Access and ambiguity working in the Arts

By Jhinuk Sarkar

Many people get nervous about access. I’m by no means an expert, but by working with disabled artists over the last three years at Shape, I have got to know the ambiguity and pitfalls for many disabled artists.

There are still many fuzzy areas for disabled people that can turn into barriers against working in the Arts. I’ve spoken to many frustrated artists who have met these barriers. If you have access requirements in the workplace, the UK’s government scheme, Access to Work can be a very useful solution, but it can also be a battle to get the right amount of support – as recently reported by Lyn Gardener in The Guardian.

An advisor looks at the work you will be doing, what you need in place to carry that out, and funds your access requirements based on an assessment of this. If you are freelance, you may need to get your work ahead assessed more regularly or on a project-by-project basis. This all works well in principle, if you articulate exactly what you can and can’t do if you do/do not have the right transport/equipment/facilities or support in place. Sometimes you also have to sound pushy to get results!

However, for some disabled people, registering as a freelancer puts them at risk, because working can compromise the financial support they need for their access. There are not any clear-cut ways to work around how it is possible for a disabled person to live with access in place on an income they earn in the Arts. Access to Work support is based on you being able to show you have a ‘viable business’ – a difficult task for many artists. Within Unlimited we have many artists who have support from Access to Work, some who don’t and some who have been turned down and who are now campaigning to get their support back. Our artists are lucky as we can pick up some of the slack at the moment to ensure they get their needs met. But what about other disabled artists out there facing the same barriers? To gain some other perspectives, I spoke to representatives from art organisations outside of London.

Julia Skelton at Mind the Gap Theatre Company has tracked ten cases of learning disabled artists the company has worked with over the last 5-10 years. She found that on average, the artists were either getting paid so little that it was barely enough for any person to live on (let alone a person who had no access requirements or support to pay for) or the artists would be happy to work for free out of fear that if they were paid, it would compromise the very income benefits that they rely on to provide them with access in the first place! Julia and I agree that this can only lower artists’ confidence and lower expectations that Art has any value for society, if we are not even in a position to invest in the people providing/creating the Art.

In the South, Simon Powell from Creative Futures has had similar experiences with the artists he has worked with. A recent study that Creative Futures undertook can be found here.. The system is still evolving and changing, and it’s heavily reliant on attitudes – often deeply embedded. The solutions regarding access have to start from listening to disabled people with first hand experiences of what the barriers are and working together to find solutions.

Unlimited 2014 Artists at a training day held at Rich Mix in July 2014.
Unlimited 2014 Artists at a training day held at Rich Mix in July 2014.

I know it may sound simple, but I think it is worth saying that if you are responsible for providing access for anyone, like I am at Shape for Unlimited artists, it is always a good idea to ask directly at the start – what are your access requirements? It’s the key to providing disabled people with the level of access they need and prefer.

Simon, Julia and I are discussing when to meet in the near future to share and learn informally about all things access; Government schemes and financial issues affecting disabled artists and what we can action on this collectively. If you are interested in joining the conversation, please contact Unlimited’s Senior Producer who will put you in touch with us.