Caroline Bowditch is sitting at a table speaking and has her arms out to the side. She has short brown hair and is wearing a grey top
Unlimited Selection Panel at Shape 2014, Photo by Rachel Cherry

Unlimited: The Symposium – Introducing ‘Attitude’ Chair

The multi talented Caroline Bowditch is our chair for our session on ‘Why is it taking so long? Can we speed up change?’. We’ve tasked this panel to look at why, despite the many conferences, publications and training sessions on disability equality and the arts, progress is slow. How can disabled artists and allies challenge the status quo, take control and make lasting change happen more quickly? Will we ever get there? Over to Caroline…

Good questions right? I thought so to which is why I agreed, with great excitement and curiosity, to chair a discussion with such an incredibly illustrious panel that includes:

Aby Watson, a talented, young performance maker passionate about making complex, risk-taking and accessible performance for a wide variety of audiences.

Rachel Coldicutt, CEO, doteveryoneuk who believes that “For the industry to really change, new universal stories and shared references points are vital’ and who led on the Ctrl+F programme, which includes a science fiction anthology to redefine the future.

Abid Hussain, Head of Diversity, Arts Council England, leading on Creative Case for Diversity.

Paula Lopez, Creative Accessibility, Brazil who brings an international perspective of making change happen where it’s least expected but not any less needed.

We all know all too well that change takes time. People have been telling me that for as long as I can remember. Disabled people (and actually almost anyone who is considered, or considers themselves, part of a marginalized or excluded group) have been patient and tolerant to the reasoning given by the arts industry and society generally.

Regular reasons given not to change at any great speed include:

  • expense but actually it doesn’t cost anything to change attitudes or thinking just commitment
  • planning for it ‘We’ve got a plan that we’re implementing’ Or ‘we’ve got to plan FOR it’
  • ‘we’re not ready for it’ which puzzles me on a regular basis
  • ‘we don’t have a need for it because disabled people don’t come to see our shows, our work, visit our venue.

The fact is most people innately hate change. It involves unfamiliarity, uncertainty and can be really uncomfortable for people. Comfort zones regularly dissolve and disappear. It can mean questioning everything – all that you know, all that you do, acknowledging your privilege (which one may or may not acknowledge and/or even be aware of), often surrendering power and essentially having an urgency to modify a learned, ingrained behavior, change a life direction and even step aside to make room for someone else.

Possibly the scariest thing is that change spaces are also the ones where anything can happen. New possibilities emerge and almost anything can present itself as being ‘doable’.

Spaces emerge that don’t say no but say ‘yes and what else?’ Are they not the spaces we want to be creating and inhabiting? Are they not the most exciting creative spaces to be in? Clearly they are also the one’s most feared.

A couple of years ago, as part of Tramway’s Unlimited Festival in Glasgow I led a series of 1 to 1 sessions where I very simply asked people ‘What if we really were unlimited, what would you do?’

I got such mixed responses from time travelling through to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but for many people they just couldn’t imagine a world without limits. Perhaps they were all the realists but it saddened me to think that we have been living with limits for so long we can’t imagine being without them and we actually find them comforting. People also did talk about limits being useful as they give us something to push against.

Through my time as a Dance Agent for Change with Scottish Dance Theatre, and through the work of many dedicated allies, observing the way the artistic landscape has changed in Scotland, I have realized that change has to happen from the inside out. We need to stop talking about disabled people, and other discriminated groups, as anthropological groups that need to ‘be served or serviced’ and make them our leaders, our colleagues and our lovers.

Another massive challenge is embedding long lasting change. Many of us have bought about quick fixes or seen change within organisations and venues while we’ve been there as a constant reminder, or trip hazard as I regularly call myself, but as soon as we or other allies leave, the knowledge and the presence of change leaves with us and the space we inhabited returns to how it was before we arrived.

More and more I’m thinking it comes down to having had a lived experience. If one hasn’t experienced exclusion or discrimination due to a variety of privileges life has afforded to them and life can remain comfortable why would anyone what change to happen?

I also wonder if there’s something about society’s unconscious bias towards, or rather against, disabled people. A study from 2014 highlighted that 67% of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people (Disability: A Research Study on Unconscious Bias.) That surely can’t be helping the cause or peoples comfort levels when we talk about equality, access and inclusion can it?

I recently had a conversation with a new Diversity Agent for Change in Scotland. One of their colleagues asked ‘How do you just keep going in your job when you meet resistance so regularly?’ And they said ‘Because I know what I’m doing and asking for is right and where they want to stay isn’t’. I found this hugely powerful, affirming and energising.

Disabled people aren’t asking the arts industry or society for anything unusual or unjust, just for change that is right and unfamiliar and inadvertently uncomfortable and therefore best avoided, or so it would appear.

Prepare yourself for a juicy, passionate conversation where we may or may not find all the answers but I can pretty much guarantee we will move it somewhere.

Caroline Bowditch is the newly appointed Executive Director at Arts Access Victoria, Melbourne.