An audience sit on chairs facing a panel discussion. Behind the panel hangs a projector screen.
A previous Unlimited Connects at Watershed. Photo by Jon Aitken.

Where are we now? Reflections from Unlimited Connects Wales

In an effort to regain the momentum created before the pandemic, our latest Unlimited Connects Wales event reflected on what has changed and where we should be focusing our attention and resources to support the disability arts sector. Harry Murdoch reports on the discussions…

A couple of weeks ago, we hosted our first online Unlimited Connects Wales event conceived in the pandemic. This followed a set of Unlimited Connects events around Wales in 2019 and early 2020, some of which happened physically, some of which moved online, and one that resulted in a publication

This latest event aimed to interrogate the impact of COVID-19 on the disability arts sector in Wales, and look forward towards recovery. There were two components. First, a networking session, and second, a panel discussion. 

Networking

This ended up being one of the best networking sessions we’ve done online. Size was key here. We kept this small and focused and it really benefitted. I’ve been in bigger networking sessions that have never really felt like they got going. This one worked, and really felt conversational with the 15 or so people in the room, who were a mix of artists and people from venues or organisations. 

Initial discussion was around how COVID-19 had paused the momentum that the sector in Wales has developed over the past few years in supporting disabled artists. This expanded towards discussing a lack of opportunities in Wales. However, quickly it became clear that, for the artists in the session at least, the bigger issue was around knowledge of opportunities, and the lack of a central resource for disabled artists to find opportunities in Wales. That’s not to say that there’s a wealth of opportunities for disabled artists in Wales, but where they do exist, the necessary connections with artists aren’t being made while organisations are so stretched due to the pandemic.

The overwhelming feeling here was the need for regular sessions, perhaps like this one, alongside a well maintained directory of opportunities for disabled artists in Wales. This wouldn’t just be for artists to find opportunities, but also a way for artists and organisations across the country to connect with each other, whether that’s to share best practice or just to catch up over Zoom. It was also emphasised that these events should be made accessible to those who don’t yet see themselves as artists but are interested. Many links were put in the chat, which can be found at the bottom of this blog.  

Panel

The panel discussion was chaired by Ruth Fabby from Disability Arts Cymru, and featured artist Matthew Gough, Ben Pettitt-Wade from Hijinx, and Sarah Jane Leigh from Wales Millenium Centre.

Much like the networking event before it, the panel started by trying to assess the damage done by COVID-19. They identified the difficulty of this, acknowledging that the real extent of the damage will be revealed as venues open up again. Sarah Jane Leigh was able to outline the significant financial impact of COVID-19 on Wales Millenium Centre, which has included staff redundancies. What was clear is that, across the board, the damage is extensive, and also that it discriminates. The panel referred to particular effects of the pandemic on learning disabled and neurodivergent people, as well on those who can’t access digital communications, whether due to access or digital poverty. 

The panel also discussed the momentum generated by the previous series of Unlimited Connects events in Wales, and how this was sadly lost when the pandemic hit. The unanswered question here was around how to pick that momentum back up. Who has the funding and whose responsibility is it? These were themes that took centre stage in the networking session too. Additionally, there was some discussion of the Culture Recovery Fund. Was it enough? Probably not. It has kept some artists and organisations afloat, but others have slipped through the cracks. And as there are so few new roles, we’ve lost many of those opportunities for positive change generated by new people coming into organisations. 

Matthew Gough, who teaches Dance at the University of South Wales as well as working as an artist, was able to give some insight into the experiences of dance students. He told us they’re not seeing opportunities in the way they might have before the pandemic, and how this is disproportionately affecting disabled students.  

The discussion wasn’t all about the negative impact of the pandemic, there was also discussion around the positives and what learnings and adaptations need to be carried forward to ensure disabled artists are not left out of conversations and future opportunities. Flexible working patterns, in particular, can be great for disabled people, and streamed or online events improve access to art and arts events. 

Ben, Director of Hijinx, emphasised that he’s seeing a lot more artists using access riders than before the pandemic, and that Hijinx are able to do more international work than ever before, working with artists in Hong Kong in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in person. The panel referred to some great disabled specific commissions and opportunities, such as the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine series, that would be great to see continued beyond the pandemic. 

For me, as someone who doesn’t live in Wales, one of the highlights of this discussion was finding out about The Well-being of Future Generations Act. Among other things, this bill means that Sign Language is being offered as a language option in schools.

Ending on a positive note, Ruth asked the panel to tell us one good thing from the last year and here is what our panel had to say:

  • Ben told us about the rise in film and TV opportunities he’s seen for learning disabled actors
  • Matthew emphasised that collective voices are being heard again
  • Sarah referred to the very welcome space to breathe as the usual pace of work has slowed down  

As an outsider, these two events felt like they gave me a pretty clear picture of where Disabled Arts in Wales are at the moment, as well as the issues they face, and what needs to be done. They also provided a welcome moment to reflect on the positives of a year unlike any other. For me, I’ve spent more time in the garden than any other year, and that’s got to be a good thing. 

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