As part of a series of features highlighting art and objects within the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) Elinor Rowlands evaluates the legacy of a key moment within the history of Disability Arts.
Prioritising debates from within the Disability Arts Movement was key for Elspeth Morrison when she guest edited Feminist Arts News in the Spring of 1989. Commissioning eighteen contributors from the sector she opened a discussion that still resonates today.
Just two years earlier Morrison had been appointed as Disability Arts in London’s full time Editor where she would remain for a further four years before moving into TV Production at the BBC and forging a career as a broadcast voice coach.
Funded by the Arts Council and Yorkshire Arts, Feminist Arts News represented feminist debate in an accessible way to address cultural issues relevant to the different experiences of women’s lives in a social and political context.
Instrumental in platforming “a broad span of experience, opinion, background, discussions on how art is practised and art forms” Morrison was thrilled that “for the first time ever Disabled women will have documentation relating to our involvement as women within Disability Arts.”
Her selection of female contributors was “a wonderful brew of race, sexuality, class, age-range and the binding factor in this instance, disabilities” featuring the writing, images and words of various disabled women artists across all arts disciplines.
With only eighteen contributors, she was acutely aware of her exclusion of many other voices and bodies of practice yet she hoped this would engage “debate and questions from many of the issues arising both inside and outside of the disability world.”
When print was one of the only available sources to share information, smaller presses could be bolder than a newspaper ever could be. FAN served a purpose to ensure discussion and debate continued beyond the confines of community theatre or arts groups.
Comparable to the way organisations, companies and individuals use social media, smaller publications like FAN provided a space for disabled women in the arts to articulate their understandings of what it meant to be challenging to non disabled people, and why they continued to be excluded from mainstream discourse and arts narrative.
Morrison says, “For too long Disabled people’s history has been one of isolation from each other. To find our strengths, we must come together, challenge, debate and get our own standards of excellence.”
This rare opportunity to shine a torch right in the faces of mainstream cultural readers highlighted how essential print was in bringing relatable content to a growing and more diverse audience.
Morrison’s editorial was also instrumental in addressing the lack of access in the arts and exerting pressure on mainstream culture and clients to make their arts venues more accessible.
Her questions in 1989 are still being asked in 2020. “How many actual Disabled actors have you seen portraying Disabled characters? How many arts administration courses, drama, art and music schools make provision for Disabled students?”
Her editorial also instigated for the unification and communication between various disability arts organisations and self-identifying disabled female artists to remind them that they were not alone even if they might experience isolation living outside of London.
FAN’s Disability Arts: The Real Missing Culture offers readers a look through the lens to the grassroots of disability arts during the late 1980s where the disabled female artist contributors were located right at the heart of the Disability Arts Movement.
Only one year before, in 1988, Barbara Lisicki was the first disabled female stand up comedy artist in the UK. In her confessional opinion piece, Lisicki reveals why so many ‘alternative’ artists and comedians are so ableist. “I think it is deep rooted. As many of you reading this article fear it. This fear [of disability] then manifests itself in, at best stupidity… or the thinly disguised hostility and hatred displayed by aforementioned [comedians].”
This statement explains the fundamental reason why ableist narratives continue to be funded in the arts today. With a growing underbelly of ‘alternative’ artists rising up all over the country, many of these arts organisations and groups believe that ableism no longer exists. Words like inclusion, equality and diversity, and access are thrown around whilst demonising and ableist narratives continue to be developed and made.
Many disabled female artists do not fit into conventional understanding of disability culture. They are shut down and silenced, and they are not trusted. Increasingly disabled artists find it difficult to challenge arts organisations or groups for fear of being seen as problematic or excluded from making work.
It is currently a very uncertain and unsettling time in the arts where funding is being threatened or cut left, right and centre. Yet, it is these contributing disabled female artists’ legacies that provide disabled female artists working in 2020 with a new sense of hope around a re-imagining of making new and innovative work from within the disabled movement with the possibility of shattering existing barriers.
Reflecting on the division between the lived experiences of disabled and non-disabled artists and audiences, Lisicki explains, “What is funny to a disabled audience, however, may leave a non-disabled audience cold.”
She reflects on the surge in uptake of bookings which pushed her out of disability arts, her “safe and chosen environment” and into mainstream territory where she was forced to rethink her material. “Mainly in order to make it more comprehensible to an able-bodied audience. More explanation is needed. But people are often scared to laugh.”
This frustrates her, “not because I think they should laugh – if they don’t find it funny, but because what enables them to laugh at school boy ‘spastic’ nonsense, is also the mechanism that prevents them from finding disability funny from a disabled person’s perspective.”
It is clear that disability arts’ role is fundamental in providing a safe and known environment where disabled artists can develop their material with each other before taking it into mainstream culture should they want to – as Lisicki chose to do on her own terms.
“And only I can use the word cripples – in my way, because while we continue to be used and abused, that language on able-bodied lips is part of the problem. From mine, coming from the disability movement it’s part of the solution.”
“No longer can audiences ignore the experiences of [disabled people].”
Playwright, Kaite O’Reilly who was living and working in Amsterdam at the time, had just come to the end of her tour with Graeae’s women’s theatre company.
“We were seen, perhaps, by non-disabled people as a rattle-bag of assorted [impairments]. In reality, we were a smooth-running machine mutually supporting and extremely flexible.”
“Collectively, we created a powerful dynamic I have never felt in any other company and on stage an awareness of each other that became startlingly acute. We moved together, we breathed together. No mishap could affect us, as our concentration, empathy and compatibility weaved an indestructible safety net.”
The realms of collaboration, co-creation and understanding brought about adjustments so that their performing disabled bodies “widened the canvas we worked upon.” O’Reilly, who has a visual impairment describes feeling as if she had “developed an extra-sensory perception of a non-psychic kind” whilst working with her other Disabled and Deaf female cast members.
“As [disabled women] we are twice oppressed by how society views us.”
O’Reilly reflects on coming away from that touring experience with a more open view on what ‘theatre’ can be.
“It was as though we smashed through the barrier of preconceived ideas of what disabled women could – and should – do as pioneers and innovators, sharing what we had and finding it was more than sufficient. As performers in Tasha Fairbank’s ‘A Private View’ and under the direction of Anna Furse, we subverted those attitudes through text and in our performances.”
The differences in their impairments and access needs as well as their own philosophies gave their work an added richness and depth. Soon after, O’Reilly would write plays to critical acclaim. Informed by a political and cultural perspective, her award-winning plays challenge this idea of normalcy which she believes limits stories and ideas of what it is to be human.
By contributing their voices to FAN, ‘Disability Arts: The Real Missing Culture,’ O’Reilly and Lisicki’s words were documented in a space where they were seen and heard in ways of their choosing challenging the very systems of ideas and beliefs that perpetuate oppressive notions and practices towards disabled people.
Here, their voices mattered and they were able to speak directly to a non-disabled audience without fear of censorship.
By being championed for their work to and in the arts, these eighteen contributors became the very pioneers and innovators that O’Reilly describes so vividly in reflection of her experiences on tour. She says:
“It was through discovering each other’s needs that we were able to develop our own skills and strengths.”
Morrison’s legacy has given disability arts a status within the arts world. No longer is it a hovering entity existing between mainstream culture and community arts. Instead, it is a safe place for disabled artists to ask hard questions without fear of being rejected, shut down or excluded. Instead, it exists as a platform where debate is encouraged and where work gets made.
“I’m a disabled woman. My existence has been mocked, scorned and misrepresented and by being up here I’m not allowing that to continue.”
Thirty-one years on Lisicki’s provocative words are deafening.
Sian Vasey, Mary Duffy, Elsa Beckett, Barbara Lisicki, Kaite O’Reilly, Elizabeth Hill, Kata Kolbert, Pamela Roberts, Lynne Legge, Gioya Steinke, Ellen Wilie, Rhian Davies, Anne Rae Lisa Williamson, Helen Todd and Samena Rana were all contributors, representing the voices of freelance writers, artists and performers as well as those from the disability groups within the movement.
As well as the collection itself, The NDACA website introduces the artists and activists through a collection of films telling their life stories. In a series of 15 Audio Described Essays: Pictures Painted in a Thousand Words: the team at Disability Arts Online have given in-depth written and recorded context to a selection of key objects within the collection and archive.