a screenshot of the zoom screen where participants have hands over their eyes and on their heads

Unlimited Connects Wales 2020 – Into the Future (Ymlaen i’r Dyfodol) 

An event funded by Arts Council Wales and The National Lottery which took place on 5 August. Write up by Mared Jarman. (Welsh version below) 

‘Artists are not ‘normal’, we’re touched by a spark, and there’s a price to pay for that. That is a connectivity with the world. Let’s celebrate our differences.’ Roy Barry.  

At this very moment in time, we are living through history. It feels more important than ever to look into the future. My name is Mared Jarman. I am a vision impaired actor, singer and writer. Unfortunately, I’m a Covid era drama school graduate. I know… gutted! So, seeing as I’m not showcasing any time soon, I thought I’d write this… 

I attended the Unlimited Connect event in Wales last week and wow, what a finale. These events are created by and for disabled artists. We connected, exchanged knowledge and engaged in some thoughtprovoking discussions. For those who have attended in the past, you know how impactful these events are whether you identify as disabled or not. This time, due to the unprecedented outbreak of Covid-19, the event was delivered online.  

I’d like to mark how we, as disabled people have been made more vulnerable at these times. Covid has greatly impacted our lives and community. We are fighting even harder now to overcome barriers.  A few months ago I lost a dear friend and cherished member of our community. His passing has taught me the importance of community. Using my voice for the good of others. Standing up for what I believe in. Saying NO. To keep fighting. As I said, we are living through history, and what a time to be alive. 

Unlimited Connect – Lockdown edition 

Lockdown did not stop Unlimited from hosting their event live in the world of Zoom. For some, Zoom keeps them connected but for others it pushes them further away, creating a new set of challenges to overcome. 

 In true Unlimited style the event was inclusive and accessible by design. There was live captioning provided by Wall to Wall. And live BSL interpreting thanks to Sammy and Sam. There was also live Welsh/English translation on offer during the afternoon session. I love how it felt like the new ‘normal’.

Accessibility for those of us with vision impairments, in my opinion is underdeveloped. Unlimited’s idea was Audio Described (AD) introductions each time you joined a conversation. When people remembered and committed, it was effective and funny (in a good way). Don’t get it? Here’s my example-  

“Hi, my name’s Mared Jarman. I’m a white woman in my mid twenties. I have dark, curly hair, which today is in a messy bun on the top of my head. I’m wearing an 80’s, gold chain around my neck- Mr.T style” 

What’s the point? Yes, it paints a mental image of your appearance but most importantly it shows your personality. Talking without an AD introduction is the living equivalent of a faceless holding image as a profile picture. WHO ARE YOU? A strong AD introduction-especially one with a ‘memorable something’, gives the full picture.  

Top Tip!

I know ‘a picture says a thousand words’ but that doesn’t mean you have to. Keep your intro snappy and impactful – like your Tinder profile.  

It might feel silly at first. Remember how awkward you felt the first time you took a selfie? Insisting you were only doing it ironically, after a few goes you found your angles, saw everyone else doing it and got over it. It’s become so normal, you don’t even think about it. We need to repeat it and soon, we’ll get over it. 

Breathe.

We began the day with a beautiful warm up session led by the talented VI actor and performer Karina Jones. We were aurally guided through breathing exercises and mindful stretches. Karina reminded us how important it is at the moment to listen to our bodies and move in a way that feels good. She helped me relax and feel present, which meant I forgot all about my zoom anxieties. Karina set the tone for the day-a welcoming, safe space for us all to navigate in our own unique way. Thank you, Karina! 

10 Things I hate about Zoom 

  1. It’s SO visual!
  2. Knowing if you’ve clicked the right link.
  3. Everyone can see me but I can’t see them. 
  4. Sorry, who and how many people are in this zoom world?
  5. That awkward moment when you’re trying to ‘leave’ but you can’t see the button.
  6. The ‘chat’.  A room I definitely cannot access.  
  7. Speaking into the void desperately hoping that someone’s listening. 
  8. Am I definitely muted?!
  9. Giving a close up of my forehead while I’m all up in that screen trying to see what I’m doing. 
  10. It sucks and drains all your energy leaving you with ‘zoom face’ at the end of the day.

This is the main event, are you ready?

This panel session was hot! They can be boring or worse, a narcissist’s dream, but not this one! Listening to the panel speak with such passion about a need for change was an absolute honour. I felt so proud of our rich community and excited by what we have to offer the cultural world. It certainly lit a fire within. 

Let me introduce you to the panel… 

  1. Charing: Jo Verrent, Senior Producer of Unlimited. In her AD introduction she described a painting behind her by Jonny Cotsen, reading ‘Deaf not Stupid!’ 
  2. Katie O’Reilly, Established writer, dramaturg and theatre maker. Her work includes the stunning theatre pieceAnd Suddenly I Disappear funded by Unlimited. She described herself wearing a blue, spotted, zebra print shirt!  
  3. Ruth Fabby, Director of Disability Arts Cymru.  She was wearing a red ‘Limitless’ necklace… which I want!  
  4. Roy Barry, Photographer and winner of the DAC Art Prize. He described himself as having a lockdown beard, veering towards a complete hair ball. 

(See what I mean about the AD intros, when they work, they work!) 

I’m going to focus on three memorable questions given by Jo Verrent and discussed by the panel. Statements which certainly bear repeating.  

What would you put in place to ensure disabled artists are at the centre of the government’s plans for re-joining the world post COVID?

Despite the Equality Act 2010, not much has changed. Arts venues and organisations are still failing, and we are still being othered. Without organisations like DAC and Unlimited, we can’t keep disabled artists at the centre. It’s imperative that such organisations continue to thrive.   

 Katie O’Reilly championed the need of a political agenda for diversity. Not voluntary, tokenistic structural changes, but measurable quoters for the elimination of discrimination. These ‘Equality Impact Assessments’ should be open for public scrutiny and effect funding. 

I agree. We need to fight, not only for our right to be in the room but at the centre. Within our core as disabled artists, we are activists. 

How can we put ourselves centre stage and be taken seriously as disabled artists?

Katie and Ruth seemed sick of the chronic stagnancy.  We must face ableism and discriminatory behaviour head on. Call people out and hold them accountable.  Make them check their privilege and recognise the systemic ableism throughout our society. No more being polite. We cannot simply hope, or ask  not to be left behind. 

Hearing these strong and impactful words made me question the absence of so many successful, reputable and powerful people within the ‘mainstream’ Arts sector. ‘Able bodied’ artists, theatre makers, writers, directors, designers, producers… the list goes on. We need them in the room. We need them to listen and take action for this is a collective responsibility. High profile opportunities which we crave and strive for as disabled artists will then come. We must gather our allies, build their confidence and empower them with training, for the Arts belong to us all. 

What can Unlimited do to empower disabled artists to apply for funding?

Roy proposed the need for one to one mentoring to empower disabled artists to apply for funding and seek further opportunities. By connecting less confident, or ‘up and coming’ artists with those who are more established, we could build self advocacy and bridge the gap. This ever evolving circle of support could future proof the next generation. Organisations like DAC are already delivering this, however it’s clear -WE NEED MORE! 

Ble Mae’r Gymraeg?

We had a choice of three sessions in the afternoon, and I genuinely had an interest in them all. I thought: 

1.Venues in Wales – most popular – always is, dunno why? 

2. Youth Arts – most fun – rewarding work and kids are hilarious. 

3. USP Wales – most…-‘Ofyddedi’r heniaeth barhau’ and all, let’s make my ancestors proud.

Discussion time with Arwel Gruffydd– Artistic Director of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and disabled actor Jenna Preece. Jenna spoke with great zeal on her experiences and the lack of Welsh language work for disabled actors. In a small group we discussed the challenges we face when accessing work and resources in Welsh and what needs to be done. The Welsh language arts sector are so behind when it comes to disability. Yes, good, innovative people are being proactive, but it’s not enough. We have some serious catching up to do: 

1 qualified Welsh speaking audio describer. 

2 BSL interpreters translating Welsh to BSL.  

2 services (that I know of) providing Welsh language audio books. Issue? They’re only available on cassette/CD and do not record new releases.      

Welsh is my mother tongue and yet it’s almost impossible for disabled people to access Welsh language culture. I feel alienated and pushed out of my community because I cannot access my culture.  

Enough is enough. 

I hope you feel the vibrant sense of urgency that was at this Connect event. People are politically charged due to our current state in society. There’s a strong appetite for change but perhaps an uncertainty on how we’ll achieve it. I feel as young people, we have a huge responsibility to grab this opportunity and take action. Johnny Cotsen reminded those in a position of influence to speak up and say NO. We must keep making, creating and pushing boundaries. Keep fuelling the fire. We can’t let it die.  

Diolch yn fawr Unlimited, I look forward to what comes next.  

FROM THE BLOG