An image of three dancers lined up on a runway-style stage leaping upwards ito the air, their chests pushed forwards and heads thrown back. Audience members are visible to the right of the image and they look on seemingly entranced.
Vogue: The Unlimited House of Krip, photo by Fotocad

Disabled people and the arts sector: invisible right before your eyes 

Today at In Between Time Summit, Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited makes a provocation as part of a panel discussing ‘to whose voices should we be listening?’. This is a summary of her presentation. 

For today, we’ll have a new strap line – Unlimited, a commissions programme supporting disabled artists – we support disabled artists because currently you don’t.”  

Disabled people make up about a quarter of this country’s population, if not more. It’s hard to be accurate. Many people still hide their impairments if they can. Stigma, shame, embarrassment and disability hate crime are on the rise. Teachers and families say: keep it quiet and no one will know.”  Friends say: well, you don’t look disabled! I’d never have guessed.” (NB – this is never a compliment). 

We’ve had disability equality legislation since 1995. So how’s that’s working out in our cultural sector? 

  • Just 4% of staff in National Portfolio Organisations and Major Partner Museums self-defined as disabled in 2016 
  • Just 5% of Grants for the Arts awards went to disabled artists in 2016/17 
  • Just 9 regularly funded arts organisations are led by people who identify as disabled/have a board where 51% are disabled people (that’s 9 out of 828). That’s just over 1% 
  • I’ve only got limited audience figures – because measuring us in your audiences is pretty tricky stuff. The only thing is we could find through that through Audience Finder stats where for London arts orgs last year, 9% of audiences said their day to day activities were limited a little or a lot by a health problem or disability.  I’m just going to make a wild guess that across the country it’s not much better.

So, we have the law protecting our rights and there are endless publications, videos and case studies about how to include us. There is a whole industry in equality and awareness training out there too, yet nothing much changes. The only conclusion I can come to is that many arts organisations deliberately want to exclude disabled people – as artists, participants, staff and audience members. And they are doing really, really well at it. Congratulations. 

We aren’t ‘hard to reach’ – at around a quarter of the population we are pretty easy to find to be honest. We are here, waving at you, hidden in plain sight. You just don’t notice us. 

  • You have been so conditioned to see ‘disability’ as a negative, an irrelevance, an irritation, a problem that you just can’t get how we can be a positive. 
  • You are so conditioned that you believe the stories that abound saying we are all just making it all up, should try just a bit harder, should be grateful for what we do have 
  • You are so conditioned to be fearful of ‘losing something’ and becoming one of us, that you can only see us through that veil of pity, that scared perspective colouring everything we do.

Disabled people are here, have been here, and will continue to be here for as long as we are all here. 

Some of us were just born that way, others gained impairments or gained them due to the very structures and systems that we as a society have created. Anyone else wonder why the World Health Organisation has announced that depression is now a global health crisis? We aren’t aliens, although some of us are a bit pissed off. You can probably guess why. 

We can be great artists, participants and audience members – again, there have always been great disabled artists. Talent isn’t discriminatory. But you are. The systems, processes, hurdles and jumps you have created to fence in the arts have all been designed to keep us out. And they are working. 

The good news is that you can change all of that, really quickly. It not just to make yourself feel better but because it is morally, legally, ethically and in all ways possible, the right and only thing to do. You can do it by following 5 simple steps. 

  1. Stop making excuses. 
  2. Make it a priority and, yes, that means putting some budget into it. 
  3. Do the stuff you know you should be doing. And if you genuinely don’t know, it’s the stuff disabled people have been telling you that you should be doing for the last X number of years. Still no clue? Take 3 days off and read all the resources, guides and case studies out there, watch the videos, listen to the podcasts and make a list of actions.  
  4. Make it part of everyone’s job to ensure equal access – and make every staff member report on what they have done each year towards this at appraisals 
  5.  You know your short, medium and longterm goals? Look again. Move everything you have in medium into short and long into medium  – we’ve waited long enough already.

Unlimited isn’t here to replace you or do your work for you. We are here to make it easier for you. Hopefully in partnership. 

Take a look at our commissions, at of some of the incredible work by disabled artists we’ve supported – and we are only a small part of the ecosystem supporting disabled artists out there. There are many more organisations, artists and projects creating equally astonishing, relevant, provocative and challenging work. And also work that’s just nice if that’s your bag. Disabled artists are allowed to make non-politically charged work too. In fact, the work isn’t just incredible, often its ground breaking, form breaking, increasingly intersectional, cross artform, flexible, fluid and interesting. Much of it is actually changing how other artists and companies work. The work is leading the change; its the arts sector that is lagging behind. 

Since 2013, Unlimited has provided nearly £4 million to 280 disabled artists through commissions, awards and professional development support. There are a lot of great works out there across all art forms that need more exposure, more of the spotlight. You could be part of that. 

We have an Allies scheme – where organisations can sign up to support us and we commit to supporting you too. Around 300 organisations globally, from individual producers to venues and festivals, have become our Allies. This means there are over 600 NPOs out there who aren’t Allies, yet…   

We’ve produced articles, and guides – an animation on the social model of disability and even a card game called Cards for Inclusion (downloadable for free) to help people think about access creatively and through play.  

We run events with Allies, on anything from access to the climate emergency, from rurality to how to cope at networking events. One in the South West next week if you are interested, in Salisbury. We are really trying to do our bit. And we are getting tired. It’s your turn now. To be fair, it’s been your turn since the start but you’ve just not woken up to it yet.