DaDaFest 2014: The Big Debate


A highlight of the DaDaFest Congress was the Big Debate. Trish Wheatley responds to the question of recognising how much influence non-disabled people should have in working within the Disability Arts sector.

a photo of Trish Wheatley in a wheelchair in an empty swimming pool with her hair splayed outwards

This Is Not Disability Arts © Trish Wheatley

DaDaFest is always a highlight in the cultural calendar. I revel in the opportunity to see a show every night of the week, take in the visual arts at my own pace and crucially see people to talk about their work and the wider context of disability arts, culture and politics. In some ways it feels like coming home and I feel more connected and part of the disability arts community than ever.

The DaDaFest Congress debate temporarily somewhat called that sense of community into question for me and challenged my place in it. The motion proposed was:

“This congress proposes that Disability Arts is a form of human rights activism and as such only disabled people should be its leaders.”

Prior to the debate itself I read this and thought it would be a non-argument because everybody would agree with the motion. In fact, Aaron Williamson, who had be asked to represent the against argument, managed to persuade the organisers to swap, leaving the more challenging task of preparing an ‘against’ campaign to comedian Laurence Clark.

I don’t blame Aaron at all! Initially I felt the proposal was such that an against argument would be impossible; no one would ever argue that disabled people shouldn’t be the leaders of Disability Arts. Laurence took a stance that relied on picking apart the language of the motion. He claimed that Disability Arts is not a form of human rights activism and for that reason should not be agreed.

I can see his point, perhaps civil rights activism is a more accurate definition. However, the for argument was probably summed up most eloquently and succinctly by Deborah Caulfield’s reference to Nothing About Us Without Us.

The challenging part for me was that, as director of Dao and a non-disabled person, this motion could really bring into question the position I currently hold. Whilst being able to take comfort and pride in the label of ‘honorary crip’ that some have bestowed upon me, this brought an uneasiness that I have been grappling with for some years.

The first public statement of this strange position I find myself in was in 2012 when I entered a piece of work into the Shape Open called ‘This is Not Disability Arts’ in which I re-created Sue Austin’s well-known photograph of her submerged in a swimming pool with her wheelchair, ‘Portal’. This served as a comment on my position as a non-disabled creative working with the Disability Arts movement by referencing the impossible conundrum of Rene Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’.

The debate caused me to think about how describing myself, and others who share my experience, as non-disabled doesn’t seem to quite accurately or adequately explain my situation, certainly not from a social model perspective. I certainly don’t want to be chucked in with all the ‘normals’ thank you very much!

Academic and organiser of The Art of the Lived Experiment when it tours to Michigan next year, Chris Smit pointed out that there are people such as his family who have an acute understanding of disability because they experience many of the disabling barriers with him.

Congress delegate Liz Porter explained how her daughter experiences disability through her two disabled parents and brother. This lived experience without doubt affords people a better understanding than those who don’t come into contact at all with disabled people in their daily lives. By sharing those disabling experiences on a regular basis alongside friends and colleagues I am kind of ‘disabled-by-association’.

The debate amongst the audience highlighted a recognition of the role disabled peoples allies can have in building bridges and working alongside disabled people to support their ambitions. At the end of the day, whether people consider my role as director of Dao to be a leadership role or not, I am convinced that being guided by our 100% disabled board and consulting with all our stakeholders, particularly our audience, about our work ensures that it is led by disabled people without a need for excluding me and the skills I bring.

The Arts Council’s Equality Analysis displays the hard facts that the number of disability-led organisations in the National Portfolio is at a disappointing low of only 9 and the development agencies of old are now defunct with just a handful radically different and imaginatively reinvented.

I think that some of the really pertinent questions arising out of this motion include: Has the long-term disinvestment in many of the disability-led arts organisations removed power and leadership from disabled people? How do we ensure that working in more integrated way with the wider arts sector is on our terms as disabled creatives, leaders and people? Given that there are so few disability-led arts organisations in the National Portfolio how do we bring through the next generation of leaders to diversify and inject new energy into the leadership and workforce?

The DaDaFest Congress debate took place on 3rd December 2014
The votes for were 31
The votes against were 26
As a non-disabled person, I decided not to vote.