Three people, two caucasian women and a black man, are stood in a circle talking and smiling in an airy event space, well-lit by daylight.
Photo by Rachel Cherry

My Traineeship with Unlimited – Sarah Thewlis

As Trainee Sarah Thewlis comes to the end of her time with Unlimited, she reflects on all that she’s learned.

I was warned when I first started at Unlimited that the year would fly by. Now I’ve come to the end of my traineeship, I can’t say I agree. Being a hesitant and under-confident arts nerd when I started, I have grown and changed so much that it seems a life-time ago. I am 100% more empowered as a person, though not going to lie, the nerd part’s still the same.

I’ve already gushed in my video (audio described and BSL versions here too) about how Unlimited can broaden your perception of your own capabilities, show you the strength you never knew you had, and maybe veered into Disney power-ballad territory at points. I’d like also then to acknowledge the parallel and, counter intuitively, even more beneficial learning curve surrounding recognising my limitations. Coming away from it with a sense of my barriers and social model-based strategies for how to work around them is invaluable – I’m still chronically pained, there are things I’ll still struggle to do because of it, but I know now what they are, and how to ask for help.

My identity as a disabled person was emerging when I started; I was still in denial about maybe having access needs, maybe needing to work differently, being in any way different. With my main reference points being Mad Men and The Apprentice, I thought I knew what a model employee looks like, and it certainly wasn’t someone eating ice-cream and instant-messaging their colleagues from bed; meaning I’d have to somehow outgrow my energy levels and abandon dessert-based coping mechanisms if I was ever going to fit in.

Even knowing in advance how inclusive an approach Unlimited has towards recruitment and accessible working practices, I couldn’t help but conceive of it as an endurance challenge, involving fighting off and hiding my vulnerabilities for long-enough that I could simulate being an able-bodied office-worker for a year. It wasn’t long however, before it became apparent that it was not only acceptable but encouraged to mold the role around your access needs, and I’ll now happily advocate that any system that precludes a duvet-day ice-cream eater from being a perfect employee is itself imperfect and in need of an accessibility overhaul.

My first tentative suggestions for a ‘reasonable adjustment’ was a resting space at the Artsadmin office, something that we have collectively sculpted over the year. The best approach to accessibility is one that recognises constant room for improvement, it’s a goal that can’t ever be ticked off – so it’s wonderful to hear that they’ve just received a capital grant that will in part go towards further developing this, among other access provisions.

Support through the Access to Work process, continual reassurance that my thoughts about access are valid and important to share, all of this has demonstrated how it is possible for social model and collective responsibility principles to combine in enabling a disabled candidate to do the job as well as anyone else. Developing an intricate spreadsheet to keep my line-manager up to date when working flexible and/or erratic hours, I found myself apologising for over complicating things. Her response was ‘Sarah, you’re innovating’, which was the most lovely reaction and one I will keep in mind forever.

Of course, it’s not all about access! My main and most rewarding responsibility as an Unlimited Trainee was being a Key Contact for artists, which involves supporting them through the shortlisting and full application processes, then being on hand as their projects go from page to stage/canvas/screen/ballroom/forest… and many more manifestations (I do hope that at some point we’ll see ‘Lesbian Pirates! on an actual pirate ship!). As a cyclical process, it has been exciting to see artists go on their Unlimited journey at more or less the same rate that I have, albeit behind the scenes. Most recently, attending a sharing of Within Sight, a commission from one of our Emerging Artists, was an emotional moment for myself and previous trainees. Having no filter, and ever unabashedly earnest, I found myself blurting out ‘this is why we do what we do’, at seeing how expertly crafted and beautifully expressed the piece is, with plenty of savage, mic-drop challenges to ableism mixed in. Though I assumed I’d lose at least some of my tendency to be awe-inspired, as the ins-and-outs of artists’ processes were demystified, it still hasn’t worn off. The ‘so inspiring’ reaction is not generally a helpful trope for disabled people, but it’s a way I have enjoyed feeling repeatedly in response to the excellence and artistry I’ve encountered this year.

Another initial expectation was that the point of working in disability arts was to harness my enthusiasm in a really targeted way. To take a thing I care about and throw all my energy at it because that’s what dedication to cause looks like. What I’ve learned over the past year, however, is that despite how niche I had initially perceived the sector, it is not at all an area of single-issue advocacy. Being based at Artsadmin, renowned for its radical approach to sustainability, I understand how important it is to weave environmental concerns into everything we do (where possible without clashing with disability rights cf. the straws debacle). At Unlimited we have recently been talking about encouraging artists to set green riders, and I’ll take note of initiatives, such as re-useable tote-bags and bamboo lanyards, as I move forward into disability arts marketing.

Causes I’d figured I’d have to set aside in order to focus on disability, have instead flourished within my time at Artsadmin and Unlimited. My knowledge surrounding art and how it relates to hospitals, migrant artists, environmentalism, education, the criminal justice system and more has only deepened from encountering our wide range of commissions, and the work of my colleagues at Artsadmin. Another specific passion is furthering the geographical reach of the arts beyond what can often be a London-centric bubble, so it was such a nice surprise to be assigned responsibility for this within the context of Unlimited. Thinking about how to counter this I have been able to take initiatives around extending our Allies network (you can sign up here!), and have had a great time researching cultural opportunities across the country, including on canals, beaches and in quarries (also happening upon this fascinating lawnmower museum that I fully plan to visit now I’m moving up North).

As part of my role I have been a librarian, donned overalls and become a painter-decorator for JoAnne Haines, and answered a bunch of Buzzfeed-style quizzes, genuinely for research purposes (which to be fair I’ve spent far too much of my life doing anyway).

It’s been a great year, leaving me feeling equipped for just about anything, and has clearly only further made me a fan of the sector – I’m going straight on to work at DaDaFest! I leave Unlimited feeling proud of everything we have done this year, and the contributions I have been able to make. I can’t wait to see what comes next for this hugely valuable and impactful programme – guess it’s time to sign up to the newsletter!