Sue Austin in a wheelchair submerged under water
Photo 'Sue in the Blue' Artist: Sue Austin. Photographer: Norman Lomax: ©

Unlimited presents at the World Arts Summit

This morning, Jo Verrent was at the 7th World Arts Summit in Malta, on a panel exploring new approaches, new directions. Read her presentation below.

My name is Jo Verrent and I am the Senior Producer for Unlimited, a commissions programme that funds disabled-led arts work.


We are currently the worlds largest commissioning programme supporting disabled artists – and we say that simply to encourage another country to create a bigger one!


As a case study I’ll tell you a little about Unlimited – what we do, why we exist, our challenges and the approaches we take to overcome them.


We have three key focuses:

  1. To commission high quality art work
  2. To ensure that this work tours widely and that those artists forge long term, sustainable connections with the cultural sector
  3. And ultimately, to change how people think about disability – not to make people equate disability with ‘superhuman’ or to make disability exclusively ‘positive’ but to equate disability with nuanced, varied, diverse, real, multiple experiences… become just another facet of being human.

We support artists across all artforms, artists with all types of impairment, artists with all manner of political and non political stand points.


Work such as Cosy by playwright Kaite O’Reilly, Noëmi Lakmaier’s 48 hour durational installation Cherophobia where she was suspended from 20,000 helium balloons, Him by Sheila Hill, performed by Tim Barlow, now in his 80’s, spoken word, by Jack Dean, TV Classics by Cameron Morgan, an artist with learning disabilities, Assisted Suicide: the Musical by Liz Carr, Pioneer[03] by Maki Yamazaki – a computer game that subvert the normative nature of characterisations in gaming culture, The Doorways Project by Bekki Perriman, a sound installation giving voice to homeless culture… Work that is challenging, provocative – and often award-winning.


We are currently calling out for new ideas to support.


So now you know what we do – Why do we do it? How do we do it?


Firstly we are not an organisation – we are a time limited programme funded primarily through strategic diversity funds from Arts Council England, with a wide network of partners. We are a deliberate construct.


We are delivered by two organisations working together – Shape Arts – disability-led arts organisation and Artsadmin – a  producing and presenting organisation for contemporary artists – and with myself as an independent ‘third party’ as Senior Producer.


We gained additional funding from Arts Council of Wales, Creative Scotland and Spirit of 2012. We now also have funding from British Council, and have partners including Southbank Centre in London and over 300 Allies – festivals, venues, organisations – who have aligned themselves with us.


However, we should not have to be here. We should not have to exist.


We exist to counteract the systemic discrimination against disabled artists within the cultural sector, to counteract the continued oppression of disabled people – globally – within all sectors.


We are ‘disability-led’. That means – unsurprisingly – led by disabled people. Our senior management team includes more disabled people than non disabled people, as does our staff team, as do all our selection panels.


All the work we support, without exception, has disabled people in creative control.


We do not believe that you counteract discrimination and oppression by keeping power. You counteract it by passing power and control into the hands of those you have previously oppressed. You do not say ‘you are not ready’, ‘you are not trained, ‘you are not able’. If you do, you are really saying ‘you are not like us yet’. No, we are not. And that is our strength and not our weakness. We may do things differently. Who knows, we may even do things better…


We are underpinned by the social model of disability. This means I do not see my disability as being my hearing loss or my fatigue or the weakness in my joints. My disability is the lack of provision that society makes for my needs. The lack of captions or subtitles, the physical barriers present in many buildings, the attitude many people have towards me simply when they hear the word ‘disability’ and assume I am less competent than they are.


We believe the arts are a perfect vehicle for transforming perspectives on disability – here, in work by Sue Austin, the wheelchair can no longer be perceived as a limitation – but instead a tool of liberation. If everywhere was physically accessible, using a chair would not be perceived as a disadvantage.


The roots of the disability arts movement in the UK began with political action in the 1970’s. She wears a T shirt with a slogan borrowed from Star Trek: ‘To boldly go where all others have gone before…’


Unlimited was created originally for London 2012, the year the Paralympic Opening Ceremony ensured disability arts took the spotlight under the world’s gaze.


To get there, our artists have had to grow. Have been given the time, investment and support. Have been allowed to take risks.


Much of the early work was angry, funny, political, perhaps rough around the edges – many artists had little training (because there was poor access) – but they always had great ideas.


Artists producing work then continue to make work now – high profile, skilled work that can match the quality of any other artist working in the UK today, disabled or not. For example, sculptor Tony Heaton created Great Britain from a Wheelchair in the 70’s went on to create the second piece here for the television broadcaster Channel 4 in 2012, which was sited directly outside their offices.


Unlimited is part of raising disabled artist’s aspirations, expectations and achievements.


Another example, in 2012 disabled artist Paul Cummins gained an Unlimited commission to create An English Flower Garden in ceramics. In 2014, he gained a new commission for the Tower of London – yes, the one with the poppies.


But please don’t be misled. The UK still has issues for disabled people – austerity has meant we increasingly again face discrimination. Routinely we are still seen as lesser, as objects of pity. We are still not represented.


We address this by being extremely focused in what we do. Unlimited commissions high quality professional arts product.


We do this, not for charity, but because we feel that disabled artists have something new, vibrant, compelling, innovative and evocative to offer the art world.


These are voices we haven’t heard before, telling us stories in ways that often we haven’t experienced. In England, we call this ‘the creative case’ – the way in which diverse practice in its own right has something to offer the very development of art itself.

Put simply, it is not that we need you, it is that you need us.


We do not want your charity or your pity or your help. We want equality – to be recognised as artists and creatives, to have our needs met and to be respected for our vision, our values – and most of all our art.


We do not – and cannot – exist in a vacuum. There are many other organisations and projects working in the UK covering aspects that are different or that overlap. We are only a single piece of the whole.


For example, Shape Arts works nationally and internationally providing training and access support plus develops artists’ projects to, with and for the cultural sector – most recently in Brazil, Qatar and Japan.


And Sync, which focuses on the interplay between disability and cultural leadership – the theme of our summit. Most recently Sync has run programmes in Australia and are currently discussing the potential for work in East Asia.


Unlimited works extensively with the British Council, and I thank them, and the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), and Arts Council Malta for inviting me to the summit this week and ensuring my needs were met so I can be here as your equal.


Alongside the commissions, Unlimited’s focus is always on what’s changed? What is the impact? Are we helping the cultural sector diversify its practice? Is the role we are playing working?


For us, disabled people aren’t aliens. We are human beings, with the same rights as every other human on this planet. We should have the same rights as everyone to be in theatres, galleries, festivals and events – as audience members, participants and artists. But currently we don’t.


Disabled people are disabled because of the barriers that are in place within our societies. Barriers created by those societies, our structures and systems.

Remove the barriers. Give us power and control. And let us fly.


Thank you.