A man, Tony Heaton, is sat in a wheelchair with a prosthetic leg nestled round his shoulders and neck. He is looking at the camera.

Reflections on the Disability Arts Movement

For the latest post as part of her associate role with Unlimited and The Art House, curator and writer Linda Rocco interviewed Tony Heaton, David Hevey and Jo Verrent, members of the Disability Arts Movement, for their thoughts on the legacy of disabled people’s art and activism in the UK.

The Disability Arts Movement (D.A.M.) was initiated in the late 1970s and brought together a variety of activists, artists and creatives of all kinds who campaigned for the civil rights of disabled people and fought against their marginalisation in the arts and culture. The influence of the movement led to the passing in 1995 of the DDA, which banned discrimination of disabled people in connection with employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services, replaced in 2010 with the Equality Act. The Disability Arts Movement, a milestone in the history of UK activism, led to the creation of NDACA, the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, which delve into the power of art to achieve social change. For this article, I interviewed three representatives of the Disability Arts Movement whose work continues to be pivotal in the disabled community.

David Hevey is CEO at Shape Arts and project director of the NDACA. Described by the Huffington Post as ‘One of the leading documentary makers of a generation’, Hevey directed three films for the acclaimed BBC documentary series, Modern Times, and has BBC broadcast credits for documentary, drama and docudrama directing.

Tony Heaton is a British sculptor and disability rights activist who was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to the arts and the D.A.M. He was CEO of Shape Arts until 2017. Heaton has exhibited internationally and has created works both in the public realm and for private commissions. In 2012, he won the competition to produce the ‘Monument to the Unintended Performer’ celebrating the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Jo Verrent is a writer, activist and Senior Producer for Unlimited. She also intervenes in arts and culture at strategic levels with national agencies and on the ground with organisations/individuals embedding the belief that diversity adds texture, turning policy into real action. Jo is a Clore fellow and has won a Cosmopolitan’s woman of achievement award.

 

Linda Rocco: Hello everybody and thanks for giving me your time for this interview. I would like to start asking David a couple of questions. We are aware of the changing in terms of legislation made by the D.A.M. However, do you think the movement also contributed to the shifting of the cultural mindset and overall perception around disabled people by the average population? What I am saying is: did the movement manage to break down a priori associations (disabled = crippled/mentally retarded) into more evolved understandings of the disabled community? If yes, in which ways?

DH: Yes, I think without a doubt the mindset of how disabled people are perceived was changed by the D.A.M. The movement did manage to break a priori associations through such large scale visibility projects and through protests aligned to the rights movement, which achieved the DDA. The old-school medical model is largely gone now, the social model is the one people ‘get’ but, one thing to remember, Vic Finkelstein when he first wrote of such ‘models’ (he called them views) had a third view, which was the administrative view; Vic’s idea was that ‘where to put disabled people’ (isolated at home, into institutions or special schools, onto benefits, etc) was actually one of the dominant oppressions and that, alas, still prevails heavily. So, yes, visibility made change, but not enough.

LR: The NDACA is a unique resource for UK and international activists around the globe. What can such a resource offer to marginalised movements that are struggling for visibility and social acceptance?

DH: The NDACA has collected the heritage story of disabled people and their allies who broke barriers, helped change the law and made great culture and art about those struggles. In a sense, the art of the disability arts movement has been a journey off the body-as-problem to society-as-problem, but with many artists playing with much of the space in between, too. In this way, the Disability Rights Movement very much learns from and echoes other political-art movements who also did this move off-the-body as site of problem to making art about society being the problem, such as the Black Arts Movement in the UK in the 1990s and beyond. So two central messages, perhaps, are these: the first is try to make art aligned to a political movement seeking rights or at least naming the issues of the day, and secondly try to make art which celebrates your difference too – be visible. Maybe that is what NDACA as a resource also champions: your uniqueness in the struggle against barriers and normalisation? So maybe NDACA shows that the Disability Arts Movement supported artists to flourish while demanding change either through rights or visibility or both? Which very much lines NDACA up with the contemporary visibility struggles, too.

LR: Tony, your practice is widely established and your work is recognised internationally. However, the work by disabled artists is too often restricted to the community they represent and struggle to reach the mainstream art debate. Do you agree with this thought? If so, what are in your opinion the reasons of this phenomenon?

TH: Well, perhaps the question is, why does the so-called ‘mainstream’ marginalise disabled artists and actually disabled people generally? Should we be forced to knock on those closed doors or should the ‘mainstream’ be opening up and looking beyond their elitist and frankly conservative narrow view of what is art and who makes it, and extending their intellect to engage with disabled artists and disability arts. If they did they would find some amazing work. Ultimately it’s about power and rank, disabled people are marginalised and oppressed through poverty, lack of access to goods and services, limited access to transport and the built infrastructure and prejudice. The ‘mainstream’ were not interested in showing or collecting the work of disabled artists, this is the main reason that I initiated NDACA, because if we as disabled people don’t make it happen for ourselves then it won’t. NDACA will help to show and promote that history, a history that would have otherwise been lost because that work is not in ‘mainstream’ collections. The mainstream are also reluctant to help us into positions of power and rank, there are very few disabled people promoted onto decision-making boards or in arts institutions, this needs to change, but those with power are always reluctant to change, just as there is institutionalised racism there is an inherent ableism throughout society.

LR: Nowadays, do you think there is still the same drive to make art political and politics through art, as it was during the golden age of the Disability Arts Movement? Are the current generations still involved in the debate or they somehow remain fairly passive towards societal change? If no, could you guess why? If yes, can you give us some examples, please?

TH: The drive back then was part of a wider push for an end to discrimination against disabled people, focussed creative, political and social action based on the notion of ‘equal opportunities’. The ensuing DDA legislation changed the energy, I think we waited for the legislation to create the change, the reality is that the legislation is largely weak, toothless and regularly breached, neutered even further now that it is subsumed into the Equalities Act 2010. If anything it was a pyrrhic victory as we are still waiting for true inclusion and our current politics, austerity and social disintegration mitigate against that. If we describe disability art as art made by disabled people drawing upon a lived experience of disability then we can see that there are still many disabled artists making very interesting work that falls into the canon of disability arts, one only has to look at the work in the Shape Open, many of those shortlisted for the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, work promoted through Disability Arts Online, many of the works supported by the Shape/Artsadmin led Unlimited Commissions Programme, through the work of Dash, the Art House, the Attenborough Arts Centre and many other organisations beyond visual arts such as Little Cog and of course Graeae. We still wait to see proper representation in the so-called mainstream collections and exhibitions, this is their failure of vision rather than the lack of creativity and innovation of disabled artists.

LR: Hi Jo. The work of Unlimited is at the forefront in enabling new art commissions by disabled artists to reach the UK and international audiences. Considering the ending of the current delivery contract in 2020, what future can you envision for Unlimited and its programmes?

JV: First of all, I want to place Unlimited in the context of Disability Arts – we don’t say artists have to make disability art, instead we say they should make the work they want to make – which might include work that is related to disability and/or impairment – or neither. I think it shows the success of the D.A.M. that we can now be in a place where disabled artists can be supported to be ambitious and innovative, stretching their practice however it manifests and shift the scales at which they work. This builds on that history we have in the UK. And the future… well, Unlimited was always planned to be a temporary intervention – so at some point, does need to end in order for the impact to be truly tested. But I ask myself, is the job done yet? And the answer comes back ‘no’, particularly in these times of austerity and the reductions in funds due to political upheaval. I personally think we need another 5-8 years to be able to say ‘job done’, especially since we have only just begun to establish relationships with other sector based funding partners through our co-commissions. There are things we still have to address – more support for emerging artists, the imbalances within the geography, the anomalies and in the ways different art forms respond to the work… Lots more to do. Whether it will continue or not depends on Arts Council England – do they want it to? Do they want it enough?

LR: Thank you. The uniqueness of Unlimited’s work and its resources makes it a model to look at when discussing disability arts worldwide. What does it take to develop a programme like Unlimited in other countries outside the UK? Are the problems mainly related to the lack of infrastructures or is it something more?

JV: The history we have means we had a great starting point – and one which is quite unique globally. I’m not a huge fan of simply uprooting models and implanting them internationally due to the wildly differing contexts. I feel our biggest strength internationally is being able to show that barriers can be removed and that disabled artists can achieve excellence – easily ranking amongst the best art the UK can produce no matter what the art form. The most problematic ‘lens’ for me is the charitable one. Many countries are still rooted in the belief that disability equals tragedy for which the only solution is charity. This puts us in a place of pity and means that any, even well meaning, interventions around art and disability more often have a therapeutic aim rather than a social one. Working through this, and centring the conversation around the art, is one of my favourite international challenges!

It seems clear to me that there is still much left to do to level the playing field and end the marginalization of disabled artists and audiences. Certainly the D.A.M. set the basis of what turned out to be a long term struggle for equity which did not resolve with a bland change in legislation. Fortunately, the heritage of what has been done is preserved and accessible through the work of Unlimited, Shape Arts and NDACA. However, we must permeate and shake the ‘mainstream’ debate to really be considered on a larger global scale. In the present time of socio-political austerity and of overall discontent amongst citizens, it is up to the mainstream to realize the urgency to open up against prosaic and sterile art niches, to effectively make a change within society. We can make ourselves visible, but all those who work in the arts, at every level, must also widen their views and visions, to offer more diversified programmes with which various constituencies can really identify and empathize. We must bring forward the legacy of the D.A.M and look for more unity amongst people, using diversity as a value to connect and expand each other’s perspectives. The future is in our hands and it is everyone’s responsibility to consider what contribution they want to make.