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Blog - Deborah Caulfield

Disability equality is passé. Inclusion is old school. Access is now!


The subject of disabling barriers is deeply boring, tedious and time-consuming. Ask any funder, curator, commissioner, or other provider of arts opportunities what they think and what they do about disabling barriers, and they react in one of two ways.

  1. They think you’re (just) a university student writing a dissertation or thesis.
  2. They think you’re (just) a disabled person who can’t handle rejection, despite a text-book selection process.

Yawn …

Mention access, however, and now you’re talking. You’re talking their language. Indeed, a search online for arts organisations and access reveals no end of  ‘valuable’ information, insights and strategies from a range of expert voices. Guides, guidance, guidelines, top-tips, codes of practice, signposts and, of course, publications abound.

We love access! Access is what we do!

Everyone knows what access is about, and what it looks like, don’t they?

Access is about what funder, and commissioners etc, think and say. The really keen ones liberally sprinkle their text with the words ‘access’ and ‘disability’, possibly referring to the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity.  It shows they get it.

Access All Areas!

A visual representation of disabling barriers.

Disabling barriers.  Disability Equality Training slide. Circa 1996. A slide I made in the mid 1990s. My job then was to support disabled people to run their own groups. The image shows disabling barriers as a brick wall. On the left of the picture, a person scratches their head. They are wondering how to get to the other side of the wall, where it is bright, colourful and interesting. 25 years on, it is still a good question.

Take for example videos or on-screen presentations. If you’re Deaf you need a BSL interpreter. Check! If you’re blind you need to be told what the speaker/presenter is wearing, and what colour their hair is. Check!

I think that covers everything …

If you’re looking for credentials, some organisations have an advantage. When it comes to knowing what disabled people need, they’re half way there from the start, because some of their people answer  ‘yes’ to the ‘do you consider yourself to be disabled’ question.  As the jargon has it, they identify as disabled. Automatically, and with no further questions, this makes the organisation disability friendly, or disability confident.

Perhaps, though, the best way to show you know all about disability is to have one or two disabled people about the place, even doing some of the work. In this situation the organisation can justifiably claim to be led by disabled people. And if it doesn’t mean this, what on earth does it mean? I’ll leave you to ponder.

Meanwhile …

It is often said (by disabled people, no less) that disability is good for business  Since what is good for business must also be good for society, there’s obviously a win-win thing going on here. Such spending power! All those disabled people (2 billion worldwide) are sitting on a magic money mountain. Why, there’s £17.1 billion going to waste in the UK alone, apparently. If only retailers would improve their access.

But I digress. Or do I?

I’m a disabled old woman (is 71 old?) who worked in disability organisations for a couple of decades, then gave it up for art (for Art). Ten years on, and with some success and achievement under my belt, I’m finally resigned to being on the outside looking in. I feel quite at home here. It’s obviously where I belong. After all, it’s where I started, where I come from.

If this sounds like sour grapes, that I’m either a bad loser or a rubbish artist, you could be right, on both counts.

But for me the problem is less about physical access. The issues are subtle and the barriers are hard to describe. But here goes.

The things that happen to children (good things as well as bad) affect them for the rest of their lives. In my case, neglect, abuse, illness and institutionalisation fucked up my head and my body, seriously and profoundly. Happily, thanks to a brilliant and kind Gestalt therapist, I recently discovered I’ve lived my whole life with Complex PTSD. No one knew, not even me. It was like there was a big hole where myself should be. I was literally missing, lost to myself.

Pretty much all I had to go on was fear. It’s not much to build a life on. It gets in the way of ambition. Fear stops you seeing yourself as worthwhile. It stops you seeing yourself.

Fear has affected me in myriad ways. In no particular order: Fear of voices. Fear of silence. Fear of faces near to mine. Fear of faces unseen. Fear of arrival. Fear of departure. Fear of rejection. Fear of acceptance. Fear of idling, doodling, and playing. Fear of ideas, fantasies and daydreams (mine). Fear of fun, play and pleasure (everybody’s). Fear of others. Fear of myself.  Fear of my mind. Fear of my body. Fear of singing, dancing, swimming. Fear of the past, present and future. Fear of having. Fear of losing. Fear of telling and not telling. Fear of being seen, unseen, forgotten, remembered.

Image to depict fear

Life. Deborah Caulfield, 2016. Digital Image. One of three images selected for Tight Modern in 2016 for their digital display.

My life has been dominated by fear so much so that it felt normal. Even now, I only really notice fear when I’m not feeling it.

It’s a bit like driving with the brakes on. Every few yards the airbag blows up in my face. My view of the road is obscured. I drive slowly and carefully, trying not to crash. It’s exhausting. It’s easier and safer to not go anywhere. Best to stay here, where I am. I’m not complaining, really I’m not.

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Richard Downes
17 days ago

one of the best blogs i’ve read on dao for a while.

you kill the life time ongoing access issue with sarcasm

wit is a good thing

it kills the fear source for a while

welcome back Deborah Caulfield

Deborah Caulfield
14 days ago
Reply to  Richard Downes

Thanks Richard. It’s good to be back, although I never really went away …

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