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Colin Hambrook reflects on the second Artists Debating Identity event at Shape / 16 October 2009

On Thursday 15 October Shape held their second informal conversation, led by Michèle Taylor - this time targeted at performing artists. Recognising the current lack of a platform for disabled and Deaf performers to come together to share ideas and talk about prevalent issues, Shape has created an ongoing event where 20 or so disabled and Deaf people can come together to talk openly and honestly.

Michèle set the tone by opening the debate with a showing of Liz Crows’ film about her iconic piece of performance on Anthony Gormley’s plinth, which was created to coincide with Resistance - a moving image installation, which is currently on tour. Liz Crow's performance has now reached the Guardian's Top Ten, which has been selected from the 2400 people who have each spent one hour on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Liz Crow’s performance was deliberately provocative. It consisted of her appearing dressed in a veil which was drawn aside to reveal her in nazi uniform. Significantly the performance took place on the 70th anniversary date of the Nazis Final Solution programme intended to end the existence of disabled people, amongst other minority and ethnic communities.

As well as drawing peoples' attention to a bit of overlooked history, it is truly about making people think about discrimination as it exists in the present day. In conversation, several people said that the atmosphere at Trafalgar Square on the night was electric.

The film gave an opportunity for people to discuss how there seems to be little space these days for people to talk about their experience of discrimination. These are not the kind of conversations that we are having as disabled people any more.

Disability arts became established through the cabaret circuit. It was a safe space for many disabled and Deaf performers to hone their craft in a space where they knew their audience would understand where the work was coming from. It was also a campaigning ground – especially for pushing access issues to the fore.

The fact is that we still live under a cosh as to whether or not we are ‘persons worthy of living'. The more ‘normal’ we can present ourselves as, the more likely we are of getting through the net of who is and who isn’t 'of value’.

I say this from a personal and emotional space. My mother was killed by a psychiatrist - one of the many Dr Shipman-types who inhabit psychiatry because of the lack of accountability that makes it possible for some psychiatrists to basically do what they want to you without fear of any comeback. As a ‘nutter’ you won’t make any sense anyway – so what does it matter if you complain?!

There is a notion that things are different now; that we have acceptance etc. But only six years ago when I tried talking to a GP about my mothers’ death. She told me that if my mother hadn’t died of the medication, "she would certainly have died of the schizophrenia.”

I come from a line of three generations labelled as schizophrenics. I am proud of being a human with a brain split into two halves. The challenge is understanding why people are so scared of a fancy medical word invented with a bit of Latin jiggery-pokery. ('schizo' means 'split' and 'phrenic' means 'of the brain')

The identity debate provided an opportunity to air some our stories. Julie McNamara talked about a Survivors’ poetry gig where she was told by a dignitary that she thought it "marvelous that mentally ill people are allowed out these days to do their own thing.”

The position now is that we don’t see ourselves as a Movement. We have lost cohesion and don’t consistently have the opportunities for conversations about the politics of disability that were part and parcel of the scene up to ten years ago.

Tony Heaton made the statement that we are struggling to get through a glass ceiling. Without critical debate we can’t move on as artists, writers and performers – yet there isn’t a coterie of professional disabled journalists who understand the issues who can write critically about the art and performance.

Mandy Colleran made the point that recently there has been a proliferation of research PhDs around disability performance, but they are all written by non-disabled academics, who cannot ever own the space, or truly understand the voice that the disabled performers’ experience is drawn from.

I think we struggle within the movement to fully grasp each others’ access issues. It can be hard enough to even own our own access issues, let alone moving into other impairment territories. There was a lot of discussion around how certain disability performing arts companies have made choices that have excluded impairment groups – another part of the division which has brought us to where we are.

The real dilemma that we face, is that we are stuck with the fact that people from outside the disability community will more often than not look at us and at our work from a medical model perspective. Liz Bentley talked about having to feel comfortable that what she delivers is going to be understood by her audiences. As a performer fairly new to the Disability Arts scene, it is only in recent years of doing disability gigs that she has developed disability material. Before going on she therefore has to make a decision about her audience and chooses what material to give them, based on a quick judgement.

The politics of disability arts has been diluted by our efforts to move into the ‘mainstream.’ Stephen Hodgkin made the point that we have been colonised by mainstream thinking. We find ourselves struggling with the fact that our voices and experiences are being owned by others with a medical model attitude.

I guess it comes down to motivation. What drives you to get up on a stage in the first place. I can’t attempt to summarise much more of the conversation here, so I’d like to leave it on an unequivocal statement from Katherine Araniello that for me summed up my feeling about why the hell keep banging on about disability arts in the first place. She said she is driven to make the work she makes because she hates the world - with all the stereotypes and tight-fit ways of representing difference as tragedy and loss.

Keywords: access issues,assisted suicide,disability art,disabled people's movement,mental health,social model



22 October 2009

Great minds think alike eh?! Both Colin and I have looked at the subject of disability v mainstream arts this week, and I for one expected a flood of comments from our disabled peers. But when I look, no-one has bothered to comment on Colin's blog and I've got just three! Come on you guys, what do you have to say? We honestly want to know ... or are we just whistling in the wind here?!

Linda Burnip

1 November 2009

having had to recently deal with an overenthusiastic GP who wanted me to take an annual infusion of a drug I have very bad responses to when I have tried a very small daily dose of it, my feeling about doctors is disabled people should be protected from them.

It took me a while to realise that medicine isn't scientific but very subjective, for example for my impairment some consultants recommend low fat diets and others high fibre diets two toally different ends of spectrum. At the etime I had a brilliant consultant who said eat what suits you but since then ....

Marisha Bonar

3 November 2009

Such a Powerful and Profound piece of writing .....

Thanks you for this Colin,

Lots of Love,

Marisha =^.^=

4 November 2009

Isn't a discrimination-NOT at a personal level Colin !!!!!!!- to make a difference between: disabled and Deaf ???????

OK, disabled , then Deaf-so...not disabled-

OK, Deaf in Capital letters, and then disabled......

OK: Deaf aren't disabled????

I do acknowledge (??) that most of Deaf People doesn't see themselves as Disabled People, but as a minority and even hate the thought of being disabled....I asked my Fantastic Audiologist -as I'm partially Deaf as well....-what he thought. I do consider myself as a Person with impaiments and Disabled by Society.....I did ask if he thought that Deaf People are Disabled People:according to him, Yes....according to me: Yes......

Even the Liberty Festival is advertised as : "a Platform for Deaf and disabled Artists", which I always found so incorrect...but as always, I'm most probably so wrong.But that is how I feel.

So...I'll be hated now by the Deaf People "Minority" (??)as well......

Lots of hugs,


......Sincerely Loving your piece of writing Colin.

Joe Kelly

9 November 2009

Dear Colin, I thought Liz Crow's 'Protest on the Plinth' was very good. I am aware of the history of what they call T4 and the final solution. When I was Director of Footsteps Arts every January 27th was Holocaust Memorial Day and our little group would carry out a small service with readings, prayers and a minute’s silence for the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

The first of which were the disabled. We also included lesser-known holocausts. I am also aware of the huge rage that is part of the disability movement against mainstream society.

I wrote a poem called Mad Anger because I was so badly treated by one psychiatrist who stood in the pathway of my getting a job, a job that I was very keen to get and I was prevented from getting by this poor specimen.


I do believe I have mad anger

Abuse abuse psychiatric abuse

I am an innocent person defiled

Don’t talk down to me mr arrogant psychiatrist

You have credibility status and power

You smile but you speak with forked tongue

I’m a nobody a poor individual with nothing

You who have sworn a vow to care

When I am at my least that’s when I need your regards the most

I have the anger that that is hard to express

‘’ It’s not the policy of the health authority to employ a person who has had psychosis’’

I have the anger of the righteous one who has been defiled

That’s why I have mad anger

I am a firm believer in the late Robert Kennedy’s quote. He said, "don’t get mad-get even." I really think we should be concentrating our energies to identifying definite targets on how we can improve disability influence and disability arts. In User-dom we have two important problems .The first is individual isolation and secondly collective isolation.

Regarding individual isolation - if every day centre and user community group in the country had access to the Internet it would make a significant difference. Access to reliable up to date information would be the beginning of a more coherent movement. Collective isolation-that are about 4 or 5 prominent organisations in Userdom but no overall principal leader of our movement to speak on our behalf. Therefore we are less effective as lobbyists, net workers and reformers.

At the moment I am talking to colleagues who think along the same lines as myself who are working towards Unity in Userdom.

If you think as a reader of this Blog you have your own views please send them to me Joe Kelly or to the editor Colin Hambrook.


20 December 2009

I am liviing in Japan where fascists existed about 70 years ago.

I majored in social welfare at university. And I can not foget Hitler's Action T4 which is program to kill people with handicaps.

He tried to make a strong country. But I think the strong country is inclusive society where people with handicaps can be members. Even Hitler might have used wheelchair if he lived longer.

Today, some people will not abondon the thought of eugenics. This means invisible Hitler is now living still. performance and art is one of good weapons to fight against today's Hitlers, peacefully.

This month I built my website about art and wheelchair. Let me introduce this DAO in my website too.