In January I attended the Creative Connections Arts and Disability Conference in Galway. The event, organised by Art and Disability Ireland, involved presentations panel discussions, performances and top class international speakers.
Travelling to the venue and surviving a two day conference with my chronic pain/ fatigue/ anxiety combo was a big concern but when I heard that Jess Thom was going to be one of the speakers that sealed the deal…I was going. I had seen the live performance of her show Backstage at Biscuit Land on BBC4 last year and was blown away by it. The Musical Finale was a thing of wonder.
Jess was the first speaker of the conference, setting the bar very high for the rest of the event. She opened by telling us she created her alter ego Tourettes Hero as a creative response to living with Tourettes Syndrome. Through Tourettes Hero Jess has turned her tics into a source of imaginative creativity and her show had a hit run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year.
Jess is a wonderfully articulate speaker with a mischievous sense of humour and she invited the audience to laugh at her mostly humorous tics. The two tics I remember fondly are “the alchemy of David Blaine’s butt cheeks” and “tiny cat tits”.
In her presentation she spoke of the damage of diminished expectations and how we must not expect less of ourselves just because we are disabled. She urged us to challenge ourselves and to be open to new approaches even if they don’t succeed, suggesting we try to build in failure and nurture unpredictable outcomes. Getting it wrong is how we learn.
Once Jess finished her presentation she became a member of the audience for the rest of the conference. To begin with her vocal tics were very noticeable but after a while they faded into the background along with the normal coughs, sneezes, laughter and crisp eating of any theatre audience. This was inclusiveness at its best.
I only got to meet Jess briefly but she kindly agreed to answer some of my questions by email. Thinking about how challenging it is for me to be away from home I wondered if she found travelling difficult… turns out she actually enjoys travelling. All that is required is some good planning around her access needs and the assistance of a trusty support worker. I love that she has never had a major problem flying despite how often she shouts “Bomb”. I asked Jess about the ear defenders she was wearing at the conference dinner at the wonderful, but loud, Club Tropicana. It turns out that, like me, Jess suffers form heightened sensitivity to noise but unlike me she has the sense to kit herself out appropriately.
Amongst the many things I learnt at C.C was that we as a society need to think about the changes that need to be made that will allow us to fully participate in society and make good artwork. That like Jess we must own our disabilities by having big thoughts and make work that reflects our unique and particular worldview. I also learnt some things about myself, like how difficult it had become for me to continue participating in the mainstream art world due to what I now know are my own particular access needs. That with good planning I could attend events such as C.C. where the quality of the program outweighs the discomfort involved. And finally for me to make good work in the future I have to own the affects of my disability, get over myself and buy a damn good pair of ear protectors.
Give yourself a daily smile by seeing her new tics on the Touretteshero facebook page, twitter account @Ticbot. I would also highly recommend her book Welcome to Biscuit land.