Unlimited: Are some more equal than others?

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As part of the programme of talks at Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre, on 10 September Tony Heaton chaired a discussion panel including Claire Cunningham, Rachel Gadsden, Ivan Riches and Nicola Miles-Wildin. Together they tackled the thorny question ‘are some more equal than others’ in the context of the disability arts world.

Photo taken of the panelists during a discussion at Unlimited

Tony Heaton chairs a Are Some More Equal Than Others? at Unlimited. L to R: Nicola Miles-Wildin, Ivan Riches, Claire Cunningham and Rachel Gadsden

In many ways the central question which this debate centred on was both vexed and confusing. As Cunningham remarked from the get go, she was thrown by the very concept of ‘more equal’. The real issue at stake here is varying levels of privilege and barriers that apply to disabled people, either as artists or audience members.

Clearly, various impairments and access needs, coupled with differing geographies and artforms, not to mention intersectionality with class, race, sexuality and gender mean that the playing field within the disability arts world is about as level as a football pitch on the Himalayas. In this respect the kinds of barriers faced mirror those within the ‘mainstream’ arts world.

The panel was quite broadly representative in terms of artforms with music (Riches), theatre (Miles-Wildin), visual art (Gadsden) and dance (Cunningham) all covered by leaders in their fields. There was also something of a geographic spread. It did seem, however, something of a massive oversight that we had an all-white affair, both chair and panel.

BAME disabled artists continue to be massively underrepresented in the disability arts world, and this was a chance to give voice to someone from that community. That’s not to do a disservice to anyone who was on the panel, who all more than deserved to be there.

Firstly, there was some tentative agreement that work by disabled artists is moving forward. As Gadsden said:

“The disability arts world has grown. There was great work twenty years ago, people like Tony Heaton were laying the groundwork for disabled artists to be more recognised. Now there’s a much greater disability arts world, but I’m not sure it’s integrated. I go to the theatre and I don’t see many disabled people and I don’t see much disability-led work”.

Indeed, as Miles-Wildin observed from her own involvement in the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony: “We showed the rest of the world our profile. It was great for two weeks… and then the Independent Living Fund was cut and there were changes to Access to Work”.

Essentially, it seems prospects for a handful of disabled artists have improved massively in recent years, but this has perhaps not filtered down to benefit the wider community. “Some individuals are getting commissions and making work they want to,” observed Gadsden. “But how do we as a collective try and shift some of these much bigger questions?”

Cunningham was on fine form, acknowledging that all artforms are on “different trajectories”.

“To be working in dance in Scotland in recent years I’m in an enormous position of privilege. As Caroline Bowditch observed a couple of years ago in this very room; I’m so well supported as an artist in Scotland I’m not sure I can still consider myself disabled in that context of disability [as social barriers].”

Heaton quizzed the panel on what they as leaders in their respective fields were doing to tackle some the biggest inequalities for others. Cunningham responded:

“I realise that I’m a ‘palatable crip’. I’m white, educated, middle class. My experience is nowhere near as bad as others. But my job is to open the door and jam a crutch in it”.

Miles-Wildin has a different approach and instead likes to work directly teaching the younger generation.

“I set up a youth-theatre in Gloucester because of my own frustrations as a young disabled person growing up there because the venues weren’t accessible etc. 30 years later there still isn’t any provision. It’s about nurturing the next generation and informing them with our political voices”.

Riches was concerned that disabled people who are not ‘sociable and affable’ often get left behind, even if they are just as artistic as others.

Gadsden had some reservations about the notion of leadership:

“As leaders can you truly articulate a voice on behalf of other people who don’t have one? I feel a huge weight on my shoulders”.

Cunningham concurred, saying she often felt “exhausted by a sense of responsibility,” and wondered:

“Whether a white, male, normative-bodied choreographer has to worry about being representative of other white, male normative-bodied people? Every time he travels does he feel he has to further the prospects for local white, male, normative-bodied people?”

The question of access was raised from the audience: whether artistic choices should trump access provision and about inequality of access for certain impairment needs. Cunningham was quick to acknowledge that for access “you can never get it right for everyone – you take away from one by giving access to the other”.

And surely this is true of this whole debate. In a context where arts funding and provision is dwindling there will always be disabled people who miss out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be more creative with how we approach these problems, build stronger links as a community and better represent those who are most marginalised. As ACE’s Creative Case for Diversity gathers steam, there is some hope things will improve. But they’ll never be perfect.