informative descriptions of the scale and detail of the works, whilst giving some good insight into artistic processes, with observations from Hockney himself, commenting on his work.
The popularity of this show with the general public has been overwhelming, leading to an average queue of two hours to gain entrance as we approach the last few weeks of its run. The gallery seems to be coping with the numbers of people, staggering entrance times so the numbers don’t go beyond capacity.
The main body of the work on show are oils, watercolours and charcoal drawings inspired by the Yorkshire Landscape. There is an intent to give visitors an appreciation of how the changing seasons and the time of day affect the light in a given spot in the landscape. Hockney has repeatedly gone back to the same bit of track through the countryside; and the same view of trees. He is fascinated by the way that trees arch over to contain the light, creating a tunnel affect in summer, when the trees are in leaf. The same spot in winter shows bare branches that open the space up and allow the sky in. This has the effect of making you look at the way that changes in the light affect the colour and mood of the landscape.
The enthusiasm of the way that Hockney’s work has been received could develop to compare with how Constable came to be viewed in the latter half of the 20th century. Hockney’s work has a certain romanticism to it. He puts modest, unspectacular, scenes from the Yorkshire Wolds firmly back on the map. But largely these series of paintings, film and digital prints look at trees as architectural forms. The work, thankfully, doesn’t offer the same degree of sentimentality that led to Constable being viewed as 'the' painter of the English idyll.
Lastly I'd like to comment on the impressive range of accessible events the gallery has provided for the Hockney exhibition. It has included Lipspeaking talks, Audio-described and BSL events, events for wheelchair-users, as well as a drawing Hockney soundscapes workshop, designed to be inclusive of individual access requirements.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is on at the Royal Academy until the 9 April. Check the RA website for further information at http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/hockney/
In the meantime The Royal Acadmey is running a series of sessions for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s and their carers or family members on 23 April and 14 May; looking at artworks from the Permanent Collections and exploring objects from the multi sensory handling collection. For details go to http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/events/special-events/
Creativity is a place where difficulty and beauty can share the same bed and offer something of value. The Creative Case for Diversity is an approach - mooted by the Arts Council - in an attempt to have a conversation about how it is that Art that comes from artists outside the usual narrow definition of who can be defined an artist and what can be defined as art, is often the most original work being produced.
DAO as a platform has attempted over recent years, to open its pages up to work by artists - who may not define as disabled artists - but who produce work that has come out of an experience of disability or impairment. The exciting thing for me about this work is its intent to say something real, that comes out of lived experience.
Yesterday I saw work produced by the remarkable, unfettered imagination of Sanchita Islam (as featured in an interview with Elisabetta Marino on Creative Case for Diversity) at her Pigment Explosion Party 2. Located in the snug on the fifth floor of Shoreditch House, I walked past a pool room to find Sanchita drawing in situ, while a screen showed a digital showcase of containing work spanning 25 years of making art.
On either side of the room, displayed flat were two 30 foot long scrolls: ‘Soul on a Scroll’ and a ‘panoramic view of East London’. Covered in the most exquisite range of pen and ink, drawing and painting, the work explores a billion and more details of intertwining stories and narratives of a mind allowed to roam unrestricted.
The minutiae of details in Islam’s drawing, reminded me of a lighter, feminine Nick Blinko, more psychedelic than gothic in its influence, but nonetheless intense; especially in the reams of impossibly tiny text that becomes a textural mark-making pattern for ‘Soul on a Scroll.’ The writing assumes a quality akin to the Rosetta stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Begun in 2008 as a way of emptying and calming the mind the work references classic images by Bacon, Bosch, Velázquez Goya and Da Vinci. There are a range of anatomical exercises in amongst the mountains, trees and foothills which unveil an inner landscape of truly epic proportions. There is absurdist humour in the detail. The eye suddenly settles on a phrase “I don’t like number 2” as a prequel to a sequence of drawing made of equations moving like swimmers in the tide towards the ‘Sanchita Equation.’
The second scroll on display was a 360 degree panoramic view of East London as seen from the top of Shoreditch House, before the recent railway was built. It begins with a man sitting with his back to the city and extends beyond into a freeflow of erotic goddess-type figures who pose in the sky, alongside the faces of small dogs peeping out from behind clouds. The landscape unfolds further to reveal a scene of upright dildos, resembling the ‘Fairy Chimneys’ in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Showing artwork in this way, in a non-gallery setting, makes it less formal, and more of a happening; a chance to meet the artist, hear her perform poetry and exchange meaningful conversation. I was wowed by the experience. Look out for an article from Sanchita about her work on DAO, to be published later this week…
DAO has published a couple of reports, recently on events about access to theatre and theatre-making. In her review on The Scottish Dance Theatre’s Pathways to the Profession Symposium, Jo Verrent concludes that the discussion at the conference “isn’t a battle for access, it’s about a critical contribution to culture.”
Putting our experience as ‘diverse’ artists, out there is a process of finding the keys held by the gatekeepers, in a climate ever more pressurized by funding restrictions.
Forging links with companies who clearly recognize the value of disability performance, like Improbable Theatre, has to be one way forward. I was knocked out by the production of No Idea by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence that they toured in 2010.
But, will Improbable continue to work with material that explores the rich depth of experience that diversity can bring to the theatre? I've just published a well-considered and informative piece by Danny Braverman about Improbable Theatre's Devoted & Disgruntled Open Space process and what it can achieve. He talks passionately about the need to pass on information to younger practitioners: “When a young theatre-maker talked about bi-lingual work in Bengali and English I could point her towards the pioneering work at the Half Moon Young People’s Theatre 20-odd years ago.”
There was clearly a lot of discussion about opening theatre up to 'diverse' audiences and theatre practitioners. But how do we impress the value of the work on to a wider set of theatre practitioners and professionals? What it is that is holding disability theatre back in taking part in conversations and sharing experience with theatre professionals, in general?
Disability theatre, or indeed, accessible theatre isn’t breaking the ground it should be. For example in the plethora of theatre and performing arts being showcased in the Brighton Festival 2012, there is little or no consideration given to access. There are no audio-described performances programmed and I found only four shows that have BSL interpreted performances. Carousel have one outing of ‘Gold Run’ and Tin Bath Theatre’s children’s show ‘Bee Detective’ has three shows programmed.
In Brighton it seems the battle for access has stepped back a notch. Last year we had shows from Deaf Men Dancing, Graeae, Up-Stream, as well as a much wider range of BSL interpreted events, talks etc.
This year, the only disability-specific piece of theatre that has been programmed, is Chris Larner's pro-assisted suicide piece, An Instinct for Kindness. Do I detect that the gate-keepers want us to go away, or is that simply paranoia setting in?
DAO's Director, Trish Wheatley invites readers to air their views on DAO in return for the chance to win £40 of Amazon vouchers
DAO is currently attracting record numbers of readers peaking at 14,000 visitors per month viewing over 32,000 pages in February, which is absolutely fantastic. Thank you to all our writers and readers for their contibutions and do keep returning for all the latest in blogs, news, reviews, listings and much more.
As we gear up for an unprecedented year of cultural activity we are keen to collect your thoughts on DAO's successes and areas in which we could improve. It would help us enormously if you could take time to fill in our 20 question survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/dao2012survey
It should take between 5 - 10 minutes to fill in. For your efforts you will be entered into a prize draw for the opportunity to win £40 of Amazon vouchers.
It's vitally important that we get feedback from you, including both positive comments and constructive criticism so that we can plan DAO's future and prove to our funders the need for our work.
You have three weeks to take part, the final day for submitting your comments is Friday 23 March 2012. So please, click on the link now and do your bit to help us make DAO the best it can be.
When you're finished, don't forget to come back to DAO to read the array of fascinating blogs and features that we have on the site. Our New Voices writers have been full of activity on the blogs and there's some interesting and insightful reviews too.
I usually watch television documentaries on disability, expecting to be slumped in my chair groaning after two minutes, before making my excuses to the disability movement and switching off with a refusal to write yet another blog about the ignorance that abounds in the world of the media.
DAO recently had a surge of activity in response to our New Voices writer Charlie Swinbourne’s review of the BBC 3 documentary ‘Deaf Teens in a Hearing World’, screened earlier this month. It made a very refreshing change to see a television feature that made a real attempt to represent young deaf people in a way that gave some insight into their lives from their individual perspectives on deaf culture and hearing impairment, without pandering to the usual tragic but brave stereotypes.
It was clear from the numerous comments that appeared on DAOs forum as well as on other comment boards dedicated to discussing the programme that there was a consensus of approval for the clear aim of the documentary to educate the hearing world about a range of perspectives, whilst highlighting some of the outrageous discriminatory practices that young deaf people encounter.
The programme showed a ridiculous moment when deaf university student Sara is taken aback by her notetaker who signs that she has to leave the class early because of her “ill chicken.” In response there has been a hilarious flurry of activity on the internet about 'Chickengate’. If you’re intrigued sign up to the the #deafteens hashtag on twitter. Charlie Swinbourne has documented the rise and fall of the phenomenon on his blog, giving some valid reasons in the notetaker’s defence. [ie "she’s obviously an animal lover, after all".]
The real scandal that the documentary highlighted is shocking practice of deaf schools like Mary Hare who still continue to ban the use of BSL. One of the deaf teens – Christianah was shown continuing to flout the school rule insisting on the wearing of hearing aids. She was portrayed in a way that you could really identify with her discomfort, whether you were deaf or hearing. It is like the practice in blind schools (which has largely, thankfully disappeared) of not allowing visually impaired students to use canes or vision aids.
These kinds of practices are the embodiment of an insidious undercurrent that having an impairment, and not being ‘perfect’ is in some way shameful, rather than a fact of life, “to be expected and respected on its own terms rather than pitied, excluded or reacted to with hostility,” as Dr Colin Cameron says.
So hats off to new director Claire Braden. Charlie also posted an interview with her on his blog which you might like to read.
Meanwhile if you haven’t managed to watch the documentary yet, its viewing on BBC 3 i-player has been extended until 20 February.
Here at DAO we’ve had a fantastic start to what promises to be an astonishing year for disabled artists. Each month we will aim to highlight some of the new content and alert you to upcoming opportunities to get involved with DAO. So, new for this month we’ve published a flurry of new blogs from our regulars, Gini, Vince Laws, Signdance, Gary Thomas, Oska Bright, Sam Jacobs and Aidan Moesby to name a few.
We also welcome five writers who have just started on our Arts Council funded New Voices programme in London. They are Deborah Caulfield, Nicole Fordham-Hodges, Rich Downes, Obi Chiejina and Charlie Swinbourne. They will be blogging, reviewing and interviewing over the next few months. We’ve already had a lively workshop session at Shape’s offices in London and I’m really looking forward to see what they produce. Why not look at their articles and take time to make some comments to get the debate going?
There’s also new content on our Creative Case for Diversity website. Featured here is the latest article by Sarah Pickthall called Walks of Life in which she considers the work of Pina Bausch, Alain Platel and Merce Cunningham – their rejection of the notion of the perfect body and their celebration of what the body does naturally and involuntarily. From the blogs Amardeep Sohi asks ‘What do you think is the role of funding bodies such as ACE and arts institutions in diversifying the arts landscape?’
We invite you to read, consider and get stuck into some discussions on these topics. The Creative Case site and comments boards have been designed to give everyone a voice so why not make yours heard?
Don’t forget our listings service! You can sign up to receive a weekly listings bulletin. Also, if you have an event or opportunity to advertise you can upload it yourself by clicking on listings and then ‘send us your listings’.
In a blog on Parallel Lines recently, Aaron Williamson made the point that “the notion that an individual is disabled by their impairment is still the prevalent mainstream way of thinking.” One of the ways it manifests is in the often tokenistic way that organisations attempt to make concessions towards disabled people.
Looking at the BBC Vision’s current training opportunity to find disabled presenters -‘PresentAble’ - leaves me with that certain feeling I get in the pit of my stomach whenever I see programmes designed to wrest disabled people from a well of despond. I would wish for something positive to come from the opportunity. Perhaps for those individuals who end up taking part, it could represent an opportunity that would not have otherwise been obtainable!
But the language of PresentAble is steeped in notions of ‘celebration’ and ‘overcoming’ – a trend Aaron identifies as “a noticeable return to specifying individual impairment rather than social identity as the basis for disability art.”
True this is about the media, rather than ‘art’… and as such it would no doubt for some mean a laudable opportunity. But it’s that taking the ‘dis’ out of disability, thing, that seems to perpetuate itself in the arts and the media
I happened to look through the ad and the application process online and ended up feeling they were - once again - looking for someone with a visible impairment who doesn’t have the kind of disabilities for who the application process itself would not present any barriers. Again there is a contact to get in touch if you want them to consider making reasonable adjustments…
If you are interested in PresentAble go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/news/presentable.shtml for details on how to apply. Applications are open until 31 January
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 http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/Send_us_your_listings - 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 http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/Join_our_mailing_list
Colin reports on 'Bad News for Disabled People' research, which reveals the extent of misrepresentation of disabled people in the media
At last Saturday's MeCCSa Disability Studies Network event titled 'The Representation of Disabled People in an Age of Austerity', Nick Watson from Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research at Glasgow University , presented findings from research into a shift in the way that the media is reporting on disability.
The Centre analysed 2,276 print articles, focusing on the Express, Mail, Sun and Mirror plus the Guardian newspaper as a counterpoint. They chose to look at all articles published between October 2004 and January 2005, [when Blair was making significant changes to DLA], comparing them with articles published between October 2010 and January 2011.
Talking about why Inclusion London had commissioned the research, Nick Watson said that there was a general consensus that attitudes in reporting had changed, but no firm evidence outside an anecdotal awareness of continual assaults on disabled people in the media. The research set out to develop an overview of how the change was impacting on public attitudes and how disabled people feel about the change. To this end the research instituted two focus groups of non-disabled people and six with disabled people.
The Centre found a significant increase in the number of articles published, which referenced disability, accompanied by a shift in the content of the reports. Typically state benefits are a major theme in the tabloids. During the 04/05 period, headlines like "Labour's failure to tackle the spiralling sicknote culture" [Daily Mail December 2004] typified attacks on the government in the handing of disability benefits. Although a portion of these articles claimed that a large percentage of disabled people on benefits could work if they wanted to, many couched these accusations in terms of ‘the benefit trap’.
This compares significantly with the 2010-11 period in which the tabloid articles’ repeated arguments defending government policies in relation to disability. There was a huge increase in stories presenting the incapacity benefit claimant as 'undeserving' and using far more pejorative language. The use of the words ‘workshy’, ‘scroungers’ or ‘cheats’ or talking about ‘handouts’ and the ‘sicknote culture’ doubled in this period. Interestingly, the word ‘cripple’ has disappeared completely. This supports the implication from the findings that it is not so much ‘disabled people’ who are being attacked, as the idea that claimants are ‘non-disabled’ people who are pretending to be disabled.
Some articles even claimed that incapacity benefits were not only a drain on the economy, but were actually to blame for the current financial crisis [taking the onus away from the bankers]. At the same time the stories that imply disabled claimants are deserving of support, has greatly reduced. Nick Watson went on to say that although the disability studies movement has been very critical of ‘sympathetic biographies, the question we have to ask ourselves is ‘what are they replacing that representation of us with?’
A high proportion of impairment-focused stories or those that gave sympathetic accounts, introduced the reader to particular conditions, even if those accounts were often written in terms of triumph over tragedy. Many will welcome this drop in triumph stories - but as benefit and service cuts bite deeper, so the attitudes which could have served as a counterpoint, are disappearing.
What we are seeing now is a backlash to the Thatcher era when the numbers of claimants for incapacity benefit grew massively so the government could hide the disastrous unemployment figures of the time. And with that is an implication that the state is once again rewriting who is and who isn't disabled. Nearly 50 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants are registered for claims under mental health grounds. Mental health is attacked persistently and is rarely mentioned in articles as a ‘deserving’ impairment issue.
There has also been a rise in the number of invisible impairments that have been recognised by health services in the last ten years or so. With many of these impairments there is a fluctuation in the individuals’ capacity to function, which the tabloids do not acknowledge.
The tabloids never talk about the realities of benefit fraud. The headlines simply repeat that as much as 75 per cent of incapacity benefit claims are bogus, despite the fact that the DWP estimate for total overpayment is put at 2.5 per cent and actual DLA fraud at 0.5 per cent.
Worryingly, the focus groups of non-disabled people engaged in the research regurgitated what they had read in the tabloids, putting fraud at between 40 - 70 per cent of claims. Nick Watson said he was shocked at the level of belief that came across. Although all of those who took part talked about friends who've been denied benefit who are ‘deserving’; they continued to repeat the idea that it is the ‘undeserving’ who actually get benefits.
On the positive side of things no one from the focus groups questioned the idea that disability is an equality issue. Many people talked about access as an essential consideration. No one believes it to be a product of political correctness when Cameron talks about the importance of disabled people having ‘equal rights’. It is just that no-one challenges how what the government are doing is undermining those rights.
Overall the research gives some hard evidence for a marked shift in the way that disability is being reported. Discrimination as an equality issue is barely being mentioned, even in the Guardian.
So what can we do? There is more of a need than ever, to write to the newspapers and the press complaints commission to challenge the attacks being made on disabled people.
For the Outside-In Step-Up program I am doing some research on how artists talk about themselves in terms of disability; and how art historians and academics refer to disability. As a beginning I am planning to gather as much material as I can on a broad spectrum of artists, before narrowing down to focus on a few artists.
The point of my research is to look at references to disability and impairment from the perspective of the Social and Affirmative Models of Disability. As a rule of thumb, within art catalogues, media reviews and art historical texts, disability is always viewed from the Medical Model: ie as a negative. Disability is always something to be endured, rather than something that inspires originality, in terms of technique. It is something that places the artist in the realm of ‘the other’.
In contrast the Affirmative Model of Disability understands impairment from a disabled persons’ perspective. To quote Dr Colin Cameron from his PhD research, “impairment is part of who we are as human beings, part of the human condition (to be expected and respected on its own terms rather than pitied, excluded or reacted to with hostility), part of what makes us us (and proud to be us).”
Often, artists who are willing to talk openly about disability, do so from a much more rounded point of view. For example in her Creative Case for Diversity article, Jo Verrent, in exploring the portraits of photorealist painter, Chuck Close, quotes the artist talking about ‘prosopagnosia’ or ‘face blindness’ as the inspiration and motivation for the large portraits he is renowned for.
In The Madness of Peter Howson - a BBC Four profile of the painter, screened in the summer of 2011, the celebrated Scottish artist talks with humour about mental illness and describes living with Asperger's Syndrome as an essential part of his being an artist. The dedication and vision he brings to his painting have a very real correlation with the impairment. Yet media reviews, tended to report on this aspect of the documentary as self-defeating.
I recently wrote about the painter Edward Burra whose work has been given a major retrospective as Pallant House Gallery for the first time in 25 years [see my blog on Dada-South's website]. As an individual he was very reticent in talking about disability, but there is no doubt that his painting technique, which makes his work stand out amongst 20th century British painters, was a response to living with arthritis.
Within the Social Model is the idea that disability is social construct. We are disabled by the barriers that society puts in our way, on account of having an impairment that makes us different from the perceived ‘norm.’ Within the Art World there is a myth that to be an artist, you have to be ‘special’. Being different is to some extent something that is expected, if within certain bounds.
Art School training in England over the last 30 years, has swallowed the myth of the ‘troubled artist.’ To be interesting, to be a potential ‘celebrity artist’, there has to be something different about you. As a result, there is often a cruelty in the way that the personalities of students are often interrogated and torn apart by art tutors, as part of the ‘artistic’ process. This idea of what makes an artist is nothing new! In her book Illness as a Metaphor, writer Susan Sontag, deconstructs the myth of the 'troubled' artist, by looking at a broad range of novels and literary texts from the early 19th century onwards. She analyses how myths that underpinned the romanticisation of tubercolosis were transferred onto myths about madness, during the last century. Within this she interrogates the romantic imagination and the struggle for divinity.
And within that struggle lies the rub. What is it that makes us spiritual? Or spiritual enough to be a ‘proper’ artist? How is it that the notions of being ‘troubled’ and being ‘spiritual’ are somehow interchangeable? The Social Model says that it is not impairment per se that is the ‘trouble.’ Rather, it is societies attitudes that create barriers to a truth about where responsibility lies.
I am looking for responses to help me in my research and wondered if you would provide some feedback on the following questions. Please feel free to post comments below or send an email seperately to email@example.com
Do you know of references to disability within art history books or exhibition catalogues, that I might investigate for research purposes?
How do you feel about talking about disability or impairment in relation to being an artist? Is disability something that you are open about when talking about your artistic endeavours?
How do you feel about Disability Art as a concept or art movement?
Do you have any thoughts on the notion of the ‘troubled artist?’
Colin reflects on decibel's aim to bring Performing Arts from across the diversity strands under one banner
A week on from decibel, the Arts Council’s Performing Arts Showcase in Manchester from 12-18 September 2011 and I am still reeling from the expanse and breadth of the work we saw there. At a time when the recession is hitting the Arts, it was exciting to experience a festival that understands how bringing artists and companies from across the range of work being made under the diversity banner can create an atmosphere that fosters new challenges, new conversations and new ways of doing things.
I won’t forget seeing Avant Garde Dance performing break-dance on top of a black cab. Aside from the decibel audience they drew the attention of builders and office workers who happened to pass the car park outside the music theatre where it was all taking place.
Brian Lobel [www.blobelwarming.com ] broke taboos with an extraordinary performance about his experience of testicular cancer that proved that one of the best ways of coming to terms with chronic, life threatening illness is by being able to laugh at it. The point of it was to break down barriers to the way we talk about impairment. I found it inspiring as someone who struggles on a daily basis, to come to terms with chronic illness.
The opportunity to meet and learn from people like Rawand Arqawi from the Freedom Theatre in Palestine was immense. There are big advantages to bringing artists together from across the sectorial divides. Maria Oshodi, Director of Extant put it well when she said “My art practise is informed by my norm, but bringing my practise into a more public arena, turns it into something other than the 'norm'.”
So crossing those divides can create the conditions to spark the imagination and break out of that sense of being constrained by the fact you are only speaking to people with a similar idea of what it means to be different. Difference provides the arts with a rich tapestry that is truly innovative and refreshing. But there needs to be a way to open up debate to a wider arena – and that is what the decibel showcase provides.
Programmers I spoke to gave a range of responses to how they might take on board the work on show, and the artists being showcased. But essentially there was no mistaking the fact that work coming out of practice that falls under the diversity banner; that represents the different agendas: disability, race, lgbt and women’s issues, can offer something refreshing and new to the Arts.