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Ems Coombes - disability arts online
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The birth of Strictly Collaborative / 1 February 2011

Strictly Collaborative in rehearsal

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I had never worked with any disabled people. But then I found myself a disabled person. I found it difficult to understand why people didn't know how to react to me once I had become a disabled person.

I also found it really frustrating and thought it was a shame because I couldn’t see why that would be. It makes no sense to me why we’ve been – we’ve been sort of kept in our own environments and not brought together. So that we know – we know how we each other works.

And I went to the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. And I said to them, “Look, I’ve been trained at Dartington.” And I told them the issue with the benefits. And the fact that I was a creative person and I had no outlet for it. And I told them also about the disability. And Sheila Snellgrove, the director of the Barbican Theatre, said to me, “You have to go away and you have to come back to me with one idea.”

And I went a way that night and thought, “What do I want out of my career?” Or, “What do I want out of life?” You know, what is this thing that I need. And it was integration. It was – I needed there to be some sort of level playing field for both disabled and non-disabled people to work in a safe, creative environment where they could create a voice. And that’s how Strictly Collaborative came about.

But at first, I thought it was just going to be a drama group. And as I looked around on the internet and everything for a similar model, I realised that there was nothing. You know, from Bristol downwards, I couldn’t find a theatre group that was inclusive. Strictly inclusive. There wasn’t a non-disabled group around to let disabled people in, if they wanted to join.

Because they don’t advertise themsleves as being integrated. You know, disabled people do not look at what they have going on and think, “This is a place for us.” They go, “Oh, it’s for non-disabled people. So I thought this has got to happen and it became a company and not just a group.

People – disabled people need to know that it is for them. Yes? But non-disabled still need to know that it is for them as well. So inclusive, not integrated. Integrated is not disabled-led. See, I’ve done my research on this. Integrated isn’t disabled-led. Inclusive means it is a disabled-led inclusive group. And Strictly Collaborative, because it’s strictly collaborative.

There is no inclusivity in Plymouth. And even though I’ve also found out that a lot of people say that they are sort of integrated or inclusive, you know, “Oh, we would – we would let disabled people in.” Like, well, that’s fair enough. But it’s not inclusive. If it was inclusive, you’d have – you wouldn’t just have one disabled person. You would openly be inviting people in so that they know that they are welcome.