Access and the Neurodiverse Artist

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Arts organisations often like to promote their workshops and events as fully accessible, but is full access a myth? Elinor Rowlands writes from personal experience about the pitfalls and misunderstandings of what it means to demonstrate access, rather than simply pay lip-service to it.

close-up of a young woman staring into the camera

Still of Elinor Rowlands from ‘Bedbound’ from a series called ‘Breakdown Wonders’

The biggest mistake arts organisations can make is presuming their workshops and events are fully inclusive when they are not. This happens when biases, attitudes or assumptions around what it means to be disabled are not recognised. Crucially, the onus is on them in the first instance to ask what access needs potential applicants have, if they advertise their workshops/ events as fully accessible.

When an impairment is invisible, confusion often ensues and can lead to damaging misunderstandings and exclusionary practices. Essentially, it can be dangerous when facilitators do not equip themselves with the tools to run workshops that include disabled artists.

Arts organisations would benefit from understanding that their own attitudes, assumptions and those of the other participants on the workshop can often present the biggest barrier to the participation of a disabled individual. These barriers can present themselves most evidently when the individual is neurodiverse and may miss social cues.

Assumptions about impairments and symptoms show that without proper training, mainstream arts workshops will continue to fail disabled artists, and their voices will continue to be marginalised to the extent that they are potentially shut out from artistic practice and important debate.

Too often, a disabled artist is explicit about their access needs at the application stage and workshop providers will either over-promise access when they have not had the appropriate training to make such promises, or will strive to be inclusive but when the disabled artist gets to the space it turns out the workshop itself due to its location or set up is inaccessible.

Workshop providers might also bundle disabled artists with the same impairment as requiring the same access needs. This assumption can be especially damaging when one disabled artist fits the approved stereotype of said impairment in contrast to the other disabled artist. Playing favourites with disabled artists by comparing how one can cope better than the other, is not only discriminatory but is a regular occurrence in workshops. Disabled artists should always be treated as individuals with varying skills and needs.

Due to failing to commit to Continuing Professional Development by participating in disability and access training, it is essential that facilitators or workshop providers take responsibility for their own failings at managing the accessibility of a workshop.

By ejecting and excluding a disabled artist from their workshop once a course has begun, as has happened to me, the facilitators have a duty of care to reimburse the disabled artist in full and promptly.

If the workshop provider truly wishes to be inclusive, they should also consider to work with the excluded disabled artist about what access needs should be put into place so they can equip themselves to never have to act upon their unconscious biases or over-promises again.

How to make an accessible environment

brightly coloured portrait of a woman's face

‘Chronic Pain’ – watercolour © Elinor Rowlands

Disability discrimination is a regular occurrence within the arts and culture sector. Many disabled artists will not participate in mainstream art workshops due to the lack of access and ignorance they encounter about access needs and reasonable adjustments.

Worryingly, disabled artists’ access needs continue to be overlooked by facilitators, so this guide aims to provide a link for disabled artists when they experience disability discrimination or are in danger of being excluded from professional arts training groups and workshops.

A disabled artist will always present challenges to a mainstream workshop – it is important to acknowledge this statement as fact because disability arts challenges systemic failures and the system itself.

There are three phases to conducting a workshop: planning, preparation and implementation. Disability discrimination often occurs in each phase. Many barriers can only be identified once the disabled artists arrives at the space.

To plan an accessible workshop, facilitators must consider their topic and their audience. Disability discrimination often occurs when other participants understand the word ‘disabled’ differently to what it actually means according to the Social Model of Disability.

Arts organisations and facilitators would benefit from attending disability and access training from reputable arts organisations (like Shape Arts or Graeae Theatre) before facilitating a workshop open to disabled participants.

It is important that arts organisations are trained by a disability-led company. Being aware of the roots of the oppression of disabled people in society is essential to understand that disability is not as two-dimensional (physical or mental) as it continues to be perceived by the government and wider society. When arts organisations are informed by the Social Model of Disability then creating fully accessible environments is possible.

If professing to be disability positive, facilitators have a duty to disabled artists and the other participants in the group, to ensure their own training and professional development is up to date with current diversity and equality trends, laws and legislation.

Arts organisations could consider sending out an Introduction leaflet ahead of time to show an approximate timetable and set up of what might be expected of participants throughout the course of the event or workshop.

Disabled artists often have to prepare ahead of time with information about what is expected of them, especially if they are neurodiverse or might have difficulties with managing or conserving energy.

A timetable helps a disabled artist to arrange when to conserve energy or ensure any appointments or transport is fully set up on the days when they might be required to expend more energy than usual. It is also useful to be able to discuss with facilitators, which days might be more flexible for rest if an individual cannot attend the day due to access needs and might require a reasonable adjustment like watching a film of the day, or receiving a Skype session with the workshop facilitator.

black and white landscape photo of a young woman with two men and a movie camera

Photos of Elinor Rowlands directing ‘The Only Ones’

For equality to be achieved, disabled voices must be allowed to contribute their truth

When an individual with a protected characteristic participates in a workshop, they will be bringing their lived experiences that will likely influence their art practice. Yet, disabled participants often experience being shut down when talking about their work.

Consequently, a disabled person may feel that their lived experience is ‘bad’ and must not be explored or talked about in mainstream arts workshops because a disabled person’s vocabulary and identity is too triggering.

The daily barrage of negative attitudes and assumptions about disability can take its toll. This constant need to prove, be assessed or even endure constant discriminatory jokes or comments is a struggle.

While symptoms of an impairment can be overwhelming, it is the barriers made up of attitudes, unconscious bias, failing systems and structures that prevents the disabled artist from sustaining a career in the arts, so they must fight twice as hard.

Inclusivity fails if disabled artists are not allowed to express themselves because talk of suicide ideation, depression, anxiety or experiences related to disability stigma and discrimination is deemed as inappropriate. The first thing that organisations purporting to be inclusive must do, is to acknowledge that disability discrimination exists.

Facilitators’ Self-Care and Professional Development

During the planning stages of an event or workshop, arts organisations often spend much time planning the delivery and methodology, but fail to think about the flexibility needed to ensure their workshop/event is fully accessible.

Facilitators must look after their own needs and to do this well, they need ensure that they are equipped to deliver inclusive and fully accessible workshops.  Receiving 1:1 mentoring from a disability-led organisation can ensure that facilitators are robust enough to take on the challenges of facilitating a workshop or an event.

It is important that facilitators ensure all participants listen to each other and come from a place of understanding. If the disabled individual is seeking reassurance from the facilitator often, then it is clear that the disabled artist continues to meet barriers and this is why they are approaching the facilitator for support.

The facilitator could then ask: what do you need? This simple question is not only reassuring but allows the individual to identify that they are experiencing barriers and can work with the facilitator to find a strategy or tool so they can contribute or integrate with the group in a more manageable and accessible way.

Meeting participants with understanding will ensure the space in which to make work is safe. If participants meet each other with suspicion, bias, prejudice and anger, the space will be too unsafe to make work and the blame will fall on the disabled artist because they are deemed too ‘difficult’.

Articulating Access Needs by the Disabled Artist

My access needs at application stage include: high sensitivity to stimuli/noise/light, will need to have access to a chair or the possibility to sit or lie down, finds standing/queuing inaccessible. I often add that I might miss social cues and may talk out loud, interrupt or blurt words out without realizing it.

Yet, as a neurodiverse artist, I have often noticed that I usually do not know my access needs until I encounter barriers in the space. This is because I have found that it is assumptions, attitudes and accusations that present my biggest barrier.

Another barrier I encounter frequently on workshops relates to the methodologies the facilitators choose to use. It is essential that facilitators are clued up on what neurodiversity means and the only way this is going to happen is by committing to Continuing Professional Development and attending disability-led training.

I have experienced comments from facilitators like: “Everyone is neurodiverse” or “Your verbal blurt-outs are souring the experience for everyone” or “Everyone is autistic” or “You can control your behaviour if you really wanted to” or “Can you stop focusing on your emotional issues and instead focus on the work?”

These comments are not only unhelpful and distressing to hear, but they are also discriminatory. Part of my condition is that I express ideas and thoughts, and yet I am often made to feel at fault despite having explained my access needs at the application stage. This has been very distressing for me and has often made me even more unwell because I experience RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria) also known as Emotional Distress Syndrome, unique to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The needs of neurodiverse individuals must not be mixed up with mental health difficulties. Instead, neurodiverse artists can experience both physical and mental impairments because they process information so differently and uniquely.

For instance, one person with ADHD will experience the same condition in a completely different way, but both people will be just as affected by the symptoms of their impairment. Their suffering, however, will be due to barriers in the environment and not due to their symptoms. When their symptoms do become too overwhelming due to stimuli, volume, information or other participants’ put downs and attitudes, ‘unwanted’ behaviour is more likely to occur. I only experience RSD when people shut me down.

By meeting disabled artists with understanding, facilitators will be able to create environments that convey the message that all participants matter, and integration can occur.

Acting on feedback leads to innovative practice

Exclusion and ejection from a workshop, as has happened to me, can be even more damaging to a disabled artists’ health. This is why disability equality and access training is crucial so that art facilitators can be effective in their workshop delivery.

Disabled artists are usually managing conditions which will mean they are not able to access work or opportunities as frequently as other artists. Recognition that disabled artists are often more impoverished is important because we often have the added costs of transport, support worker and other treatments that are not always provided for by the government or NHS. Punishing disabled artists for their ‘unwanted behaviour’ by ejecting them or withholding a refund is only showing more ignorance about disability discrimination and the very oppressive conditions disabled artists are having to fight to survive.

Arts organisations strive to provide training and create bold work – but this is never going to occur if the ‘different’ disabled artist who does not (because they cannot) conform to social norms and who may miss social cues, is never given the opportunity to challenge the very system that continuously marginalises and stamps their voice out.

Wouldn’t it be more bold for the work to let that voice be heard?

Top Tips to ensure an ‘inclusive’ arts organisation has informed conversations about access

  1. Facilitators undergo disability and access training from reputable disability-led arts organisations (like Shape Arts or Graeae Theatre).
  2. Facilitators could identify certain individuals within disability-led organisations who they can call up for advice if they feel out of depth when supporting a disabled artist who has asked for a reasonable adjustment.
  3. Before the course starts, facilitators should ask for any access needs, and consider the access needs before and during the course because for most disabled individuals it takes time to learn or identify what they need.
  4. Establish any triggers before and during the course so people can prepare themselves or leave to keep themselves safe.
  5. It is easier to have workshop participants leave a room than to ban topics around the lived experience of disability – the arts is about challenging the system and uncomfortable topics will occur especially when marginalised voices are contributing.
  6. Meet participants with compassion and understanding, do not shut them down or talk over them. Do not presume.
  7. Recognise that some participants take longer to verbalise their ideas than others and if there are time constraints, be clear at the start of a workshop that you will take questions and contributions another time. Do not interrupt an individual who is speaking.
  8. Recognise that there is internalised ableism even amongst disabled artists, so people can ask for reasonable adjustments or access needs anonymously.
  9. Listen to every individual. Disability isn’t a blanket experience – and this is often where a lot of ignorance comes from – assuming a one size fits all approach prevents equal access.
  10. Be aware about making anyone feel they are a burden or causing a fuss. It is best to treat anyone’s access needs like an inherent part of the job rather than a chore.
  11. Inclusive workshops and events produced by arts organisations must be truly accessible by creating environments that tell all attending participants that they matter.
  12. Everyone likes to think they are inclusive and accepting, however if your behaviour is causing a disabled individual distress it is important to identify that your behaviour is a barrier. Altering your behaviour helps to reduce a barrier so access needs can be met. Remember, your behaviour has been learned from the same system that oppresses and marginalizes disabled people.
  13. Finally, everyone needs to undergo training and CPD. Disability and equality training helps you stay effective as a practitioner, facilitator and artist, it also helps you to stay up to date with current legislation so you practice safely and without prejudice and discrimination.