Are we in an era, post Disability Art?

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Colin Hambrook and Trish Wheatley explore ideas about the history of Disability Arts and how it is understood by different factions of our community.

Dramatic photo of a clay figure on the banks of the Thames river. Figures was a mass-sculptural performance that mades visible the human cost of austerity and urged action against it

Figures, mass-sculptural durational performance by Liz Crow (2015). Image ‘We are Figures 7.4.15 Daytime’. Credit © Claudio Ahlers/Roaring Girl Productions.

To some people Disability Arts is a political expression of ways that discrimination underpins who we are in the world, to others it is about access or describes any art made by or with a disabled person. Key to the understanding we have accrued is knowing how much people know about the history of the Disability Arts Movement and how they have engaged with Disability Arts as a genre, over time.

An individual’s understanding of what Disability Arts is and who it is for ranges hugely dependent on how long they have been involved with it, what impact it has had on their lives, how their approach to communication about the work has formed and how they respond to the work. It comes down to what ‘Disability Arts’ and the ‘Disability Arts Movement’ means to them individually and collectively. These conversations have led to Hambrook and Wheatley co-writing this provocation to explore the issues in more detail and to invite responses to the position we are arriving at.

In the same way that it is impossible to be ‘a Surrealist artist’ now, because we live in a time that is post-surrealism, Disability Arts struggles as a lexicon for identity, because we live in a time that is arguably post-Disability Art.

Surrealism developed during the 1920s as a revolutionary political force for change allied to Communism. Many art historians suggest that the movement disbanded effectively with the advent of World War II.

Surrealism’s goal was to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism. With the coming of ‘the war to end all wars’ the ideals of Surrealism changed – bound up as they were with a few key artists – and Andre Breton in particular, who died in 1961.

Atmospheric photo of artist Liz Crow sitting on the mudbanks of the Thames river

Liz Crow sculpting on the Thames foreshore at first light
Credit © Matthew Fessey/Roaring Girl Productions
Figures, mass-sculptural durational performance by Liz Crow (2015).

The Disability Arts Movement arose out of the Disability Rights Movement, fighting against institutionalisation, the medical model and the constrictions of patronising care that was intrinsic to the medical model. The Community Care Act introduced in 1990 spelt the beginning of the end of a time when people deemed to have ‘something wrong with them’ were locked away and infantilised at the drop of a hat. The financial cost of institutionalisation was hardly, if ever even considered by the media.

Hambrook states that: “Keeping disability and disabled people invisible, was paramount to retaining the hierarchies within a ‘normal, civilised society’. These were the ideals that were sold to me as a child. Mental Hospitals, Day Centres, Community Centres, Care Homes etc. were places where ‘mentally and physically disabled’ people were protected from harm. The fact I learnt this wasn’t the case at a very young age was forbidden knowledge deemed revolutionary and subversive. As such holding such an opinion was (and still is) deemed a symptom of mental illness.”

Around the year 2000 everything began to change. Arts Council England funding criteria for the Arts changed. The Disability Arts Fora set up in major cities across the UK were no longer viable in supporting ‘Community Art’ – and the definition of Disability Art practice as being by disabled people, for disabled people no longer became supportable.

Amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) meant that all new constructions to public buildings were legally bound to consider access (1999); disability discrimination in schools and other educational establishments became illegal (2001), Private Hire Vehicles could no longer refuse assistance dogs (2002), and a duty on public authorities to promote equality for disabled people was introduced as well as provision to make public transport accessible (2005).

The popular idea was that the DDA was doing away with discrimination against disabled people and when it was changed to the Equalities Act (2010) the government sent out the message that society had done its best to make disability discrimination illegal and equality for disabled people was now on a par with attempts to give parity to other groups within society.

Some specific access barriers were broken down. For the first time whole sections of disabled people could get into college and were educated in ways that didn’t happen before. In terms of Disability Arts we’ve since seen unprecedented, very sophisticated work being made by people with severe impairment issues in a way that would never have happened before 2000.

However, the sense of a disability community that had been a key focus of the work of the disability arts fora faded after this time. The Fora had worked in hospitals, day centres and where disabled people gathered to foster a shared sense of using art as agitprop and as a way of challenging oppression from the basis of a social model understanding. ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ and ‘Piss On Pity’ were key rallying cries in a bid to fight the medical and charity models of disability. Cabaret had been the perfect vehicle for Disability Arts, allowing anyone to get up on stage and express themselves.

When Johnny Crescendo sang “I love my body, it’s the only one I’ve got” he was advocating for disabled people to slough off the shame and disgust projected onto having a physical impairment by a non-disabled society. When Ian Stanton demanded: “you want me to be a quiet little crip without a chip” he was advocating for disabled people to be angry and strong and to make themselves visible. But after 2000, when the onus for funding became “excellent art”, cabaret in its rough and ready state, was no longer a fundable art form.

As the sense of a disability collective has faded so divisions between impairments groups have risen further to the surface with people often fighting their own corner over specific access concerns.

The Disability Discrimination Act hinges around the concept of authorities/ service providers etc. being bound to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for specific access demands. At best the term is woolly and lacks the teeth to make equality a meaningful ideal for disabled people.

Critically, the challenge by the Disability Movement of previous decades to oppressive ideals of ‘care’ has become something of a misnomer in 2018. The conditions that the Disability Arts Movement were built upon have altered since the 1980s to the point where the struggle for equality fought by older generations of disabled people is significantly different to the battle for survival being fought by newer generations.

Historically a key factor in the fight for disability rights was to challenge notions of care that disempowered, and this formed one of the foundation blocks for Disability Arts practice. In the last eight years in particular, any kind of care provision has come under the knife. Where before society would have deemed it necessary to institutionalise someone for life, often on very thin grounds, now those institutions have largely closed down. We are effectively going backwards to how conditions were in the 18th century before poverty was medicalised. A key motive for the Victorians to build asylums was to take people off the streets. Now those institutions have gone our streets are once again lined with homeless people many of whom live with impairments.

The ground has shifted hugely. The Independent Living Fund closed in 2015. Access to Work has been cut to the bone. Disability Living Allowance has been axed and a much more punitive Personal Independent Payment system introduced. The general lack of access to benefits, to housing or to health care has meant a huge competition for basic welfare – and the media has been demonising disabled people as fraudsters and fakes making it 53% more likely for a disabled person to have money deducted than a non-disabled person according to a Demos Report (2018). [https://www.demos.co.uk/press-release/new-research-sets-out-how-a-better-wca-is-possible]

The Independent Living Movement which was another cornerstone of Disability Arts has been eroded. Some disabled people have autonomy to live in their own homes, but more and more people are fighting for provision for personal assistants to help with the basic necessities of having a life. Isolation is rampant and many people are locked away in their own homes. It could be argued that at least in institutions disabled people had the company and support of one other. There is fear amongst the disability community that the age of the institution will return, but the evidence from personal experience leads to a conclusion that it is more likely that disabled people will simply be left to die.

The Spartacus network emerged in 2012 from a report researched and written in response to the Coalition government’s consultation on the introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to replace Disability Living Allowance. For a few years I Am Spartacus successfully used social media to lobby for disability rights before fragmenting into smaller and more isolated groups like Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle. There was a brief hiatus on the visibility of disabled people in 2012 around the time of the Paralympics when George Osbourne was greeted with mass booing when handing our medals.

The Deaf lobby have also had some success as a collective in advocating rights for Deaf people, pushing the agenda for sign language to be recognised as a minority language. However, the sense of disabled people coming together as a force to be reckoned with doesn’t exist in the same way that it did in the 1990s. There isn’t the sense of disabled people seeing the sector as a political lobby as has been the case in the past.

What is termed Disability Art now is being made for a mainstream audience, not an audience of disabled people. That is key to this argument that we are now post Disability Art. What is being termed as Disability Art is at its best largely being made to educate non disabled people about disability discrimination and / or what it is to live with an impairment. [We could cite much work being made by a whole host of disability arts companies and the key gatekeeper to developing a disability arts practice – Unlimited here]. For example Richard Butchins was quite clear that 213 Things About Me – a hard-hitting story using the words of disabled friend who committed suicide was made for a neurotypical audience to give an insight into what it’s like to live as a neurodiverse person in a society designed for neurotypical people.

The Art is either setting out to give you an insight into a particular experience or to celebrate difference in one way or another, but both these intentions are aimed at a mainstream non-disabled world. This differs from the focus of the disability arts sector prior to 2000, which was aimed at informing a disabled community and identity.

The first generation of disabled artists in the 80s and 90s were making work from a specific perspective: it was about disabled artists exploring their identity and oppression and was very much in a context of disabled artists talking and making work for other disabled people. It was art made by disabled people, which reflected back the experience of disability in the social model sense of societal barriers.

As Allan Sutherland put it in an analysis from 2005: “One of the exciting things that happens within Disability Arts is that people with quite different impairments, different experiences, but a common analysis of our situation, create something shared. We break through the idea, presented to us by the medical profession and disability charities in particular, that our situations are different and unrelated, and come together not as the blind or the deaf or the epileptic, or the spastic or the arthritic, but as disabled people.”

We would argue that Disability Arts died when the regional network of forums and agencies were disinvested in by funding bodies from the early 2000s onwards. Under the aegis of its vision to fund ‘excellence’ the policy of Arts Council England, in particular, drove an agenda towards inclusion within the mainstream and increased professionalism. [seek out Paul Darke’s chapter in Disability Culture and Identity: ‘Now I Know Why Disability Arts Is Drowning in the River Lethe’]

Funding criteria changed the nature of the art being made and the audience for that art, and simultaneously encouraged a program of work by disabled and non-disabled artists / companies that diluted the Disability Art message. What that has resulted in more and more from 2000 onwards is that we have a new generation of emerging disabled artists who are not a part of strong communities of disabled people, but come to ‘disability arts’ from experience of mainstream schools, colleges, arts organisations, rather than the social institutions that the older generation of disability activists grew up in and reacted against.

This has hugely widened the perspective of emerging disabled artists whose arts practice has been born out of a focus on impairment and social issues relating directly to impairment, rather than a cohesive sense of being part of a shared experience of exclusion from society.

Previously Disability Arts was accessed by disabled people largely in disability settings. Now that the arts is accessed by a much wider mainstream and largely more middle class audience, the way that the work is understood, perceived and consumed is very different. The expectations are different. The expectation of the art is much more allied with entertainment and drawing an audience: hence the disparagement from disabled artists who see what is called disability arts, now, as a sell-out; as being more allied with circus arts than with anything else (to paraphrase Aaron Williamson). For some disabled artists, (thinking of older artists like Aaron Williamson, younger artists like James Leadbitter) the idea of what is now presented as disability arts is completely anathema to artists of a strong political sensibility, who see the importance and value of art as being a driver of social change.

Now the art is driven by artists, by curators, programmers and producers and to some extent critics – e.g. Lyn Gardner and other mainstream critics who have given a more general audience a sense of the excitement that can be expected from experiencing the work of disabled artists from a disability perspective. The argument around the Aesthetics of Access (as coined by Jenny Sealey) within the performing arts especially, has been hugely important opening up new and radical approaches to dramaturgy.

So the difference is that before, the Art spoke to disabled people directly as a community about their experience of oppression, now the Art speaks to an arts audience about culture and disabled peoples’ place within culture. Previously, disabled people had an empowering culture that was very much removed from the mainstream. Disabled people saw themselves as fighting for a place within society. Inclusion was a driving force, but was just one element of an expectation or an ambition for self-determination, amongst others.

Allan Sutherland’s definition of Disability Art from the 90s talked about art by disabled people that speaks to other disabled people for the specific purpose of raising awareness and supporting empowerment. Before 2000 disability art was very much driven by political activists as opposed to the much more fragmented and commercial concept of the movement that has arisen since then.

This provocation is a draft in process, designed to lead with a number of questions that arise about the value of the evolving nature of disability arts.

1. If we define Disability Art as art made by disabled people for disabled people about the experience of disability, how might we define post Disability Art?
2. How has the shift in economic policies and the withdrawal of state support for disabled people affected the creation of disability art? Have the barriers faced by disabled people changed? How do we see those changes played out through our art?
3. What impact has the internet had on the disability sector? How has the shift from disabled people coming together in the communal space to communicating in the digital space affected our disabled identity?


This provocation has emerged from a series of conversations resulting from the AHRC-funded D4D research project, led by Bath Spa University and Accentuate, working with disabled people to investigate the evolving ways in which disabled people express, perform, experience and practice ‘community’.

An element of the Electric Bodies project, which forms part of this research, is engaged with an investigation into how the constituents of the Disability Arts Online community communicates with one another and respond to the content that we share.